Onaje Allan Gumbs

Jazz pianist, producer, composer, and arranger, Onaje Allan Gumbs (1949 - 2020) was one of the music industry's most respected and talented collaborators. Known for his chameleon-like ability to move between the musical worlds of jazz, R&B, smooth jazz, and pop, he was a sought-after side-man and session musician. By the end of his illustrious career, Onaje had worked on over 900 recordings.

A partial list of his venerable collaborators and mentors includes Kenny Burrell, Norman Connors, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, Nat Adderly, Norman Connors, Billy Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Leroy Kirkland, Angela Bofill, Jean Carn, Cassandra Wilson, Marlena Shaw, Sadao Watanabe, Phyllis Hyman, Stanley Jordan, Denise Williams, Vanessa Rubin, Jeffrey Osborne, Eddie Murphy, Rebbie Jackson, and Gerald Albright.

Born in Harlem to Caribbean parents, Onaje developed a love of music through the film scores of Henri Mancini. His parents encouraged him to take piano lessons and sing in the local choir, and the curious mind quickly tracked down and fell in love with the recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as a huge array of pop records. By 1971, Gumbs was performing with Kenny Burrell, by way of guitarist and mutual friend, Leroy Kirkland. The band’s successes in Detroit begat further gigs and soon he was hired to play with the legendary Betty Carter, and eventually with Woody Shaw – whose band he performed for five years, including as its sometime music director. Soon after that, he was playing with Nat Adderley’s band.

In the years that followed, Onaje’s musical forays forked into funk, fusion, avant- garde, and smooth jazz disciplines. In 1988 he signed with Zebra Records, a subsidiary of MCA, releasing “That Special Part of Me,” which broke the Top 10 on Billboard’s jazz albums chart. Though his musical output has seemingly flowed along disparate veins, he remained adamant that his music be always melody-driven, that the listener even strive to move beyond categorization of musical style, saying: “One thing that I really feel is important in the music is that we get further away from being so concerned about what it is and start being concerned about what it does.

A dedicated educator, he taught at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan and the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut. About his commitment to sharing music with the younger generation, Gumbs said, “It’s important to talk to students about why we do this. Yes, we try and pay bills, but there is a reason we do music,” he said. “Our mission is to heal.”

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