CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Onaje Allan Gumbs 1949–2020

The pianist, composer, and arranger was at home in a wide range of styles

Onaje Allan Gumbs
Onaje Allan Gumbs

Onaje Allan Gumbs, a widely respected and sought-after jazz pianist, composer, and arranger who also cut deep inroads in the R&B, smooth jazz, and hip-hop worlds, died April 6 at Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, New York. He was 70.

His death was confirmed by Ricky Schultz, a jazz consultant and former record executive who had a long association with Gumbs. The keyboardist had been ill for some time, suffering a series of multiple strokes between 2010 and 2018.

Never a purist, Gumbs nonetheless had a fairly traditional jazz entrée: He apprenticed under veteran mentors including Kenny Burrell, Norman Connors, and Betty Carter, then in the working bands led by Woody Shaw and Nat Adderley. In the 1980s, Gumbs was as busy in R&B as in jazz, and his crossovers between the two genres were important steps in the development of smooth jazz. In a nearly 50-year career and a discography that ultimately topped 900 recordings, he worked with a dizzying variety of musicians and styles.

In a 2017 Harlem World magazine interview, Gumbs expressed frustration with stratified genre. “The compartmentalization of the music is detrimental to the listener,” he said, stressing that his own goal was simply “to write music that has a memorable melody.”

Allan Bentley Gumbs—he added the appellation “Onaje,” a West African name meaning “the sensitive one,” in the 1970s—was born September 3, 1949 in Harlem and grew up in Queens. His parents were both immigrants from the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean (his mother from Montserrat, his father from Anguilla). His mother instigated his first piano lessons when he was seven years old.

Shortly afterward, the avid young TV watcher found himself struck by two programs’ theme songs, Mr. Lucky and Peter Gunn, both of them based in jazz and both written by Henry Mancini. Gumbs would later refer to Mancini as “the number-one most influential composer in my music.” Drawn to what he heard, Gumbs began carefully examining the music of his favorite shows, discovering that they were often written by jazz figures such as Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, and J.J. Johnson. This was the direction he pursued, and by the time he was 15 Gumbs was playing jazz gigs in Queens.

Graduating from the High School of Music & Art (now Fiorello LaGuardia High School) in 1967, he then enrolled at SUNY Fredonia, where he found himself the university’s only African-American jazz musician. During summers he performed for dance classes in New York, by which means he taught himself to arrange and eventually received a commission from Billy Taylor, then music director for The David Frost Show, to write an arrangement for the show’s house band.

In high school, Gumbs had gotten to know New York session guitarist and producer Leroy Kirkland, who in 1971 introduced him to fellow guitarist Kenny Burrell. Burrell hired Gumbs to play with him on some dates in Detroit, which proved to be the pianist’s big break. He soon found work with bassists Larry Ridley and Buster Williams; drummer Norman Connors; the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, with whom he sat in; and Betty Carter, whose band was one of jazz’s great finishing schools. In 1974, trumpeter Woody Shaw invited Gumbs to join his band, where he remained for the next five years (working for a time as its musical director). He eventually joined cornetist Nat Adderley’s band as well, giving Gumbs two prominent working platforms.

Also in the late ’70s, Gumbs worked on several successful jazz fusion projects, including albums with Lenny White and Roy Ayers, establishing his bona fides with funk rhythms and electric keyboards and synthesizers. This opened multiple doors in the 1980s. On the one hand, Gumbs worked with avant-gardists Ronald Shannon Jackson and Bill Laswell; on the other, he toured with violinist and smooth-jazz pioneer Noel Pointer, vocalists Jean Carn and Phyllis Hyman, and guitarists Kevin Eubanks and Stanley Jordan. These were significant crossover successes, leading to Gumbs’ signing in 1988 with Zebra Records, a subsidiary of MCA, for two smooth-oriented albums: 1988’s That Special Part of Me and 1991’s Dare to Dream. (Onaje, a solo piano recording that Gumbs had made in 1976, was not released until 1994.)

Gumbs declined to make any distinctions between fusion, smooth, and avant-garde, however. The Top 40 radio he grew up on and the eclecticism of the TV composers he loved inspired him to embrace a wide spectrum of sounds and ideas. His discography also included Kurtis Blow, the eponymous 1980 debut by the trailblazing rapper, and Love’s Alright, a 1993 pop-soul album by comedian Eddie Murphy, as well as sessions with vocalist Carmen Lundy, saxophonist TK Blue, and Burrell.

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In 2003, Gumbs released a live recording from the Blue Note in New York titled Return to Form. Although he characteristically rejected the title’s premise, it inaugurated a long stretch that found him playing almost exclusively straight-ahead jazz. In addition to making three more albums under his own name, Gumbs began a fruitful collaboration with bassist Avery Sharpe, particularly in a core trio that also featured drummer Winard Harper.

Gumbs suffered a stroke that briefly debilitated his left side in 2010; the pianist recovered, attributing it to his Buddhist faith, and continued working. He suffered another stroke in 2015, then a series of them in 2018. A friend, producer Tyrone Corbett, organized a fund drive for Gumbs, including a GoFundMe and a benefit concert in Brooklyn. However, Gumbs never fully recovered.

He is survived by his wife, the former Sandra Wright, whom he married in 1975; a niece, Shameka Gumbs; and a nephew, Nero Gumbs. A sister from whom he was estranged also survives.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.