James Mtume, the Philadelphia R&B, jazz, and funk musician who played with Miles Davis, wrote and produced songs for Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, and Stephanie Mills, and is best known for the 1983 hit “Juicy Fruit” that was sampled by Notorious B.I.G., has died. He was 76.
Mr. Mtume’s death at his home on Sunday in South Orange, N.J., was confirmed Monday in a statement by his family. His publicist Angelo Ellerbee said the cause of death was cancer.
Mr. Mtume was born to Philadelphia musical royalty. His father was Jimmy Heath, the South Philly jazz saxophonist who died in 2020 at 93, and he was raised by Philly pianist James “Hen Gates” Forman, whom he also referred to as his father. “I don’t use the word stepfather,” he told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2018.
After moving to California to attend Pasadena City College in the 1960s on a swimming scholarship, he took the name Mtume — which translates from Swahili as “messenger” — while a member of the Black power US Organization.
As word of his death spread, Mr. Mtume was celebrated as a visionary in the music world and beyond.
“Mtume was SUPREME,” Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid wrote on Twitter. “Incredibly talented. Incredibly dedicated. Incredibly kind. Incredibly committed. Jazz & R&B musician of the HIGHEST caliber. Mentor. Griot. Soul Brother.”
Cornel West called him “a Renaissance man — soulful artist, courageous freedom fighter, and profound lover of Black people and oppressed folk!” Jazz sax great Sonny Rollins, who Mr. Mtume sat in with in California in the late ‘60s, wrote: “To Mtume, job well done. Hope to hang out with you some more.”
“In the pantheon of contemporary music, he rated high,” Philadelphia radio host and music business veteran Dyana Williams said Monday. Her friendship with Mr. Mtume spanned 50 years.
“He was revered by other producers. When you consider who he is in the history of music here in Philadelphia, he was the son of Jimmy Heath and the nephew of the Heath Brothers. He understood his legacy, and he touched on every genre of music. And he did it for an extended period of time, and not that many people have that level of sustainability.”
Mr. Mtume’s musical education began early. James Forman backed Charlie Parker and other jazz giants on piano, “so when I’m growing up, maybe at dinner one night, there’s Dizzy Gillespie. Another night there’s John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk,” he told the Tribune. “At the same time, I’m growing up listening to the birth of R&B and soul — there’s James Brown, the Temptations, Motown.”
Mr. Mtume started playing music when he was 10, he told The Inquirer in 2020, picking out R&B hits on the piano in his South Philly family home. He had his first professional gig in 1968 in Los Angeles, playing drums for Leon “Ndugu” Chancler for $40. “I don’t remember who was there, but I remember we got paid.”
In 1969, he recruited Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry, his father Jimmy Heath and uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath to play on the album Kawaida. In 1972, he released his first solo album, Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks.
Miles Davis saw Mr. Mtume perform at the Village Vanguard and hired him as a percussionist, starting with the 1972 album On the Corner, an experimental jazz fusion album derided by critics but now considered a classic. Mr. Mtume took Davis’ exploratory ethos to heart. Asked where he studied, his response was “M.D. University.”
Mr. Mtume played with Davis for five years, then formed the band Mtume with guitarist Reggie Lucas, who died in 2018. Mr. Mtume and Lucas, working with singer Tawatha Agee, wrote and produced for a number of artists in a style he called “sophistifunk.”
They scored hits with Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How To Love Me,” Flack and Hathaway’s “The Closer I Get To You,” Mills and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Two Hearts,” and Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which won a Grammy in 1981.
The band scored modest R&B hits with “Give It On Up (If You Want To)” and “So You Want To Be A Star” in 1980, before hitting big with “Juicy Fruit” in 1983 and “You, Me and He,” the next year.
In 1994, Bad Boy records executive Sean “Puffy” Combs sampled “Juicy Fruit” in Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” “Juicy Fruit” became one of the most sampled songs in history, used by Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Alicia Keys, among others.
The Mtume band split in the 1990s, but Mr. Mtume stayed productive. He scored the network TV drama New York Undercover, produced Mary J. Blige, K-Ci & Jojo, and R. Kelly, and was a co-host and political commentator on New York radio station WBLS-FM (101.3) for 18 years.
“Music is a unique art form,” Mr. Mtume said in a TED Talk in Cape May, N.J., in 2018. “Society is the thermostat that sets the temperature. Art and artists are the thermometers that reflect it.”
Mr. Mtume is survived by his wife, Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman, sons Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson, and daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, and Sanda Lee. Plans are being made for a memorial.