James Mtume, Jazz and R&B Musician, Dies at 75

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He was the leader of Mtume, who gave the world “Juicy Fruit” and so much more

LONDON  JANUARY 27  Singer James Mtume of the R and BSoul group Mtume performs onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon on...
David Corio

James Mtume, a musician who recorded with jazz greats before leading the R&B group Mtume, has died. His son Faulu Mtume confirmed the news to Pitchfork. He was 75.

Mtume was born James Heath Jr., the son of jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, in Philadelphia. He was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and pianist James “Hen Gates” Forman, who played in Charlie Parker’s band. Forman introduced the young Mtume, literally, to some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.

“Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins,” Mtume told Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. “I never was hip enough to know just how brilliant a situation that was, but what I did know about jazz musicians were they were an extraordinary group. Witty, funny. There was nothing like sitting around a table of jazz musicians.” In the late 1960s Mtume joined the US Organization, a Black empowerment collective that created Kwanzaa.

In 1969, he played percussion on his uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath’s album Kawaida alongside his father, Don Cherry, and Herbie Hancock. Mtume released an album with his group Mtume Umoja Ensemble called Land of the Blacks in 1972. From 1971 to 1975, he played with Miles Davis, including work on the revered On the Corner sessions. He also contributed to records by Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Gato Barbieri, Ramsey Lewis, and many others.

Following dozens of jazz sessions, he released Kiss This World Goodbye, the debut album of his jazz, funk, and R&B hybrid band Mtume in 1978.  After 1980’s In Search of the Rainbow Seekers, the band released 1983’s Juicy Fruit. The title track became the band’s biggest hit, and it was famously sampled on the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” The band followed it with two more albums: 1984’s You, Me and He and 1986’s Theater of the Mind. In 1986, James Mtume composed the music for the film Native Son.

Beyond his work with the band Mtume, James was a prolific songwriter and producer. He and Reggie Lucas co-wrote Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get to You” and Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” Mtume referred to the Mtume-Lucas sound as “sophistifunk.”

Mtume was later credited on songs by Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and K-Ci and Jo-Jo. Mtume became a radio personality for new York City’s KISS 98.7 FM. In 2019, he gave a TED Talk titled “Our Common Ground in Music.”

Mtume was mourned on social media by the artists who loved his music, including DāM-Funk, DJ Premier, and Talib Kweli. “Thank you James Mtume for all the wisdom & love & respect you’ve shown me & my brothers over the years,” Questlove wrote. 

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