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Memory-Song Painted Gold: for The Blue Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) Part 1

Yusef Lateef Gold courtesy of Bright Skylark
Literary Productions. (Derived from original
1968 album cover by Atlantic Records)

          “When the soul looks out of its body, it should see only beauty in
          its path.
These are the sights we must hold in mind, in order to move
          to a higher
place.” --Yusef Lateef, from “A Syllogism”

How could I have known, as a nine-year-old child growing up in Savannah’s Hitch Village project, that Yusef Lateef was speaking light in the form of music directly to my soul through his saxophone and flute when I first heard his masterpiece of an album The Blue Yusef Lateef? I could not have imagined that years later, while seeking the timbres of my own creative voice out in the world, his would find me again. It happened this time as I sat in the window of a hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, the haunting blues-heavy moans of “Juba Juba” swelling the room as the vision of a young black man looking up at stars through a jail cell hole-in-the-wall unfolded before me.

I do not recall what prompted my recollection of the song. It may have been because I was alone in the city and just as uncertain about my ability to survive there as I was certain I was not yet ready to leave. The more I heard it, the more the image of the boy in the jail cell came into focus. His thoughts became my thoughts. They communicated to me that his name was Juba and he was waiting for his dead father’s friend Elijah to come get him.

Video for "Juba Juba" by Yusef Lateef

Between Juba’s words and the music that flowed with them, it was impossible to resist picking up a pen and notebook. Maybe I would create some lyrics to go with the moon-shredding laments on the track (provided I would later learn by the group known as The Sweet Inspirations). Once I started writing, I did not stop until the story later published as “I Can Hear Juba Moan,” in the book I Made My Boy Out of Poetry, was completed.

I did not, at that moment, even recall Dr. Lateef as the principal saxophonist for the song, only the chain-gang-like rhythm that waved back and forth between unholy anguish and calmly defiant determination. Some quick research at the San Francisco library provided the master musician’s identity but more decades would pass before I managed to find the album again during the mid-1990s, this time in the form a CD that I ordered through the multimedia store where I worked. As an adult, I was able to listen to The Blue Yusef Lateef in its entirety and appreciate the various production details and nuances of performance that had eluded me as a child. At the same, I was more amazed that ever that the music had embedded itself so permanently in my consciousness.

NEXT: Memory-Song Painted Gold: for the Blue Yusef Lateef (1920-2013) Part 2

By Aberjhani

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Officially Grateful

The Centaur and the Phoenix LP by Yusef Lateef.

...So this is me going on record to express my gratitude to the great Dr. Yusef A. Lateef for inspiring my short story, "I Can Hear Juba Moan," and the poem "Like It Is Us." There are probably other works by me that his music prompted as well without my conscious awareness these are the compositions which for a time fed my soul everything it needed to remain on my creative path.