A Memory of Yusef Lateef

Upon learning of the death of Yusef Lateef, I tweeted that he had taught me a great lesson in humanity. I have much more to say about that lesson than 140 characters will allow, so here is my recollection.

I was living near Amherst, Massachusetts when I met Yusef Lateef. I don’t remember how I came to meet him — I was doing some freelance bass playing, but mostly classical and also with a country swing band. I don’t think it was either of those that put me in contact with him. It might have been that he was teaching at Hampshire College and my then-wife arranged an introduction. Or my teacher at the time, Sal Macchia, or my friend and fellow bassist Bruce Quaglia—who was also a composer—may have introduced us.

He and I did not play together. But for some reason we did have contact with each other. At the time, I had for some reason an interest in Islam. It may have been because this was near the time of the mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Or maybe it was about the time of the kerfuffle regarding the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I think that Yusef Lateef must have loaned me some books on Islam. I remember thinking how enlightened a practice it was.

But the great lesson that Yusef Lateef taught me is not specific to Islam. One day I happened to meet him at a gas station; we were both filling our tanks. I must have told him that I was going to be moving away from the area soon. And the timing must have been such that I knew I would not see him again. He very solemnly told me, that as I drove away (from the gas station), he would not turn his back to me.

I remember a serious and sincere look on his face as I got in my car and pulled away. And I remember that as I drove out, onto the street and away, that he turned to watch me as I went. This was a long and straight stretch of road, and I believe that he followed me with his gaze for quite some time as I drove away. In fact I do believe that he watched me for as long as I was visible to him.

To this day, when someone for whom I care is parting from me, I will stand and watch their car pull away from me, I will visualize their path, turn to where I know their car is as they leave from me. It’s not about cars, of course, though this memory involves one. It’s about caring for those who are meaningful to you, about seeing friends safely upon their journey. I consider it a great lesson, and a great habit to have learned.

Yusef Lateef, know that I am watching you as you part from all of us.

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One Response to “A Memory of Yusef Lateef”

  1. Kyle Hernandez says:

    That’s an incredible story. Thanks for sharing in such an eloquent way.

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