James Mtume, the R&B and jazz percussionist, recording artist, and producer best known for the 1983 smash “Juicy Fruit” and his work with Miles Davis and other top jazz musicians, has died at the age of 76. The news was confirmed by his son to Pitchfork, among other sources; no cause of death has been revealed as yet.
Mtume’s affiliation with Davis began with 1972’s funk-driven “On the Corner,” and he also worked with jazz greats such as pianist McCoy Tyner, trumpeter Art Farmer, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith Jr., saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Pharoah Sanders, and even Duke Ellington.
In his solo music, Mtume ran the gamut from disco to avant-garde jazz, as well as dramatic compositions for television (New York Undercover) and film (Native Son). “Juicy Fruit,” the biggest hit from his self-titled R&B group, has been sampled countless times, most famously on Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “Juicy.” Mtume also produced and co-wrote hit singles for Stephanie Mills (“Never Knew Love Like This Before”) and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (“The Closer I get To You”) in collaboration with his musical partner and fellow Davis alum Reggie Lucas.
James Mtume was born into jazz royalty in Philadelphia as the son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Raised by his stepfather, Philly jazz pianist James Forman, the young musician grew up with activist roots (he saw Malcolm X speak as a child) and moved to California in the mid-‘60s on a swimming scholarship. There, he joined the Black empowerment group, the U.S. Organization (whose founder, Maulana Karenga created the holiday Kwanzaa), and recorded his earliest solo albums starting with Alkebu-Lan – Land of the Blacks.
After returning to the East Coast, Mtume (whose name translates as “messenger” in Swahili), played with jazz band leaders such as McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard as well as recording with his uncle, Albert “Tootie” Heath on the Kawaida album. The artist also collaborated with the highly influential writer and poet, Imamu Amiri Baraka, on his 1972 album, It’s Nation Time – African Visionary Music. Around this time Mtume joined Miles Davis’ band for a four-year stint that included some of the jazz legend’s most adventurous material, including “Dark Magus” and “Pangaea.”
In 1978 Mtume formed his self-named “sophistifunk” R&B-jazz ensemble with Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee, releasing the albums Kiss This World Goodbye (1978), In Search of the Rainbow Seekers (1980), Juicy Fruit (1983), You, Me and He (1984, also the title of their second-biggest single), and Theater of the Mind (1986).
Mtume also released his first soundtrack, Native Son, in 1986. Since the film’s release 35 years ago, the soundtrack has been a favorite of cratediggers and hip-hop producers: the album’s “Bigger’s Theme” was sampled prominently by Kool Moe Dee (“I Like It Nasty”) and Grand Puba (“Back It Up,” with Kid Capri), and both underground rapper Lace da Boom (“Glory”) and the influential Japanese hip-hop group Shakkazombie (“The Day the Sky Was Regained”) reimagined “Theme From ‘Native Son’” for their respective tracks.
After his band split in the late 1980s, Mtume maintained his profile in activist causes as well as music, working as a producer on such projects as Mary J. Blige‘s 1997 Share My World album, K-Ci and Jo-Jo’s Love Always, and R. Kelly’s Freak Tonight, along with working as an on-air radio personality for New York City’s KISS 98.7 FM.
An active advocate for young musicians, executives, and activists, Mtume said in a 2014 Red Bull Music Academy lecture, “I believe that every generation produces its own music, and actually, this is one of the most fertile times ever for young artists, with the Internet and social media. But we are reaching the point of considering ‘How are we defining and redefining originality?’ One of the things that is missing is people having their own fingerprint on their music. And that’s the most important thing — having your own voice.”