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Pioneering R&B Percussionist and PCC Alum James Mtume Dead at 76

Mtume found himself drawn to the civil rights movement while a student athlete at PCC

Published on Monday, January 10, 2022 | 5:37 pm
James Mtume. [Facebook]

Legendary percussionist and Grammy Award winner James Mtume, who studied political science at Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship in the 1960s, has passed away. He was 76.

Book publisher Lisa Lucas, whose father, R&B and jazz guitarist Reggie Lucas, was Mtume’s production partner, confirmed the sad news on Twitter.

“So much loss. So much grief. Rest in power to Uncle Mtume. My late fathers partner in crime, the co-creator of the songs of my life (and about my birth!). He was an essential part of the life of the man who made me, therefore me, too. Gone now. He will be dearly, eternally missed,” Lucas’ tweet read.

Fatiyn Muhammad, host and executive producer of the WBLS radio show “Open Line,” which Mtume co-hosted for 18 years, also told New York’s Daily News about Mtume’s death Sunday.

“A lot of folks didn’t know that Mtume was so political and savvy in so many different areas,” Muhammad said. “I felt like the air got sucked out of the room. Mtume was a special individual.”

Renowned as a pioneer on the jazz and R&B scenes, Mtume was born James Forman in South Philadelphia in 1946 and raised in a musical  environment. His father was jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath, but he was raised by his stepfather, a Philadelphia jazz pianist named James “Hen Gates” Forman.

Jazz musicians frequented his parents’ home, but he learned to play the piano and percussion during his teenage years when he was pursuing athletics as a swimmer. He achieved the title of the first black Middle Atlantic AAU champion in the backstroke, and in 1966 entered Pasadena City College on a swimming scholarship.

“I ended up going up to Pasadena City College because the coach was a guy named Don Gamble, who was selected to be the next Olympic coach, so obviously I wanted to pursue that possibility of maybe getting to the next level,” Mtume said in a RBMA Radio Fireside Chat interview in 2014.

While attending PCC, Mtume found himself drawn to the civil rights movement and joined the US Organization, also called Organization Us, founded by Hakim Jamal and Maulana Karenga, who started the African American holiday Kwanzaa. It was Karenga that gave James Forman his new name, Mtume, which means “messenger” in Swahili. Mtume was part of that group that celebrated the first Kwanzaa in 1966.

In 1967 he co-edited The Quotable Karenga with Clyde Halisi, which has been called “the best expression of Karenga’s ideas.”

In Los Angeles, a little older and eager to learn more about music, Mtume would sit in during showcases by musicians like Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins. He took a weekend gig at a quaint jazz club where he’d “make money off the door,” but not a substantial wage.

“We wouldn’t start playing until 5 a.m.,” Mtume said in a Philadelphia Inquirer interview in 2020. “And during those hours, it was mostly pimps and hustlers in the audience.”

In the same interview, Mtume said he landed his first legitimate gig in 1968 at age 21, playing drums with the late drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler during a political campaign event.

Mtume left the US Organisation in 1969, moved back to the East Coast, and soon after started playing at clubs in Greenwich Village, where Miles Davis spotted him in 1971. He worked with Miles Davis for five years and went on to form the band Mtume.

It was in this band that he and Reggie Lucas both won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for writing and producing fellow R&B artist Stephanie Mills’ Top 10 hit, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” for which she also won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

Mtume is most noted for his 1983 song, “Juicy Fruit,” which was sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. for his first official single, “Juicy” in 1994.

An all-around musician, Mtume had a knack for infusing consciousness into his music and delving creatively into the topics of politics, culture, and art.

“Music is a unique art form,” he said during his 2019 TedTalk. “I mean all art is special, but music is unique. It’s the only art form I know that can touch you, but you can’t touch it. What do I mean by that? I can touch a sculpture, I can touch a painting, I can touch a book of poetry. How do you touch a note? How do you touch sound? It runs through your body.”

His father, Jimmy Heath, also wrote about him in the book  “I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath” and told about Mtume’s time with conga player Big Black in Los Angeles.

“That’s when he started playing congas,” says an excerpt from the book. “His first album with me was The Gap Sealer. Mtume was (and is) the most involved in the Afrocentric movement, and it was partly through him that I got interested in Afrocentric issues and culture and wrote songs like ‘Heritage Hum,’ a 6/8 Afro-feeling piece, and ‘Faulu,’ named after one of my grandchildren, Mtume’s second-born child.”

James Mtume is survived by his wife Kamili Mtume, brother Jeffrey Forman; sons Faulu Mtume and Richard Johnson; daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, and Sanda Lee; and grandchildren Sukari Mtume, Yamani Mtume, Craig McCargo, Mazi Mtume, Aya Mtume, and Jhasi Mtume.

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