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James Mtume 1946 – 2022

Descended from jazz royalty, he played on the music’s outer edge before becoming an R&B hitmaker

James Mtume
James Mtume

James Mtume, a vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer who began his career as a cutting-edge jazz musician and evolved into one of R&B’s prime auteurs, died January 9. He was six days past his 76th birthday.

His son, Faulu Mtume, confirmed his passing to Pitchfork Media. Location and cause of death were not disclosed.

Known in the jazz world as the biological son of bebop legend Jimmy Heath and as a sometime collaborator of Miles Davis, Mtume was best known to the musical mainstream as the leader of the band Mtume, whose 1983 single “Juicy Fruit” hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts that summer.

Behind the scenes, Mtume was even more successful. He and collaborator Reggie Lucas achieved a gold record with Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s 1977 duet “The Closer I Get to You,” which they co-wrote; they both wrote and produced Stephanie Mills’ 1980 hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” scoring another gold record and winning a 1981 Grammy for Best R&B Song. Mtume also had success working with Phyllis Hyman, Teddy Pendergrass, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and K-Ci and Jo-Jo.

Lucas and Mtume together developed a signature sound. “What I called it was ‘sophistifunk,’ and by that I mean the bottom is always there but what made the difference was the chords,” Mtume told Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. “Coming out of jazz, the pretty chords on top and the orchestration. But if you take the orchestration off, you can feel that’s funk under.”

As a jazz musician, Mtume debuted in 1969 with his uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath, playing conga on the latter’s first album Kawaida. Mtume also wrote four of the album’s five songs and guided its aesthetic toward a merger of jazz and ideas from the then-flowering Black Consciousness movement. He solidified that aesthetic with his own debut recording, Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks, in 1971. Mtume then spent four years touring and recording as a percussionist with Miles Davis (in whose band he met future partner Lucas), including the classic albums On the Corner, Big Fun, and Get Up With It. He was a prolific sideman with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz, Eddie Henderson, and his father and uncle in the Heath Brothers.

Additionally, Mtume worked as a session musician in the New York-based assemblage Players Association; a radio personality at New York’s WRKS; and a political activist with a strong inclination toward racial justice.

James Mtume was born either James Edward Heath Jr. or James Forman (sources vary, although he occasionally used the name Forman as an adult) on January 3, 1946 in Philadelphia. While Jimmy Heath was his biological father, he was raised by his stepfather, James Forman, and mother Bertha Forman. His stepfather was also a jazz musician, a pianist who had worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt; young James grew up with musicians constantly visiting his home. “Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins,” he recalled in 2014. “There was nothing like sitting around a table of jazz musicians.”

As far back as he could remember, James was playing the piano at home; early on, though, he was more inclined toward athletics than music. He was a champion swimmer—the first African American to win the Amateur Athletic Union’s backstroke title—and in 1966 matriculated at Pasadena City College because its swimming coach had been selected for the Olympics. Shortly after arriving, however, he joined the Los Angeles-based US Organization, a Black Nationalist group, where he received the name Mtume (Swahili for “Messenger”).

After college, Mtume left the US Organization and returned to the East Coast, where he decided to become a professional musician. He soon found work with McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Lonnie Liston Smith before recording with his uncle Albert on Kawaida (his biological father was also on the session) in December 1969. He made several more sideman appearances before recording Alkebu-Lan in 1971, released the following year on the independent label Strata-East Records. A few weeks after he made the recording, Mtume was invited to join Miles Davis’ group, where he would remain until Davis’ short-lived retirement in 1975.

Mtume had met guitarist Reggie Lucas in Davis’ band and recommended him to singer/songwriter Roberta Flack in 1976. The pair worked together again with Flack; while jamming during sessions for her album Blue Lights in the Basement, they developed the song that became “The Closer I Get to You.” The single reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1978. It signaled a new phase of Mtume’s career. He and Lucas also wrote a follow-up duet for Flack and Hathaway, 1979’s “Back Together Again,” and wrote and produced Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”

Mtume and Lucas formed the band Mtume in 1978; it broke up in 1980, though Mtume would reform it (sans Lucas) in 1982. The new Mtume band scored its big hit, “Juicy Fruit,” in 1983, with the song becoming an R&B staple and frequent hip-hop sample. Follow-up hits included 1984’s “You, Me and He” and 1986’s “Breathless.”

In later years, Mtume scored the film Native Son; played on and produced Mary J. Blige’s Share My World and K-Ci and Jo-Jo’s Lover Always (both from 1997); and began broadcasting as a talk-radio host in New York—he co-hosted the program Open Line on WBLS-FM for 18 years. In 2019, he delivered a TED Talk, “Our Common Ground in Music.” In an interview with JazzTimes in 2021, he noted that he was preparing a 50th-anniversary release of Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks. Plans for the reissue are unclear.

He is survived by his wife Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman; sons Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson; daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, and Sanda Lee; and grandchildren Sukari Mtume, Yamani Mtume, Craig McCargo, Mazi Mtume, Aya Mtume, and Jhasi Mtume.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.