Yusef Lateef- Quest for the Exotic

We can sometimes forget that there are many other scales we can use for improvisation other than the usual scales of Western diatonic harmony. There are exotic scales from other cultures that have unique and distinctive sounds that can be applied to Jazz improvisation with great results. Many of these exotic scales use different tuning systems, but they can be shoe horned into our equal temperament system while still retaining most of their distinctive qualities.

Yusef Lateef was one of the first Jazz musicians to incorporate exotic scales and modes into the Jazz idiom, years before Trane became interested in them. Other notable Jazz musicians later utilized exotic tonalities in their own ways, like Charlie Mariano and John McLaughin. The exploration by Jazz musicians of the musical traditions of India, Arabia, Indonesia, Africa, Asia and even ancient Greece has yielded many interesting musical discoveries. These exotic musical gems have broadened the harmonic horizons of the Jazz tradition.

I would guess that Yusef Lateef probably became interested with Arabic and Pakistani music as a result of his involvement and subsequent conversion to Islam. During the 1940's a Pakistani by the name of Kahil Ahmed Nasir was responsible for introducing many New York City Jazz musicians the Islamic teachings of the Ahmadiyya movement. Many of these musicians were more interested in the social aspects of Islam rather than the spiritual teachings. Some scholars actually trace the roots of the Blues back to Muslim West African slaves who adapted the call to prayer to their new environment. Some of these musicians who initially converted (or reverted as Muslims call it) did not remain strict followers of the faith, but many did. In his autobiography Dizzy talks about the Muslim Jazz movement:
"Rudy Powell, from Edgar Hayes's band, became one of the first jazz musicians I knew to accept Islam; he became an Ahmidyah Muslim. Other musicians followed, it seemed to me, for social rather religious reasons, if you can separate the two.

"Man, if you join the Muslim faith, you ain't colored no more, you'll be white," they'd say, "You get a new name and you don't have to be a nigger no more." So everybody started joining because they considered it a big advantage not to be black during the time of segregation. I thought of joining, but it occurred to me that a lot of them spooks were simply trying to be anything other than a spook at that time. They had no idea of black consciousness; all they were trying to do was escape the stigma of being "colored." When these cats found out that Idrees Sulieman, who joined the Muslim faith about that time, could go into these white restaurants and bring out sandwiches to the other guys because he wasn't colored, and he looked like the inside of the chimney, they started enrolling in droves.

Musicians started having it printed on their police cards where it said "race," "W" for white. Kenny Clarke had one and he showed it to me. He said, "See, nigger, I ain't no spook; I'm white, 'W.'" He changed his name to Arabic, Liaquat Ali Salaam. Another cat who had been my roommate at Laurinburg, Loiver Mesheux, got involved in an altercation about race down in Delaware. He went into this restaurant, and they said they didn't serve colored in there. So he said, "I don't blame you. But I don't have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil."

Didn't ask him no more questions. "How do you do?" the guy said.

When I first applied for my police card, I knew what the guys were doing, but not being a Muslim. I wouldn't allow the police to type anything in that spot under race. I wouldn't reply to the race question on the application black. When the cop started to type something in there, I asked him "What are you gonna put down there, C for me?"
"You're colored, ain't you?"

"Colored? No."

"Well, what are you, white?"

"No, don't put nothing on there," I said. "Just give me the card." They left it open. I wouldn't let them type me in W for white nor C for colored; just made them leave it blank. WC is a toilet in Europe.

As time went on, I kept considering converting to Islam but mostly because of the social reasons. I didn't know very much about the religion, but I could dig the idea that Muhammad was a prophet. I believed that and there were very few Christians who believed that Muhammad had the word of God with him. The idea of polygamous marriage in Islam, I didn't care for too much. In our society, a man can only take care of one woman. If he does a good job of that, he'll be doing well. Polygamy had its place in the society for which it was intended, as a social custom, but social orders change and each age develops its own mores. Polygamy was acceptable during one part of our development, but most women wouldn't accept that today. People worry about all the women with no husbands, and I don't have any answer for that. Whatever happens, the question should be resolved legitimately and in the way necessary for the advancement of society.

The movement among jazz musicians toward Islam created quite a stir, especially with the surge of the Zionist movement for creation and establishment of the State of Israel. A lot of friction arose between Jews and Muslims, which took the form of a semi-boycott in New York of jazz musicians with Muslim names. Maybe a Jewish guy, in a booking agency that Muslim musicians worked from, would throw work another way instead of throwing to the Muslim. Also, many of the agents couldn't pull the same tricks on Muslims that they pulled on the rest of us. The Muslims received knowledge about themselves that we didn't have and that we had no access to; so therefore they tended to act differently toward the people running the entertainment business. Much of the entertainment business was run by Jews. Generally, the Muslims fared well in spite of that, because though we had some who were Muslim in name only, others really had knowledge and were taking care of business.

