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Visualize Yusef Lateef's music as he did – through his drawings

Mar 19, 2015

Yusef Lateef – a master musician, composer, writer and artist – died in 2013. However, his history lives on in Detroit, the city where he came of age musically and otherwise. He went on to become one of the first artists to combine jazz with world music.

This Friday, an exhibition called Yusef Lateef: Towards the Unknown will open in the Trinosophes art space on Gratiot in Detroit. It will run through May 10. 

Rebecca Mazzei, co-owner of Trinosophes, thinks the exhibition will be important for all people to see – whether they’re familiar with Lateef’s work or not. She said the exhibit will speak to “why he was so important to the city and why the city was so important to him,” though she added that he also brought some “important cultural movements to the national scene as well.”

Other co-owner of Trinosophes, Joel Peterson, noted that Lateef, like many other big figures such as Duke Ellington, disliked being called a “jazz musician.”

“They all kind of disapproved of that label, and they felt that maybe there was something faintly derogatory about it and also that it was an attempt to pigeonhole something and kind of limit what black artists were doing,” Peterson said. “I think from their perspectives, they’re making music and it’s not about what labels it fits into.”

Peterson went on to say that Lateef made many different types of music – chamber music, electronic music, and jazz music being some examples – but that his work is all continuous.

“It’s all the sound of Yusef Lateef and the labels are something that happen after the fact,” he said.

The exhibition centers mainly on Lateef’s drawings. While none are dated, all were created during the last 20-30 years of his life, said Alhena Katsof, curator of the exhibit. She also noted that the paintings portray a strong link to Lateef’s musical side.

“I guess they’re most connected to the music in the sense that he was often drawing as a way of visualizing music,” Katsof said. “So for Lateef, the visual art form was deeply connected to the process of composing. And there will actually be some examples of musical scores on view at the gallery, which is really great that we can tie those things together.”

According to Katsof, these drawings have only ever been on display to the public once before, in 2009 at the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.