Pioneering percussionist, producer and composer James Mtume died Sunday, Jan. 9. He was 76.
During a career that spanned more than 50 years, Mtume worked with some of the most iconic artists in R&B, jazz, hip-hop and funk. They included Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stephanie Mills, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Teddy Pendegrass, Phyllis Hyman, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, Mary J. Blige and more.
In his 1989 autobiography “Miles,” Davis wrote about the impact Mtume had on his band. “With Mtume Heath and Pete Cosey joining us, most of the European sensibilities were gone from the band. Now the band settled down into a deep African thing, a deep African-American groove, with a lot of emphasis on drums and rhythm, and not on individual solos,” Davis wrote.
Mtume was a gifted artist in his own right who could navigate seamlessly between genres. His ability to fuse them so well became known as “sophistafunk.” Some of his more popular tunes include Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” – which she won a Grammy for – and Flack And Hathaway’s classic, “The Closer I Get To You.”
He is perhaps best known by generations old and new for his namesake group Mtume’s 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” – which has been sampled more than 70 times since it was released. The song had two runs as a chart-topper – once when it was first released and again in 1994 when legendary MC Notorious B.I.G sampled it for his “Juicy” song.
He released several albums as a solo artist and group member. Among them were “Alkebu-Lan: Land of The Blacks,” “Rebirth Cycle,” “Kiss This World Goodbye,” “In Search of the Rainbow Seekers,” “Juicy Fruit,” “You, Me and He” and “Theater of the Mind.”
A Philadelphia native, Mtume had a musical upbringing which he discussed with the Philadelphia Tribune in 2018 on the 35th anniversary of “Juicy Fruit.”
“I would say I had a very special childhood growing up. My biological father, James Heath, is a world-renowned saxophonist of the famous Heath Brothers,” Mtume said. “But the father who raised me, and I don’t use the word stepfather, was James Forman, who was also a jazz musician. He played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and all those people. So, when I’m growing up, maybe at dinner one night, there’s Dizzy Gillespie, another night, there’s John Coltrane [or] Thelonious Monk.”
Mtume said although he was too young to understand the significance of the exposure, it ended up shaping the direction of his life and career.
“I was only 10 years old, so I didn’t know how deep it was, but I did know it was extraordinary hearing these conversations with these great jazz musicians,” Mtume continued. “At the same time, I’m growing up listening to the birth of R&B and soul — there’s James Brown, The Temptations, Motown — so I had a very interesting musical background coming up.”
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Born James Forman, Mtume attended Pasadena College on a swimming scholarship in the late 1960s. While there, he was drawn to the political and cultural landscape of America. He joined the Black Power movement and has given the surname Mtume – which means “messenger” or “prophet” in Swahili by one of his leaders, Maulana Karenga.
He often combined his art and activism to promote change in his community. According to Mtume’s bio on his website, he worked with poet and activist Amiri Baraka and the Committee for Unified Newark to elect the first Black mayor in Newark, New Jersey in 1970.
Later in life, Mtume continued his activism as a political commentator who appeared on TV and radio shows.
Black America reacted on social media upon news of Mtume’s passing.
“So much loss. So much grief. Rest in power to Uncle Mtume,” publisher Lisa Lucas tweeted. “My late fathers partner in crime, the co-creator of the songs of my life (and about my birth!). He was essential part of the life of the man who made me, therefore me too. Gone now. He will be dearly, eternally missed.”
“RIP, elder and friend,” Rev. Conrad Tillard tweeted.
“R.I.P. to James Mtume. He wrote a lot of material for artists and did music production for tv shows like New York Undercover. 39 years later ppl still be bumbin’ his music – Juicy Fruit (1983)”
“RIP James Mtume. Most will know him for the song Juicy. But he was also a Black Nationalist artist & composor of 2 of my favourite album. ALKEBU-LAN: Land of the BLACKS & KAWAIDA May the Ancestors embrace you Baba. Thank you,” Twitter user @ShakaRaSpeaks wrote.
“RIP James Mtume – Jazz musician who worked with Miles Davis from 1971-75. Mtume’s R&B group, Mtume, is best known for their hit song ‘Juicy Fruit.’ He has written hits for Phyllis Hyman, Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Stephanie Mills, Mary J. Blige, Teddy Pendergrass & Inner City,” @SebastianAvenue tweeted.
“RIP James Mtume. Hard, heavy, deep, funky percussionist who lent his vibe to Miles, Pharaoh Sanders, Lonnie Liston Smith, Sonny Rollins, Gato Barbieri, McCoy Tyner, Terumasa Hino, Eddie Henderson, Gary Bartz…. and so many others. His Rebirth Cycle LP is essential listening,” @TheJazzDade wrote.
“I’m deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my true friend and brother, James Mtume,” Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted. “A talented and gifted artist, activist, and thinker. I was so blessed to have him in my journey, the world is a better place because of Mtume. May he Rest In Peace and Power. I miss you already.”
DJ Cosmo Baker, who is not Black, also paid tribute to Mtume in a Twitter thread. “Rest In Power to the great James Mtume. The South Philly native & prodigal son, Jazz ROYALTY (the son of the great Jimmy Heath) and music trailblazer & pioneer,” Baker wrote. “His passing is truly a monumental loss. Let’s look at some of Mtume’s music and legacy through the years.”
Mtume is survived by his children Damu Mtume and Fa Mtume, who are also music producers.
Photo: James Mtume performs on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in the U.K.. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns/Getty images)
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