James Mtume, Grammy-winning icon of R&B and jazz music, dead at 76

January 11, 2022
James Mtume, a musician and activist who formed the R&B group Mtume, has died. He was 76.
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James Mtume, a musician and activist who formed the R&B group Mtume, has died. He was 76.

His representative Angelo Ellerbee confirmed to USA TODAY on Monday that Mtume died Sunday, six days after his birthday. His cause of death is not yet known.

Mtume was born on Jan. 3, 1946, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to an illustrious family of musicians — his father was the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, his uncles were bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert Heath, and he was raised by stepfather James Forman, a pianist. 

Mtume opened up about his musical upbringing in an interview with the Associated Press in 2018, describing how Forman exposed him to great musicians. 

“I would say I had a very special childhood growing up,” he said. “My biological father, James Heath, is a world-renowned saxophonist of the famous Heath Brothers. 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.

“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. 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.”

In 1966, Mtume went to Pasadena College on a swimming scholarship and was drawn to the cultural and political changes occurring in the country at that time. After he joined a branch of the Black Power Movement, African Mulana Kurenga (author and creator of the pan-African and the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa) bestowed him a new Swahili surname: “Mtume” which means messenger or prophet.

Throughout his career, Mtume collaborated with several jazz giants, including Duke Ellington, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Rollins. In 1971, Miles Davis spotted Mtume at a New York City performance at the Village Vanguard and soon after invited him to join his band. Mtume toured with Davis for five years.

“People ask me, where did I go to school, and I say, ‘M.D. University,’ you dig?” he told the Associated Press. “The main lesson I learned with Miles is never stay still — always push forward. He said, ‘When you cross a bridge, burn it.’ So you can’t even go back, even if you wanted to. That was his message: Keep pressing the boundaries of the music.”

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And that’s exactly what Mtume did, forming his own genre of music — a combination of soul, jazz and funk he called “Sophistifunk” — in the 1970s. 

He used this style to create several hit songs, such as Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again” and Stephanie Mills’ “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’ ” and “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” the latter of which won Mtume and guitarist/partner Reggie Lucas the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.

In the 1980s, Mtume formed the R&B group bearing his namesake. The group had five best-selling albums and eleven R&B hits. Featuring Tawatha Agee on lead vocals, the band’s salacious 1982 song “Juicy Fruit” became a much-sampled tune, being used as the basis for at least 70 songs, most notably by The Notorious B.I.G. on his debut solo single, “Juicy,” Faith Evans for “Faithfully,” Keyshia Cole on her single “Let It Go” and Tamar Braxton on her hit single “The One.”

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Mtume also scored soundtracks for films, like 1986’s “Native Son,” and served as music supervisor for the 1994 Fox cop drama “New York Undercover.” He also co-hosted the community talk series “Open Line,” formerly on New York City’s WBLS FM station, for 18 years.

Mtume 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. 

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Contributing: Associated Press

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