James Mtume’s Unsung Merely Scratches The Surface Of His Legacy

For those that came up in the 1960’s, they may remember James Mtume for his Umoja ensemble and his avant-guarde jazz album, Alkebu-Lan, Land of the Blacks. 

For those that came up in the ’80s, they may remember the classic love triangle slow jam, “You, Me and He” or his smash pop hit, “Juicy Fruit,” or his work as a composer for the soundtrack for the groundbreaking police show, “New York Undercover.” 

(Peep the video below, where Mtume stopped into The Shadow League’s offices to talk about his role in shaping the sound and feel of the television show)

Mtume On How New York Undercover’s Iconic Music Almost Never Happened

Grammy Award-winning musician, James Mtume tells the story of how Dick Wolf never approved New York Undercover’s theme song that we know and love.

But Mtume is so much more. A songwriter, talented percussionist, activist, producer and band leader, this Sunday’s episode of TV One’s Unsung merely begins to touch the surface of his legacy and how he is truly underappraciated.

He was born in Philadelphia at the height of the jazz era. With musicians like McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane, Mtume was influenced both by the militant political scene at the time with leaders like Malcolm X, and the jazz scene where musicians like Dizzy Gillepsie, John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk would be at his house for dinner. 

He epitomizes how these worlds intersected with his insistence on musicianship that inspires and represents African culture, improvising, constantly redefining himself and his music, and being outspoken on racism in the music industry. 

His stepfather, James Forman, was a stand-out keyboard player. His biological father, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, was an arranger/composer and one of the most important influencers in jazz. Jimmys brother Percy Heath was a bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet and the third brother Albert Tootie Heath played percussion. The three formed the Heath Brothers Band in the 1970s. 

Tootie gave Mtume his first conga when he was thirteen. He soon taught himself how to play the piano. 

Mtume – You, Me And He

Music video by Mtume performing You, Me And He. (C) 1984 Sony BMG Music Entertainment http://vevo.ly/B75tCB

When Mtume was 14 years old, his father took him to see Elijah Muhammad speak. Malcolm X opened the event with some remarks as well. Mtume was blown away by Malcolm and became deeply influenced by him. 

Later, when he moved to Los Angeles to attend Pasadena College on a swimming scholarship, he would hear speeches at Watts Cafe by activists such as Stokely Carmichael, Imamu Baraka, and Maulana Karenga.

Karenga gave him the name Mtume, which means messenger, and he began playing percussion, practicing six hours a day and performing in clubs in Los Angeles. 

When he was told by a musician, “You wont know how good you are until you go to New York,” he did just that and ended up playing with his idols, pianist McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. 

The TVOne Original Series: Unsung feat. Mtume

The TVOne Original Series: Unsung feat. Mtume and Mtumes lead singer, Tawatha Agee.

But it was when he got a call from his kindred spirit that changed the way he thought about music and the way he looked at the world. 

The raspy voice on the other end of the phone asked, What are you doing for the next nine months? 

It was Miles Davis.

Mtume didnt believe it, so he laughed and hung up on him. 

Miles called back, cursed him out and Mtume ended up playing percussion with him, becoming the heart and soul of the band on Miless European tour and appearing on his seminal album, On the Corner.

Mtume – Sugar Free

Uploaded by Junior Vega on 2009-09-13.

What Miles taught him, he would carry with him for the rest of his life. Miles never looked back when he was finished with a musical idea. That inspired Mtume to spread his wings to pop music, funk, R&B, producing, songwriting and creating his own band, Mtume. 

Along with guitarist Reggie Lucas, who also played with Miles, they formed a writing partnership and wrote Roberta Flacks duet with Donny Hathaway, The Closer I Get to You. They would go on to write hits for Phyllis Hyman, Stephanie Mills, and many artists. 

Roberta Flack ft. Donny Hathaway – The Closer I Get To You

Hope you enjoy one of my favorite love song.

By the 1980’s Mtume thought he needed a new sound, so he dismantled the group and created a new one. Experimenting with electronic percussion, they recorded his third album, Juicy Fruit. 

Jazz purists were critical of the sound. The record label didnt want to put the title track out because they thought the lyrics were too risqu. Juicy Fruit would become a number 1 hit on the R&B charts for 8 weeks. The sample would be used later to help launch the career of the Notorious B.I.G.

Mtume would go on to score the police drama, NY Undercover, one of the first police shows to have a black and Latino lead who dressed and spoke with the hip hop slang of the time. He created new music for the shows fictional club, Natalies. The show caught the attention of hot artists of the 1990’s, and Mtume began making new music for these artists like Mary J. Blige and DAngelo

Mtume – Juicy Fruit

Music video by Mtume performing Juicy Fruit. (C) 1983 Sony BMG Music Entertainment http://vevo.ly/VaN5GV

Mtume never wanted to stand still musically. He has continued to adapt to the times and constantly stretch himself, conjuring the creative spirit of Miles by always looking ahead. 

Hopefully, his Unsung episode will edify folks that don’t fully appreciate how much of a creative, musical and artistic treasure he truly is, and the significance of what he’s added to the culture for over fifty years and counting.

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