James Mtume, the jazz and funk musician who fronted the group Mtume and produced a number of US chart hits for other artists, has died aged 75.
His family confirmed the news to music website Pitchfork. Lisa Lucas, the daughter of one of Mtume’s collaborators, said: “So much loss. So much grief. 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 in Pasadena in California.
A pianist and percussionist since his teens, Mtume was soon drawn into the orbit of major mid-century jazz players, beginning with his uncle Albert “Tootie” Heath’s album Kawaida in 1969, which featured Mtume compositions played by a group including Herbie Hancock, Don Cherry and Mtume’s father Jimmy Heath.
Mtume moved to New York, and played alongside Miles Davis for his funk fusion album On the Corner and a number of other early 1970s recordings such as Dark Magus; further sessions in these years came with Lonnie Liston Smith, Gato Barbieri, McCoy Tyner and more.
Joining forces with another member of Davis’s electric-era band, guitarist Reggie Lucas, the pair toured with Roberta Flack and formed their own group, Mtume, securing a major label deal in 1978. With James Mtume playing keys and percussion, and singing alongside vocalist Tawatha Agee, the group recorded two albums of joyous, driving funk before their best known record, Juicy Fruit (1983). Its title track topped the R&B chart and crossed over into the Top 50 of the pop charts, and its beat and vocal later formed the backing for the Notorious BIG’s Juicy.
Mtume and Lucas also became a production and songwriting duo, creating hits for Stephanie Mills, whose sweeping disco song Never Knew Love Like This Before reached No 6 in the US in 1980 and won a Grammy for best R&B performance; and Flack and Donny Hathaway’s ballad duet The Closer I Get to You (later covered by Beyoncé and Luther Vandross) which reached No 2. They had a minor hit with another duet, Two Hearts by Mills 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 paying tribute, saying: “He was so brilliant and an amazing music mind. The work chemistry we had was second to none. I will continue to lift you up through our music.” DJ Premier described Mtume as an icon, saying: “Thx for your incredible contributions to music.”