Student performance brings jazz instrumentalist’s legacy to life

Archival fellowships launch Vanderbilt students into previously unexplored territory with sensory detail deserving of a second look—or listen. Director of the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library, Holling Smith-Borne, and Cataloger Jake Schaub recently transported students to The Diverse World of Yusef A. Lateef, through a semester-long Buchanan Library Fellowship that delved into Vanderbilt’s newly acquired collection of the genre-defying, multi-instrumentalist and jazz musician. On December 7, five fellows performed musical scores selected from the collection and showcased the experience of their archival discoveries in stunning, unexpected ways. These archival expeditions will continue to serve as iterative benchmarks in knowledge production, discovery, and legacy-building that will evolve with the libraries’ growing collections.   

Under the auspices of the university’s ongoing initiative with the National Museum of African American Music, the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries recently acquired the collection of the prominent musician and educator Dr. Yusef A. Lateef. Over the course of the semester, students engaged in a deep dive into Dr. Lateef’s papers and compositions with a few goals in mind: to select and research a performance in preparation for a lecture or recital at the Blair School of Music; to immerse themselves directly in working with primary source materials; and, lastly, to enhance their social media and public outreach expertise, a skillset that will prove beneficial throughout students’ performance careers. 

This project was conceived to be accessible to both performers and non-performers alike. The five student fellows had the option to focus primarily on performance or on the lecture component, with four choosing to explore elements of both. This inclusivity won the support of a wide array of both performance and musicology faculty from across the Blair School of Music. As Lateef was also active in the visual art world, staff at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery shared their expertise with the students regarding the musician’s drawings in the collection. Mentors encouraged the students to take ownership in the program while working with the materials and in their interactions with guest speakers.  

Unexpected experiences arose as the semester progressed. One student received the unplanned opportunity to perform on Lateef’s tenor saxophone, while another was afforded the rare experience of playing the historic but nowadays rarely heard oboe d’amore. 

Unique collaborative opportunities like these will stay with our students well into the future and represent the blending of what the Vanderbilt Libraries and the Blair School of Music offer to those well into their careers, whether in the concert hall, the seminar room or the teaching studio. In many ways, this archival fellowship follows the example of Yusef A. Lateef himself, a singular artist who mixed all aspects of his music, words, artistry and faith into a dynamic, ever-evolving exploration of the experience of life.