James Mtume, the Grammy award-winning percussionist/pianist, songwriter and activist whose music in jazz and R&B was just as stimulating as his long stint as a fiery informative radio host, died on January 9, at his home in South Orange, N.J. He was 76.
His death was confirmed in a statement by his family. His publicist Angelo Ellerbee said the cause of death was cancer.
“When I heard the news ‘MTUME’s gone’ I stopped what I was doing and began flashing back through my mind of images and remembrances of this musical genius-cultural-political media warrior,” said Imhotep Gary Byrd,
The Radio Griot. “From the first time we met-we were kindred spirits-brothers of the battlefield, where art & activism meet.”
The South Orange resident was entrenched in the African roots of music as a record producer, composer of film scores (“Native Son,” 1986) and music supervisor for television series like “New York Undercover.” When he wasn’t deep in music, he was sparking change as an activist in the community and his adopted city of Newark.
His activism began in 1966, as a student at Pasadena City College (on a swimming scholarship) where he became interested in the Black Power Movement and joined the US Organization, founded by Ron Karenga. Mtume means “messenger” in Swahili. The musician was part of the original group which celebrated the first Kwanzaa in 1966. Throughout the years he remained devoted to the holiday and hosted a major family Kwanzaa celebration at his house in New Jersey for over 50 years.
Mtume was able to broaden his fan base once he became a weekly (Sunday morning, 1995 to 2013) talk show host on “Open Line” dissecting politics, culture and music with his co-hosts radio personality Bob Slade and Dr. Bob Pickett, on WRKS-FM and later on WBLS-FM. The hard-hitting talk show was a jewel in the earlier tradition of committed legendary radio personalities Bob Law, Ken Riley and Imhotep Gary Byrd. Through his relationship with Minister Louis Farrakhan, he traveled to Cuba, Libya, Sudan and South Africa.
After college he arrived in Newark, where he met the poet and playwright, author and activist Amiri Baraka. They worked together to get Ken Gibson elected as Newark’s first Black mayor in 1972. That same year, Baraka organized the first Black National Convention, which was held in Gary, Indiana. At the time of his death, Mtume was serving on the organizing committee of the 50th anniversary Black National Convention, which is to be held at NJIT in Newark from Aug. 4 to 7. A memorial tribute to Mtume will be held at the convention.
Ironically, Baraka and Mtume both died on Jan. 9; Baraka in 2014.
Mtume was born James Forman on Jan. 3, 1946, in Philadelphia. His biological father was Jimmy Heath, the tenor saxophonist, who died in 2020 and his uncles were bassist and drummer Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath. He was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and stepfather James Forman, a former pianist in Charlie Parker’s band. As a youngster, musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk would stop by the family’s house for dinner, as Mtume recalled in a 2014 interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “I never was hip enough to know just how brilliant a situation that was, but what I did know about jazz musicians were they were an extraordinary group.”
As a teenager, Mtume’s early compositions were featured on his bassist uncle Tootie’s album “Kawaida” in 1969; the group included saxophonist Jimmy Heath, pianist Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Don Cherry with Mtume on congas. After college, he returned to the East Coast and began his professional career playing with musicians like pianist McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Miles Davis hired Mtume as a percussionist after seeing him perform at the Village Vanguard in 1972. He immediately recorded Miles’ jazz fusion album “On the Corner” and “Get Up With It,” during his five-year stint (1971-75). While with Davis, he released his first solo album, “Alkebu-Lan: Land of the Blacks” (Strata East Records, 1972).
After Davis he formed his band Mtume with guitarist Reggie Lucas, who died in 2018, and vocalist Tawatha Agee. Together they released five albums through 1986, injecting the bandleader’s innovative style he called “sophistifunk,” a blend of jazz, funk and R&B music. 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 gold with the “Juicy Fruit” album in 1983, the title song hit No. 1 on the R&B Billboard charts for eight weeks and the next year the album spawned another hit with “You, Me and He.”
In 1994, Bad Boy records executive Sean “Puffy” Combs sampled “Juicy Fruit” in Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.” “Juicy Fruit” has been sampled on more than 100 songs by Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, and Alicia Keys, among others. Ironically, the Wrigley Gum corporation filed a lawsuit against Mtume for using the name “Juicy Fruit” but the evidence didn’t support their claim.
The Mtume co-songwriting team and band members Lucas and Mtume enjoyed writing hits for other artists like Stephanie Mills’ top-ten single “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (for which they both received a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song Writing and Producing), Mills and Teddy Pendergrass’ “Two Hearts,” Phyllis Hyman’s “You Know How To Love Me,” and the Roberta Flack/Donny Hathaway hit singles “The Closer I Get to You” and “Back Together Again.” During an interview with the “Breakfast Club” some years ago Mtume noted, “I never created music for the awards, I made music for the rewards. We share the rewards when people like my music and share in my creativity.”
After his band Mtume, the percussionist seamlessly segued into his fruitful production and songwriting career, which included R. Kelly’s “Freak Tonight” and producing Mary J. Blige’s album, “Share My World.”
The first time Mtume heard hip hop he said to his son Faulu, “What is that music you’re listening to the piano is out of tune.” Once the songwriter sat down with his young son and they began listening together he got the flow. “My father was always in tune to what was coming next with the younger generation. He understood the sound of music was changing and sampling was the new form,” said Faulu. “Once he heard Public Enemy and Chuck D., he was all in, for him it was another expression of Black consciousness.”
As the music supervisor for the television police-drama series “New York Undercover” that aired on the Fox television network from 1994 to 1999, Mtume used this opportunity to close the music and cultural gap. He was able to fuse hip hop, jazz and funk under the Black music banner. “Music must address the look and feel of the show,” said Mtume during an interview in 1994. Mtume developed Natalie’s, the fictional nightclub in the show, into a hangout that helped bridge the generational music gap. New York Undercover was recently picked up by BET and is now running weekly. “I am glad it landed at BET,” said Faulu. “This is another way for my father’s contribution to be carried on.”
Mtume is survived by his wife, Kamili; two sons, Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson; four daughters, Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, and Sandra Lee; a brother, Jeffrey Forman, and six grandchildren. Due to COVID restrictions, the funeral will be private.
Condolences from around the world keep coming for actor and author Sidney Poitier. Without being redundant, what more can be said that watching his memorable movie “To Sir, With Love” made it clear. He was his character “Sir,” a charismatic teacher, who offered sincerity, wisdom, and advice; never judgmental, forever eloquent in his dress with thought-provoking words wrapped in a distinct proper accent demanding we listen without hesitation. It was Sir Sidney Poitier speaking, acting a role on a stage that commanded attention; his erect stature, his stroll that said he was in control, he was acting in real time for the entire world to witness in captivation and discuss. He, without raising a fist or shouting Black Power, was the Hollywood man of the hour, a Black man in America on a tightrope, persevering, decisive, the eternal mentor. We are better that Sir Sidney crossed our path, whether in person or on the big screen. The memories will live on.