When she was 17, Ms. Rushen and her band won a competition that earned them a spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and she found herself swarmed by interested labels. She signed with Prestige, and she released three albums between 1974 and 1976, all while attending U.S.C. From the start, her music was of the fusion zeitgeist: Some of the five original tracks on her 1974 debut, “Prelusion,” were full of wound-up swing and acoustic instrumentation, but on others, Ms. Rushen doubled her Fender Rhodes keyboard with a woozy ARP synthesizer, while the drummer Ndugu Chancler tended to a slinky rock beat below.
By 1976, when she released her third and final Prestige album, “Shout It Out,” she was writing funky jazz-pop — in the mold of the Mizell Brothers or the Stanley Clarke-George Duke Band — and she was singing on top of it, in a wispy, beguiling, ingénue’s voice that betrayed her age in ways that her musicianship never did.
She had also become an in-demand side musician, playing with jazz-fusion titans like Jean-Luc Ponty, Stanley Turrentine and Donald Byrd. By the time she signed to Elektra she had a significant following among jazz audiences, and among black radio stations’ more open-minded listeners.
With Elektra, she found that her mixed identity confused even the executives who’d signed her. “Haven’t You Heard,” a coy disco burner from her 1979 album “Pizzazz,” reached No. 42 on the Billboard Hot 100, but when she delivered the follow-up, the label told her there were no hits on it. The album was “Straight From the Heart,” and its first track was “Forget Me Nots.”
“Sometimes they wouldn’t be ahead of the curve,” Ms. Rushen said. She and her management paid to promote the record themselves, and “Forget Me Nots” became a radio mainstay, hitting No. 23 on the Hot 100.
When things caught on, the benefits didn’t escape her. Learning from jazz history, Ms. Rushen had been diligent about claiming her publishing rights. “That was a very big thing,” she said. “To know that the mechanism was in place, if things caught on, for that catalog to be of value.”