In 1999, while living in Amherst, Mass, I got the chance to meet with the multi-instrumentalist, Yusef Lateef.
He was teaching composition at Umass and Smith College, and once a week he would open his office to speak with students or anyone who had questions about his course.
Although I was a high school dropout, and knew I would never take his course, here was an opportunity to talk to the man who wrote the book my saxophone teacher called, “essential for any musician using notes.”
I was well aware of his music, and I still consider him amongst the musical elite. I just wanted a chance to talk to a musical God, and he certainly changed my view on music, and now comedy, before I even stepped into his office.
When I arrived, he was busy with another student, so I was guided to a waiting room directly outside his office. Because his door was open, I could hear the conversation. If there’s a God to thank, I would thank him for letting me hear that conversation because it’s stuck with me. It’s so real on so many levels, and it’s the reason I detest anything that is so-called improvised.
Long live Yusef Lateef. Your wisdom will live forever.
Here’s the conversation I heard. I’m paraphrasing of course.
Student. “I just have a problem understanding improvisation. I don’t really get it.”
Yusef. “What do you mean, improvisation? I don’t get that word.”
Student. “You know. When you, improvise.” He stretched it out to imply that Yusef OBVIOUSLY knew what he meant.
Yusef. “No. I don’t. Explain. What do you mean improvise.”
Student. “You know, when you’re soloing, and you’re kind of, just, you know, making it up as you go.” He kept emphasizing words to prove Yusef knew what he meant.
Yusef. Interrupting a bit. “What do you MEAN make it up as I go? Why would I make something up? I never make something up.”
Student. “Yeah. You know. When you’re kind of, forgetting the form of the song, and just kind of playing whatever comes to your mind.”
Yusef. Getting pissed. “I NEVER go away from the structure of a song. That’s what structure is, and if I do, it’s NEVER just whatever comes to my mind.”
Student. STILL NOT GETTING IT! “No, I mean, like when you’re making it up over the changes.”
Yusef. Insanely upset, interrupting the student. “How insulting of you to come into my office and try to tell me what you mean by improvisation. You didn’t humble yourself and ask me what I might think, or listen to what I might have to say; you just wanted to tell me what you thought about, and what you think about is wrong. I’m not going to water it down for you: what you believe is not true. I practice 8 hours a day and have practiced 8 hours a day for more years than you have been alive. I practice that much so that I will NEVER have to just play WHATEVER comes to my mind. I practice so I will know EXACTLY what I want to play, and when and how I will want to play it. It’s about control. What you seek in music is control. The only way to find that control is, understanding through knowledge, and repetitive practice. Now get out. You’re wasting my time.”