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Jazz icon James Mtume dead at 75

Beloved jazz musician James Mtume has died, aged 75. No cause of death has been confirmed at the time of publication, nor is it known if he was suffering from ill-health. Pitchfork magazine received confirmation from Faulu Mtume about his father’s death.

Born James Heath Jr., Mtume was the son of a saxophone player (Jimmy Heath) and gravitated to music from an early age. Mtume’s stepfather, James ‘Hen Gates’ Forman, was a popular piano player in Philadelphia, and Mtume grew accustomed to meeting jazz luminaries stepping into his house.

“Just imagine, you’re nine, ten years old and there’s Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins,” Mtume told Red Bull Music Academy in 2014. “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. Witty, funny. There was nothing like sitting around a table of jazz musicians.”

Mtume was a well-respected craftsman and later worked with Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Gato Barbieri, Ramsey Lewis and Miles Davis. He enjoyed a long working relationship with Davis, and On the Corner shows the two men performing together in great union and harmony.

Branching out by himself, Mtume released the jazz fusion album, Kiss This World Goodbye, before founding the R&B hybrid unit Mtume in 1978. Their jaunty ‘Juicy Hit’ was a sizeable hit and enjoyed a second wind when Notorious B.I.G. sampled it on ‘Juicy’. Furthering his credentials, Mtume was a prolific songwriter, with Reggie Lucas, Mtume co-wrote Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s ‘The Closer I Get to You’ and Stephanie Mills’ ‘Never Knew Love Like This Before’.

In a statement on Twitter, Lisa Lucas paid tribute to her “honorary uncle”, stating: “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 essential part of the life of the man who made me,” she elaborated. “Therefore me too. Gone now. He will be dearly, eternally missed”.

Philadelphia radio host Dyana Williams has also committed her thoughts to print: “He was revered by other producers. When you consider who he is in the history of music here in Philadelphia, he was the son of Jimmy Heath and the nephew of the Heath Brothers. He understood his legacy, and he touched on every genre of music. And he did it for an extended period of time, and not that many people have that level of sustainability.”

Mtume is survived by his wife Kamili Mtume; brother Jeffrey Forman; sons Faulu Mtume, Richard Johnson; and daughters Benin Mtume, Eshe King, Ife Mtume, Sanda Lee.