Yusef Lateef was born William Emanuel Huddleston in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1925, Lateef and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan where would begin Lateef’s musical career. Throughout his early life Lateef came into contact with a number of accomplished jazz musicians including Milt Jackson, Paul Chambers, Elvin Jones, and Kenny Burrell. Lateef was a proficient saxophonist by 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, at age 29, Lateef was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to tour with his world-renowned orchestra.
Lateef first began recording as a leader in 1956 for Savoy Records, which released a number of albums under his name in the following year. By 1961, with the release of Eastern Sounds, Lateef’s distinctive sound had matured. His “Eastern” influences are clearly audible in these recordings, while they remain within the bounds of approachability for most Western ears. 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.
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 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 1950, Lateef returned to Detroit and began his studies in composition and flute at Wayne State University. It was during this period that Lateef converted to Ahmadiyya Islam and changed his name to the form it holds today.
In 1960, Lateef again returned to school. At the Manhattan School of Music in New York, Lateef pursued further studies in flute. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Music in 1969 and a Master’s Degree in Music Education in 1970. He taught courses in autophysiopsychic music at the school from 1971, and from 1972 was an associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
In 1975, Lateef completed his dissertation on Western and Islamic education and earned a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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.