Onaje Allan Gumbs: Music Heard, and Felt
The very first records Gumbs purchased were Henry Mancini and Horace Silver. He enjoyed listening to Mancini's televisions scores for Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Through the radio, he started hearing Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Schifrin, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. Gumbs would tape music on his reel-to-reel recorder. Other times he would write down the names of players from the radio, then go out to get their records. "I was really into it. I was into the sounds. They got my attention, as opposed to trying to put things in a category. I just liked the music.
He first started playing along with Silver's records because, "He wasn't like Oscar Peterson, Gumbs says, chuckling. "He was very melodic, which is something I gravitated to, to make the solos as melodic as possible, regardless of the tempo.
Gumbs studied music at the State University of New York at Fredonia in upstate New York. He met an engineer who would let him work with concerts tapes he had made of his college performances in various settings, including some of his arrangements. At one point in 1971, Leroy Kirkland introduced him to renowned Detroit guitarist Kenny Burrell. The young pianist wound up giving a tape to Burrell. A recent graduate, he still wasn't confident in his abilities as a player, as much as a composer and arranger. Burrell told Gumbs he might get a phone call in five days or so.
The very next day, Burrell called and spoke to his mother.
"I thought that was odd. So I called him back and the first thing he said was, 'Do you want a gig?' I said, 'uh ... uh... yeah,' says Gumbs, chuckling at the recollection. "I was petrified, but I said yes. I wasn't going to say no. My first major gig was with Kenny Burrell at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. I got a chance to play with one of the masters, which was Major Holley on bass. Major, especially, was like an uncle. I was a kid. He really embraced me. I think it's a Detroit thing because I got that same kind of warmth and nurturing from Thad Jones. Later, I had a chance to sit in on Monday nights with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had the same nurturing feeling. He took you under his wing and really made sure you were OK. That was history for me to play with Major Holley and Kenny Burrell.
Not long after that, Gumbs met Norman Connors in Buffalo, who was looking for an arranger for an album that became Dark of Light (Buddah, 1973). He got the job to arrange the title track. "A lot of my arranging for strings and horns in my career came through Norman Connors, he says.
Gumbs reputation grew and he began landing gigs across musical genres. One stop was with the brilliant jazz singer Betty Carter. "In the early '70s, when I came back to New York, I found myself, along with Victor Lewis, doing a lot of gigs with Buster Williams. He was going to be doing some things with Betty. She didn't have a pianist at the time. So he recommended that I come in to play. I had a great time with Betty. There have been stories about how hard she was to work with and that kind of stuff, and kind of a tyrant on the bandstand. But we got along great. Never had any problems. I had the good fortune to record, not all the tunes, but a lot of the tunes on The Betty Carter Album (Verve) in 1976.
"Around that same time I was doing albums with Cecil McBee. I did Lenny White's first two albums Venusian Summer (Nemperor, 1975) and Big City (Nemperor, 1977), which was more rock oriented than anything else. It was the only album Al DiMeola and Larry Coryell did together. Larry Young was on organ. I didn't realize the enormity and the greatness of this man [Young], and I'm sitting in the same studio with him. The eclectic thing just seemed to be happening.
Gumbs recorded Moontrane (Muse, 1974) with Woody Shaw and Pinnacle (Muse, 1975) with Buster Williams. After Cannonball Adderley's death in the mid-'70s, his brother Nat put a band together and he landed the piano job through his friend, drummer Buddy Williams. He worked with Nat for about a year, "where I learned so much about presentation. His brother was a master of that. But I learned more being right under Nat. About the importance of talking with the people and carrying them on a journey. I learned it all from Nat.
Soon after, Shaw took him on as musical director for a tenure that included the Rosewood (Columbia, 1977) album, among others. "I spent almost two years with Woody, which was an eye-opening experience as far as how to put a set together and how to connect with the people and how the band connects with each other, he says. "That was something I learned from being with Woody Shaw.