Near the end of the forties, the newspapers really got worried about whether I'd convert to Islam. In 1948 Life magazine, published a big picture story, supposedly about the music. They conned me into allowing them to photograph me down on my knees, arms outstretched, supposedly bowing to Mecca. It turned out to be a trick bag. It's of the few things in my whole career I'm ashamed of, because I wasn't a Muslim. They tricked me into committing a sacrilege. The newspapers figured that if the "king of bebop" converted, thousands of beboppers would follow suit, and reporters questioned me about whether I planned to quit and forsake Christianity. But that lesson from Life taught me to leave them hanging. I told them that on my trips through the South, the members of my band were denied the right of worshipping in churches of their own faith because colored folks couldn't pray with white folks down there. "Don't say I'm forsaking Christianity," I said, "because Christianity is forsaking me - or better, people who claim to be Christian just ain't. It says in the Bible to love they brother, but people don't practice what the Bible preaches. In Islam, there is no color line. Everybody is treated like equals."

With one reporter, since I didn't know much about the Muslim faith, I called on our saxophonist, formerly named Bill Evans, who'd recently accepted Islam to give this reporter some accurate information.

"What's your new name?" I asked him.

"Yusef Abdul Lateef," he replied. Yusef Lateef told us how a Muslim missionary, Kahil Ahmed Nasir, had converted many modern jazz musicians in New York to Islam and how he read the Quran daily and strictly observed the prayer and dietary regulations of the religion. I told the reporter that I'd been studying the Quran myself, and although I hadn't converted yet, I knew one couldn't drink alcohol or eat pork as a Muslim. Also I said I felt quite intrigued by the beautiful sound of the word "Quran" and found it "out of this world," "way out," as we used to say. The guy went back to his paper and reported that Dizzy Gillespie and his "beboppers" were "way out" on the subject of religion. He tried to ridicule me as being too strange, weird and exotic to merit serious attention. Most of the Muslim guys who were sincere in the beginning went on believing and practicing the faith".
  • (Note: Dizzy eventually became a devote follower of the Bahai' faith)

Yusef taught himself to speak and read Arabic and he also taught himself to play a whole range of instruments that had never before been associated with Jazz, like the sarwela, oboe, rahab, shanai, arghul, and koto. Yusef did years of extensive ethnomusicological research, including four years as a senior research fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria.

One of my favorite books to practice out of is Yusef's Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. This book is basically a Jazz version of Slonimski's classic Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns book. There are so many strange scales and patterns, such as bi tonal, hybrid hexachords, hybrid scales, Dolphy's synthetic formations, Hexadic, exotic scales, tropes, tone rows, cyclic inversions, asymmetrically expanded scales, quadritonal patterns, plural arpeggios. The thing that make the book so interesting and useful is that Yusef writes short Jazz etudes for most of the scales/patterns. Lateef's application of exotic scales and modes to the Be-Bop idiom was widely heard during his stint with Cannonball Adderley. There are several pages devoted to exotic scales from all of the world. I find the exotic scales more interesting than synthetic scales because they evoke moods of specific cultures, where a lot of the synthetic scales just sound strange.

Here is a link to a PDF that contains some of Lateef's exotic scales from his Repository book:

Yusef Lateef's Exotic Scales

I have taken a few of these scales from Lateef's book and noted some chords that each scale will work with. A helpful way to learn how to apply exotic or synthetic scales is to do what I did in this chart. Look at every note in the chromatic scale and try to figure out every chord quality that will work from that root. Not every scale note needs to fit perfectly over a particular chord. In fact it can be more interesting if these exotic scales sound a bit dissonant over chords. If you listen to how Yusef plays exotic scales on Adderley's Hard-bop tunes you'll understand what I'm talking about. These exotic scales have strong personalities that they retain their essential flavor even when played over many different types of chords.

Many of the new generation of Jazz musicians have incorporated highly advanced harmonic/melodic ideas into their music in order to create their own unique and personal style. Let's face it, if everyone only used traditional western scales and modes then modern Jazz would be a lot less interesting. I'm sure traditionalists would argue this point, but the tide of change is unstoppable. The world is so small these days and young musicians have access to so much music from all over the world. 20th (and now 21st) century Classical music has also had a powerful influence Jazz more in recent years.

Another modern technique is the creation of synthetic scales. These synthetic scales are created with the idea of creating an unusual and unique sound. They can be have any number of notes in them. They are created on a whim! When I studied with Joe Viola we worked out of an etude book by Guy Lacour, who played tenor with Marcel Mule's sax quartet. Guy's book had etudes that were each based on a different synthetic scale. Some of these synthetics seemed like they were just major or minor scales with added notes, and some were a little more unusual. The etudes sounded very cool. I know that this book significantly influenced Donny McCaslin, who also studied with Joe V at the same time I did. I saw it on his music stand the last time I was at his apartment. Donny creates his own synthetic scale modes and then works out snaky intervalic lines based on them.

Matt Otto just sent me one of his compositions based entirely on a synthetic scale mode of his own creation. The composition doesn't use chords taken from the mode (remember: the stranger the synthetic scale the more problematic diatonic harmony becomes), only a melody line, a harmony line and a bass line. The result is an eerily moody tune that sounds like nothing you've ever heard before, which I think is kind of the point. Otto was gracious enough to let me post a PDF and MP3 of his composition entitled Storm Song. [Keep posted, a new Otto interview is coming soon!]

Storm Song PDF
Storm Song MP3

Yusef Lateef: All About Jazz
Yusef Lateef: Roots and Routes
Yusef Lateef's home page
Yusef Lateef Biography
Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
An Africana View of Progressive American Islam
123 Jazz Duets for Treble Cleff instruments
Yusef YouTube interview

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