James Mtume’s musical destiny was ineluctable—his father was the great saxophonist Jimmy Heath, his uncles drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and bassist Percy Heath—but pedigree was only a singular ingredient to his productive odyssey. To this he added his own blend of musical genres, political connections, and cultural embodiments. He joined the ancestors on January 9. He was 76.
Besides noting a few biographical facts, and noting that he was born James Forman on January 3, 1946 and raised by his parents James and Bertha Forman, the statement from the family revealed a little known fact about him. “He pursued training as a swimmer while attending Pasadena City College and was recruited for the 1968 Olympics but decided to instead take a different direction and joined the cultural nationalist organization US, founded and led by Maulana Karenga.”
During a symposium in 2018 at MoMa where he shared a panel with Professor Michael Dinwiddie, Rich Medina, and Sadie Barnette on a discussion of Motown’s series of spoken word records on the Black Forum label, Mtume said: “I was a member of US…and during the recording we were thinking about John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ that was inspired by the four little girls killed in Birmingham.” The date he was referring to was Amiri Baraka’s “It’s Nation Time,” in which he composed “Chant” for the recording.
After his tenure with US, keeping his adopted name that in Swahili means “Messenger,” he shifted towards music, the family statement continued, and in the early 1970s joined the Miles Davis ensemble as a percussionist. On Davis’ “In Concert” (1973) Mtume combines his rhythmic bursts with the guitars of Pete Cosey and Reggie Lucas, a moment the late Greg Tate praised in his collection of essays “Flyboy in the Buttermilk.” From the Miles milieu to perform with other significant others was easy, particularly in forging his own group, Mtume Umoja Ensemble. By the mid-seventies, he and his partner in rhyme and rhythm, Reggie Lucas, began shaping a musical concept they called “Sophistifunk,” a blend of soul, jazz and funk.
In collaboration with Lucas came a fount of funk and smooth, lyrical pieces such as “The Closer I Get to You,” and the version by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway was a favorite for many lovers. Equally popular and musically fulfilling was their song “You Know How to Love Me” recorded by Phyllis Hyman and “Never Knew Love Like this Before” by Stephanie Mills. “In the early 1980s Mtume formed the group that bore his name and created five bestselling albums as well as 11 R&B hits, including the #1 multi-platinum smash “Juicy Fruit” (1982) and the Top 3 hit “You, Me and He” (1984). It was during this time that Mtume took his “Sophistifunk” sound and “combined it with the emerging technology of drum machines and synthesizers,” the family statement continued.
To some degree he had already created visually and cinematically infused music when by the 1990s it became a more concrete endeavor with soundtracks for films and television shows, very much like the one he did for “Native Son,” as well as serving as musical adviser for the TV series “New York Undercover.” There was still time and energy for his political commitments and radioactive commentaries as a host on NYC’s WBLS-FM’s Open Line, where his voice resonated thoughtfully for 18 years. “The millennium found Mtume sharing his knowledge regarding the business of music in arenas such as the Red Bull Academy in Tokyo and TED Talks,” the family statement added.
Along with the songwriting, Mtume had words for other projects, and I was pleased to join him in providing words for photographer Jules Allen’s book “Double Up.” “The most challenging proposition for an artist is finding difference in the familiar,” he wrote of Allen’s perceptions. “It is that pursuit that separates those who drink from the fountain of uncut creativity and those who are satisfied to merely sip from it.” Mtume was a deep thinker and drinker from this fount of creativity. And as he said at the MoMa event when asked about theory and practice, he replied, recalling the Occupy Wall Street movement: “You have to be ready to suffer, ready to give up some blood, if you’re gonna bring about change.”
James Mtume is survived by his wife Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman; his sons Faulu Mtume; Eshe King, Ife Mtume, Sanda Lee; grandchildren Sukari Mtume, Yamani Mtume, Craig McCargo, Mazu Mtume, Aya Mtume, and Jhasi Mtume.