The passing of Al-Hajj Dr. Yusef Abdul Lateef on December 23 in Massachusetts brings to mind the exotic, semi-forgotten influence of Islam on the American music scene in the 1950s, when Islam, and specifically Ahmadiyya Islam, was cool.
Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston on October 9, 1920, in Chattanooga and grew up in Detroit, where his father changed the family name to Evans. He began as a saxophonist in 1946, then went on to play the flute, oboe, bassoon, and many other instruments. In a very long and important career, he made music with such renowned figures as Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus.
He become one of the first black jazz musicians to associate with Islam, converting in 1948 and changing his name at that time, then twice going on the pilgrimage to Mecca and writing a Ph.D. dissertation in 1975 titled “An Overview of Western and Islamic Education.” As an implicit indication of his piety, from 1980 on he banned alcohol from his performances.
Missionaries of the small Ahmadiyya movement out of Pakistan had eye-popping success among leading jazz musicians of the 1950s, converting in addition to Lateef such luminaries as Nuh Alahi, Art Blakey (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina), Fard Daleel, Mustafa Daleel (Oliver Mesheux), Talib Daoud, Ahmad Jamal (Fritz Jones), Muhammad Sadiq, Sahib Shihab (Edmund Gregory), Dakota Staton (Aliya Rabia), and McCoy Tyner (Sulaiman Saud). Superstars whispered to have converted included John Coltrane (who first married a Muslim), Dizzy Gillespie (whose band included several Muslims), Charlie Parker (Abdul Karim), and Pharaoh Sanders (whose work contains Muslim themes). One listing of Muslim jazz players contains about 125 names. These musicians preferred to perform at clubs owned by fellow Muslims, many of whom hailed from the Caribbean.