Friday, April 14, 2017

Leaving Chattanooga: Yusef Lateef and the scales of liberation

Mining for meaning: once you start digging for the inside of something--the inside of the inside--at some point, way down in the shaft, you turn around and realize you're too far in to get out, and the only thing you can do is to keep digging, keep digging, in the perhaps-futile hope you will wind up back top in the fresh air of China.

Me, I'm a coward. I can't go that deep. It starts getting dark, dirty, tight, and difficult, so what do I do but turn around and come back the way I came just so I can take a shower, put on fresh clothes, and say, "Hey, y'all, there's something down there. I don't know what it is, but it's Something!" in the perhaps-futile hope that my mine will become a state reclamation project with see-saws for children and wordy metal plaques for adults who, like me, really prefer the see-saws.

Unlike me, Yusef Lateef kept on and made it to China, not-quite-only-metaphorically speaking, as will become clear.

I would like to make his a household name. His is at least a name in official Chattanooga, where he was born, though I suspect the name has a ways to go before it becomes household. I would like people to wake up in the morning and their first waking thought be, "Yusef Lateef! Huh! Born in Chattanooga, and a jazz oboe player! Huh! What do you know?" Because of course I also was born in Chattanooga and play the oboe, which means Lateef and I are the deepest kin. (That is the kind of mining I do. See-saws come next. And plaques, if you happen to be reading this and also work at Parks and Rec or the Historical Commission. Thanks. This is a great day in a life of folly.)

How this all started: A colleague sent me a drawing of a circle done by John Coltrane. At some point I want to do an explanatory video of this drawing that will elucidate its meaning to non-musicians (similar to the universe-stretching notion of the Privoznik Minute), but for now all you need to know is that it meshes two whole-tone scales into the locomotion of an Underground Railroad.

So the six degrees of separation are these: Lateef was a musical colleague of Coltrane's. Their principal instrument was the saxophone. African-Americans, they were out-migrants from the South. They cut their musical teeth on big band jazz, but found themselves drawn to explore the abstract, architectural side of musical expression. They both found the abstract, architectural religio-artistic expressions of Islam to be congenial. This Muslim orientation being central, naturally the final degree of separation disallows (Kevin) Bacon. (Look! See-saws!)

Naturally perhaps, since we are both native sons, I want Lateef to be as much about Chattanooga as about Detroit, where he actually grew up and where he received his musical education and heard his formative jazz performances. But even though he wrote a piece called An Afternoon in Chattanooga, the only mention I can find of his birthplace--after extensive Google-mining, which includes his autobiography, The Gentle Giant--is the fact that he was born there.

But maybe that's enough. His Chattanooga birth-name was William Emanuel Huddleston, a post-migration family name-change made him Bill Evans, and then, upon converting to Islam, he himself changed his name to Yusef (Joseph) Lateef--which he points out means both "gentle" and "indecipherable." He said himself that "my music is jazz," but he also disliked the compartmentalization and stereotyping that came with the word "jazz." His instrumental world grew to include flute, oboe, bassoon, and an entire panoply of folk reed instruments from Africa and Asia. His compositional world expanded from the straitened jazz standard to encompass European forms (symphonies, sonatas) as well as non-Western music to the point that The New York Times obituary (he died in 2013, age 93) of him said "he played world music before world music had a name."

So here is Lateef's journey. Dig it:

  • Chattanooga Huddleston, born in 1920 into a world where the greatest democracy on earth assigns you to a subjugated, non-citizen caste because of the color of your skin.
  • Detroit Evans, where you take your sax and throw yourself into the music that is shaking the foundations of the greatest democracy on earth by carpet-bombing popular culture with the blues, but your only blasting is through your horn, your only cogitation is chords. (And later in life you say this is the way it was among your fellows--nobody talked on the road because everybody was thinking about how to play better. Words?  Where do you think the famously, opaquely non-loquacious, hip jazzer lingo comes from?)
  • Nowhere/Everywhere/Here Yusef Lateef, where you and John Coltrane draw circles and generate scales that nobody anywhere has ever used, simply because they are abstractions that point you further into, well, into the ultimate liberation of Nowhere/Everywhere/Here. 

The rest of us, meanwhile, are stuck here on terra firma with certain geographical questions, e.g., what would happen if Lateef had dug an Underground Railroad from Chattanooga straight and level through to the same coordinates in the other hemisphere? This is where he would've wound up. China! Well, northern Tibet. I did say "not quite," didn't I? Not to mention that, being pretty much the middle of Nowhere and Everywhere, see-saws are few and far between, except the ones that use two offset whole-tone scales to generate autophysiopsychic music. The place is crawling with those fuckers. The most that can be said about them is that they have their ups and downs.

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