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In Memoriam: James Mtume

Vince Wilburn Jr., Miles Davis' nephew, looks back on James Mtume's (Jan. 3, 1946–Jan. 9, 2022) career and playing with his uncle.

James Mtume (January 3, 1946–January 9, 2022) Photo by Xxposure Media Relations

Mtume, whom I affectionately called “Tumes,” was in my uncle Miles Davis’s band. Whenever the band would come through Chicago, I would come backstage and watch from the wings. Uncle Miles of course introduced me to the band, and they all took me under their wings and became my extended family: big brothers and uncles. In fact everybody across all of Miles’s bands became my extended family.

Tumes joined the band in 1971: I was 12. So even though I was later in Uncle Miles’s band, it was after he had retired and then come back out of retirement, and by then Tumes was doing his own thing: We were never in the band at the same time. But when I was in New York to record The Man with the Horn, I would call up Mtume and find time to come to the studio where he was working on his various projects. So we would hang out that way. 

It went on that way for years. We couldn’t see each other too often, because he was in New York and I was out here in Los Angeles, but we would talk on the phone and whenever one of us was in the other one’s town we would always make time for each other. And while we never worked together we would always, constantly, be talking about music. 

I used to love to have him tell stories about working with Uncle Miles. He never forgot a thing, and I could ask him about specific concerts, specific recording sessions and he could always offer up a great story—and often a very funny one—to go with it. He remembered every detail about making On the Corner, even down to how Uncle Miles told him to check out the tabla player at an Indian restaurant. Next thing you know, Badal Roy is on the album!


But it wasn’t just about music. Mtume was always very smart and very wise about just about everything. Life, business, family, the world. Not only was he someone I would turn to for advice, but when I had a question or a problem he was the go-to: The person I would run it by first. Because not only was Tumes wise, but he was a straight shooter. You always need someone in your life who will always tell it to you like it is, especially in this business where you are so often surrounded with people who want to pacify you and tell you what you want to hear. Tumes wasn’t about that. He would give it to you straight, and not mean but in a loving way.

That’s important to know, too, that he was very loving. Tumes was a very private person, but if you were in, you were in all the way. As a matter of fact, his name for me was “Beloved.” “How you doin’, my Beloved?” I was also tight with his father, Jimmy Heath—another one who was tight with Uncle Miles, of course—and Tumes’s sons, Fa and Damu, who call me “Unc.” As a matter of fact, several years ago when they were renaming Uncle Miles’s old block in New York as Miles Davis Way, I called Tumes to invite him to the ceremony and his father was there at the house with him. So Jimmy called me later and said, “Neph. How you gonna invite my son and then not invite me?” (Of course he was invited!)

We stayed close and stayed in touch right up until the day he died. In fact, right at the end, when Fa called to tell me that the time was coming, I asked him to just hold up the phone to his dad’s ear. That’s how much we meant to each other. And of course I was devastated—here was this big brother, this member of my family for so long, who I had now lost. However, one thing I understood about Tumes is that he would never have wanted us to let the music go quiet on his account. He would have insisted that we all had to go on. Tumes was—is—an unstoppable force. [As told to Michael J. West]