Known for his innovative blending of "Eastern" music with American jazz, Lateef's main instruments are tenor saxophone and flute, but he is one of few to play oboe or bassoon in jazz, and also plays various world music instruments, notably bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, arghul, sarewa, and koto.
Throughout his early life Lateef came into contact with many noted Detroit-based jazz musicians, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Elvin Jones, and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Lateef was a proficient saxophonist by the time of his graduation from high school at age 18, at which point he launched his professional career and began touring with a number of swing bands.
In 1949, Lateef was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to tour with his world-renowned orchestra. At this time, Lateef was still known by the name William Evans, thereby making him one of three well-known jazz musicians (besides the pianist and the tenor saxophonist) bearing this name. Notably, all three played with Miles Davis during their careers.
Lateef first began recording as a leader in 1957 for Savoy Records working with musicians such as Wilbur Harden, a non-exclusive association which continued until 1959; the earliest of Lateef's album's for the Prestige subsidiary New Jazz overlap with them.
By 1961, with the recording of Into Something and Eastern Sounds, Lateef's dominant presence within a group context had emerged. His "Eastern" influences are clearly audible in all of these recordings, using instruments like the rahab, shanai, arghul, koto and a collection of wooden Chinese flutes and bells along with his tenor and flute. Even his use of the western oboe sounds exotic in this context as it is not a standard jazz instrument but still the whole thing remains approachable for most Western ears. Indeed the tunes themselves are a mixture of jazz standards, blues and film music played with a piano/bass/drums rhythm section. Along with trumpeter Don Cherry, Lateef can lay claim to being among the first exponents of the world music jazz subgenre. Lateef also made numerous contributions to other people's albums including his time as a member of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's Quintet from 1962-64.
Lateef's sound has been claimed to have been a major influence on the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose later period free jazz recordings contain similarly "Eastern" traits. For a time (1963-66) Lateef was signed to Coltrane's label, Impulse. He had a regular working group during this period, with trumpeter Richard Williams and Mike Nock on piano. They enjoyed a residency at Pep's Lounge during June 1964; an evening of which has been issued on CD.
Lateef has expressed a dislike of the terms "jazz" and "jazz musician" as musical generalizations. As is so often the case with such generalizations, the use of these terms do understate the breadth of his sound. For example, in the 1980s, Lateef experimented with new age and spiritual elements. His 1987 album Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony won the Grammy award for Best New Age Album. His core influences, however, are clearly rooted in jazz, and in his own words: "My music is jazz."
In 1992, Lateef founded YAL Records, his own label for which he records today. In 1993, Lateef was commissioned by the WDR Radio Orchestra to compose The African American Epic Suite, a four part work for orchestra and quartet based on themes of slavery and disfranchisement in the United States. The piece has since been performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Lateef has written and published a number of books including a novella entitled A Night in the Garden of Love and the short story collections Spheres and Rain Shapes. Along with his record label YAL Records, Lateef owns Fana Music, a music publishing company. Lateef publishes his own work through Fana, which includes Yusef Lateef's Flute Book of the Blues and many of his own orchestral compositions.
It is mainly used as a means of composing spiritual folk music, however Lateef incorporated such elements into his own jazz compositions. However, his lessons are not limited to jazz or folk, as demonstrated by Toby Driver of the bands Maudlin of the Well and Kayo Dot. In the liner notes of the albums Bath and Leaving Your Body Map, Driver writes that the performers do not write music, they find pre-existing music in the Astral Plane, which the band members access through practicing Astral Projection.
Autophysiopsychic Music has not been widely used by other musicians, due to its highly personal and experimental approach to composition and instrumentation. The complexity and lack of rhythmic and compositional consonance make it a hard style of music to approach and is therefore quite inaccessible. It is for this reason little reference is made to it and therefore little is known about the actual method of practicing this style of music.