Grammy-winning R&B and jazz icon James Mtume has died at 76

James Mtume, musician and activist who formed R&B group Mtume, has passed away. He was 76 years old.

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

Mtume was born January 3, 1946 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to an illustrious family of musicians – his father was saxophonist Jimmy Heath, his uncles were bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert Heath, and he was raised by his step- father James Forman, a pianist.

Mtume opened up about his musical education 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 famous 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 musician of jazz. He played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and all these people. So when I grow 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 knew it was amazing to hear these conversations with these great jazz musicians. At the same time, I grew up listening. the birth of R&B and soul – there’s James Brown, The Temptations, Motown – so I had a very interesting musical background to come. “

In 1966, Mtume attended Pasadena College on a swimming scholarship and was drawn to the cultural and political changes that were taking place in the country during this time. After joining a branch of the Black Power Movement, the African Mulana Kurenga (author and creator of the Pan-African and African-American festival of Kwanzaa) gave her a new Swahili surname: “Mtume” which means messenger or prophet.

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

James Mtume performs live at the Hammersmith Odeon on January 27, 1985 in London, England.

“People ask me where did I go to school, and I say ‘MD University’, are you digging?” He told The Associated Press. “The main lesson I learned from Miles is to never stand still, always move 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 pushing the boundaries of 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 that he called “Sophistifunk” – in the 1970s.

He has used this style to create several hit songs, such as “The Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway and “Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin ‘” and “Never Knew Love Like “by Stephanie Mills. This Before ”, 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 its namesake. The group had five best-selling albums and eleven R&B hits. With Tawatha Agee on vocals, the 1982 band’s salacious song “Juicy Fruit” became a heavily sampled melody, used as the basis for at least 70 songs, most notably by The Notorious BIG on their first solo single, “Juicy”, Faith Evans for “Faithfully”, Keyshia Cole on her single “Let It Go” and Tamar Braxton on her single “The One”.

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Mtume has also composed soundtracks for films, such as “Native Son” in 1986, and was musical supervisor for the 1994 Fox crime drama “New York Undercover”. He also co-hosted the “Open Line” community talk series, formerly on New York’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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Contribution: Associated Press

Ada J. Kenney