Although Lateef's main instruments were the tenor saxophone and flute, he also played oboe and bassoon, both rare in jazz, and also used a number of non-western instruments such as the bamboo flute, shanai, shofar, xun, arghul and koto. He is known for having been an innovator in the blending of jazz with "Eastern" music. Peter Keepnews, in his New York Times obituary of Lateef, wrote that the musician "played world music before world music had a name."
Lateef was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His family moved, in 1923, to Lorain, Ohio, and again in 1925, to Detroit, Michigan, where his father changed the family's name to "Evans".
Throughout his early life Lateef came into contact with many Detroit-based jazz musicians who went on to gain prominence, 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 the age of 18, when he launched his professional career and began touring with a number of swing bands. The first instrument he bought was an alto saxophone but after a year he switched to the tenor saxophone, influenced by the playing of Lester Young.
In 1949, he was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to tour with his orchestra. In 1950, Lateef returned to Detroit and began his studies in composition and flute at Wayne State University. It was during this period that he converted to Islam as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He twice made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In 2005, Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel, directors of Step Across The Border, filmed Brother Yusef, in his wooden house in the middle of a forest in Massachusetts.
Lateef began recording as a leader in 1957 for Savoy Records, a non-exclusive association which continued until 1959; the earliest of Lateef's album's for the Prestige subsidiary New Jazz overlap with them. Musicians such as Wilbur Harden (trumpet, flugelhorn), bassist Herman Wright, drummer Frank Gant, and pianist Hugh Lawson were among his collaborators during this period.
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, with spots for instruments like the rahab, shanai, arghul, koto and a collection of Chinese wooden flutes and bells along with his tenor and flute. Even his use of the western oboe sounds exotic in this context; it is not a standard jazz instrument. Indeed, the tunes themselves are a mixture of jazz standards, blues and film music usually performed with a piano/bass/drums rhythm section in support. Lateef made numerous contributions to other people's albums including his time as a member of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's Quintet during 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.
In the late 1960s he began to incorporate contemporary soul and gospel phrasing into his music, still with a strong blues underlay, on albums such as Detroit and Hush'n'Thunder. Lateef 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.
In 1960, Lateef again returned to school, studying flute at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Music in 1969 and a master's degree in music education in 1970. Starting in 1971, he taught courses in "autophysiopsychic music" at the Manhattan School of Music, and he became an associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1972.
In 1975, Lateef completed his dissertation on Western and Islamic education and earned a Ed.D. in Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In the early 1980s Lateef was a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Nigerian Cultural Studies at Ahmadu Bello University in the city of Zaria, Nigeria. Returning to the US in 1986 he took a joint teaching position at the University of Massachusetts and Hampshire College.
His 1987 album Yusef Lateef's Little Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album. His core influences, however, were clearly rooted in jazz, and in his own words: "My music is jazz."
In 1992, Lateef founded YAL Records. In 1993, Lateef was commissioned by the WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne 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.
In 2010 he received the lifetime Jazz Master Fellowship Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent federal agency. Established in 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award is the highest honor given in jazz.
Manhattan School of Music, where Lateef had earned a bachelor's and a master's degree, awarded him its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2012.
Lateef's last albums were recorded for Adam Rudolph's "Meta Records". To the end of his life, he continued to teach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. Lateef died on the morning of December 23, 2013, at the age of 93, survived by his son, Yusef Lateef and his wife, Ayesha Lateef.
Following his death, Lateef's family auctioned off many of his instruments, in the hopes that they would continue to be played. Woodwind player Jeff Coffin purchased Lateef's main tenor saxophone as well as his bass flute.