James Mtume, the jazz and funk musician who led the Mtume group and produced a number of American hits for other artists, has died at the age of 75.
His family confirmed the news to the Pitchfork music site. Lisa Lucas, the daughter of one of Mtume’s collaborators, said: “So much loss. So much sorrow. Rest in power to Uncle Mtume.
James Mtume was born James Forman in Philadelphia in 1946, and changed his name – Mtume means messenger in Swahili – after spending time with the black nationalist group US Organization in the mid to late 1960s, while studying at Pasadena in California.
A pianist and percussionist since his teens, Mtume was quickly drawn into the orbit of the great mid-century jazz players, starting with his uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath’s Kawaida album in 1969, which featured compositions by Mtume. performed by a group including Herbie Hancock, Don Jimmy Heath, Cherry’s father and Mtume.
Mtume moved to New York and performed alongside Miles Davis on his funk fusion album On the Corner and a number of other early 1970s recordings such as Dark Magus; other sessions during these years have come with Lonnie Liston Smith, Gato Barbieri, McCoy Tyner and more.
Joining forces with another member of Davis’ electric era, guitarist Reggie Lucas, the duo toured with Roberta Flack and formed their own group, Mtume, securing a contract with a great label in 1978. James Mtume playing keyboards and percussion and singing alongside vocalist Tawatha Agee, the band recorded two albums of cheerful and catchy funk before their most famous record, Juicy Fruit (1983). Her lead song topped the R&B charts and made it into the Top 50 of the pop charts, and her beat and vocals went on to form Notorious BIG’s support for Juicy.
Mtume and Lucas also became a songwriting and production duo, creating hits for Stephanie Mills, whose great disco song Never Knew Love Like This Before reached No. 6 in the U.S. in 1980 and won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance; and Flack and Donny Hathaway’s ballad duo, The Closer I Get to You (later performed by Beyoncé and Luther Vandross) which reached number 2. They had minor success with another duo, Mills’ Two Hearts and Teddy Pendergrass.
Mtume continued to work as a producer, earning credits on albums by Mary J Blige, R Kelly, and K-Ci & JoJo, and was also a DJ for New York station Kiss.
Mills was among those who paid tribute, saying, “He was so brilliant and an incredible musical mind. The working chemistry we had was second to none. I will continue to uplift you through our music. DJ Premier described Mtume as an icon, saying, “Thank you for your incredible contributions to music.”