To me, Onaje represented the heart and soul of the New York musician community during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Most of the writing you’ll find about him references his piano work with Kenny Burrell, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis ensemble, Woody Shaw, and other jazz greats. But during that same period, Onaje was putting together some incredible arrangements for R&B artists like Phyllis Hyman, Norman Connors, and Will Downing. He was also playing as a sideman on recording dates for everyone from Steve Grossman to Ronald Shannon Jackson. This speaks to his musical range: Onaje represented the true NY musician of that era, multifaceted, multitalented, unafraid to cross genres. Back then, you did it all—and you were expected to do it all at a high level. That was the scene, and Onaje epitomized it.
When thinking about writing this tribute, I knew I had to speak to one person in particular: Buddy Williams, another core musician from that scene. Buddy played on everything from straight-ahead Cedar Walton recordings to Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ for Jamaica.” Buddy remembers Onaje as a super-talented teenager in an early group called Natural Essence, which was first formed at the High School of Music & Art (the arts magnet school now part of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) and featured young musicians like T.S. Monk, Alex Blake, Noel Pointer, Earl McIntyre, and Nat Adderley Jr. Eventually Nat left the group and Onaje came in to replace him. Buddy said the thing that Onaje brought to that group—and in fact, every other group he ultimately played with—was an incredible musical sensitivity. He had the ability to create beautiful musical colors and his choice of harmonies, both in his playing and in his arrangements, was completely distinctive. In fact, Onaje, a name he adopted in the early ’70s, means “the sensitive one.”
As Buddy tells it, because Onaje could instantly connect to a piece of music, bandleaders would hire him for a recording session, present him with the music chart, and say, “Let’s do one take where you play what I wrote, then we’ll do a take where you play what you think is appropriate.” Buddy says nine times out of 10, the take they used was the one where Onaje “did his thing.” I’m sure eventually folks stopped writing for him and simply gave him an outline chart with just chords.
Two pieces of music to check out: Woody Shaw’s “The Legend of the Cheops” and Norman Connors’ “Betcha by Golly Wow” featuring Phyllis Hyman. That will give a small sense of Onaje’s range and musicality. On the Woody tune, from DownBeat’s 1977 Jazz Album of the Year Rosewood, he brings fire, depth, and sensitivity. It’s so clear that he’s listening to every note the soloists are playing and urging them on without making himself the issue. On the Connors/Hyman track, a Philly soul hit by the Stylistics becomes a completely different, completely wonderful vehicle for Ms. Hyman’s incredible voice. I remember hearing it on the radio back in the day and the only thing I wanted to know was, “Who arranged that?”
It was the era just before the Young Lions period of the early ’80s that, in a certain sense, stole some of the glory from the jazz community that preceded them. I’ve always felt that the excitement of the young crop of jazz musicians that burst on the scene at the beginning of the decade caused many to subconsciously marginalize killer musicians like George Cables, Ricky Ford, Louis Hayes, Stanley Cowell, Michael Carvin, Clint Houston, and many others. I would place Onaje Allan Gumbs high on the list of great musicians from that time who should be better known but unfortunately didn’t get all the accolades they deserved.
Onaje was an incredible musician as well as a gentle soul, who helped define an important era. Those of us who knew him celebrate him. And for those of you who aren’t aware, do yourself a favor, check out his work and then come join us in the celebration!