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Mtume Founder, James Mtume – Remembered

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James Mtume, 76, a pioneer in jazz and R&B scenes, has died.  

As a trailblazer, Mtume was comfortable in genres such as alternative jazz, R&B, hip hop, and film scoring, using his artistry to bridge politics, culture, and the arts.

The cause of death has not been disclosed.

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James Mtume was born as James Forman on January 3, 1946, in South Philadelphia as a member of an illustrious musical family.

“I would say I had a very special childhood growing up,” said Mtume during a 2018 interview. “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 was 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, Mulana Kurenga bestowed him a new Swahili surname: “Mtume” which means messenger or prophet.

“While I was out in California, I decided to pursue my musical interests and I ended up coming back to the East Coast to help in the election of the first Black mayor of Newark, [N.J.], Ken Gibson. After the campaign, I began to work with all the jazz cats: Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard. Of course, I get that call one day from this guy called Miles Davis, and the rest is history.”

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In 1971, 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? 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.”

For Mtume, it was a lesson learned. His first stop after performing with Davis was composing “The Closer I Get to You,” a duet performed by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.

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“Juicy Fruit” by Mtume, released in 1983, helped him reach the height of his R&B career. With Tawatha Agee on lead vocals, the salacious track became a much-sampled tune, being used as the basis of at least 70 songs, including “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G., “Faithfully” by Faith Evans, “Let It Go” by Keyshia Cole and “The One” by Tamar Braxton. Mtume also had a top-five R&B hit with the single, “You, Me, and He”. 

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“The truth is you carry the DNA of everything you did into your new genre,” explained Mtume. “That jazz background helped me bring that influence into R&B. Someone said I was very drastic, and it may sound like that. ‘Juicy Fruit’ is very different from the other stuff I did, but there are definitely rail tracks [to the past].”

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