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Onaje Allan Gumbs: Dare To Dream

La-Faithia White   By

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Jazz to me, is the closest thing to human conversation, because when we talk, we speak in jazz, meaning we improvise.
Onaje Allan Gumbs is a New York based pianist, composer, lyricist, and bandleader. Gumbs' professional career began in 1971 when Leroy Kirkland introduced him to Kenny Burrell, by sharing a demo tape. The next day Gumbs received a phone call to play with Burrell at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Onaje, (Gumbs) talks about the beginnings of his musical career, and the various artists, some who became friends, that he has collaborated with throughout those years. These artists have inspired him to become the visionary that he is today.

All About Jazz: When did you start your musical career?

Onaje Allan Gumbs: It started actually when I was three years old, meaning that I had learned a song on the radio by a singer named Eddie Fisher, a song called ""Oh My Papa,"" and at three years old I knew all the lyrics to the song, and I would go in the house singing the lyrics to this song.

We did a mass migration to the suburbs, to Queens, and at that point my mother thought I still had this musical inclination, that maybe I should take some lessons because ah, they tried my sister who is the eldest, and it did not take. So, then my brother did not get into it either, so I was the last one. I was the baby, so she tried to with me since I seemed to have that inclination.

AAJ: (laughter)

OAG: (laughter) So, I started lessons at seven years old, there was a neighborhood teacher who also was the organist at the church.

AAJ: Oh, do you remember his name?

OAG: Oh yeah, I remember her name: Mae Tolland. She passed away some years back, and at that time the community was not really fully integrated yet. It was mostly white people, and I was in St. Albans, Queens, so I started to take lessons and learned the piano. I stayed with her from the time I was seven until I was seventeen.

AAJ: Wow, a ten year stretch?

OAG: Yes, a ten year stretch, until I took lessons, I mean auditions to go to SUNY at Fredonia in Upstate, New York. I got another teacher for those four years by the name of T. Mitchell Paterson. It was an incredible experience.

AAJ: Incredible in what way?

OAG: I was the only black jazz musician for three years, out of the student body.

AAJ: How did that make you feel?

OAG: It felt awkward, but also I felt like, in some ways, a mascot. Some ways I felt honored, and privileged because I was drafted into the band. I did not even audition. They knew I was coming. They figured, you are a black kid, you are from New York, you play the piano, so you got the gig. I said "wait a minute, I just got here." They said "you will be fine, you will be fine."

As it turned out, we did a collegiate jazz festival and it was televised on channel thirteen, now it is called PBS, Public Broadcasting Service. A noted composer at the time named Gary McFarland watched it, and he wrote a letter to me and mailed it to the school. However, I did not see the letter because the director of the band decided to open the letter. It was addressed in my attention, "The pianist from the queens." The director thinking all boroughs started with "The."

Gary (McFarland) made a little joke and said "the pianist from the queens, so which means it was supposed to come to me directly. So, the director opened the letter, xeroxed the letter, and put the letter on the bulletin board. You know, of course at that time I thought it was an honor, but the man broke every postal law in the book. (laughter)

AAJ: (laughter) Yes, he did. How did your friendship blossom with Gary (McFarland) after that experience?

OAG: So, I got to know him. We became friends and he produced a couple of extraordinary albums with Donny Hathaway, Ernestine Anderson, and Grady. So I chose that tune as the title track of my album in 2007, and I was able to get actor, producer, singer, and dancer Obba Babatunde to sing the title track.

AAJ: How did that come about?

OAG: I have known Obba for over twenty years. He came back to New York to star in Chicago, the Broadway show, and he asked if I would play for his mother's 90th birthday, and I took a trio and we played. And, then my wife said "Obba's on Broadway." I said "no he is not, he did not tell me."

She showed me a billboard, no actually something on the internet. So, we talked and I asked him if he would sit in on a gig of mines at Lenox Lounge. in Harlem during Memorial weekend. So, he agreed that after the show he would come down and sit on a couple of tunes, and that went very well.

And then, I was coming out of my garage and I heard Ernestine (Anderson) singing the blues, and it made me think of the song she sang by Gary McFarland, ""A Sack Full of Dreams."" So I said, you know what, I think right now this tune is needed. I went down to a memorial tribute for John Hicks who passed, and the first person I run into was Grady Tate, who was the first person to sing this same song. I knew that I was supposed to do this, so I write Obba, and I emailed him.

I had to find the lyrics because I figured he does not know the song. He emailed me back saying, "Onaje, I am writing this with tears in my eyes. I have known this song since I was a teenager, and I have known Grady Tate not as a drummer but him singing this song. Last year I was asking people if they knew this song, and no one knew it. Now you are here asking me if I would do this song. The answer is YES!, with exclamations. So needless to say he came to the studio and did the vocals. I really made sure he was happy because this would be his first commercial recording besides a soundtrack or Broadway cast album. So I wanted it to be right, and I wanted his support.

Also, somehow I felt that I was repaying Gary McFarland's kindness from college by doing this song. Gary had a untimely death back in '71. The facts are still kind of hazy. I felt that somehow, it may sound (makes a spooky sound) strange, but someone is talking to me saying, "Onaje, you need to fulfill my mission." OK, I felt that I needed to do this song.

AAJ: It sounds like you have a strong connection to this song, can you explain that?

OAG: The thing is, about this song, usually when I redo a tune, a cover like I did with ""Betcha By Golly Wow"" with Phyllis Hyman, or ""Lady Of My Life"" by Stanley Jordan, or ""I Go Crazy"" by Will Downing, I usually do a makeover, so to speak by putting my stamp on it and it has a whole different vibe because I want the tune to stand out on it's own. Like I did with "" Didn't I, Blow Your Mind This Time"" once with my record and another time for Norman Connors and Lisa Fischer singing the title track. Again, a big makeover. This tune spoke to me so highly that I did not want to do anything to it. I just kind of left it as simple as it was written.

I did something called a modulation to another key in the middle of the song on my solo. For the most part, I kept it very simple. I did not change the chords, I did not augment the chords, I did not augment the harmonies. I just kept it simple. I wanted the message to get out, I did not want any distractions with the chords and you miss the words, because the words mean a lot. There are other tunes on the record where you can come off with the chords. I wanted this tune to be right there in your face, and be simple and direct. This record is very important to me because of what I did in the record. Most of my records, I have done all of the writing but there are only three tunes of mines on this record.

AAJ: What were your feelings when ""A Sack Full of Dreams"" was one of the picks for Jazz Improv Magazine?

OAG: I felt really good, and it is funny because it was listed alphabetically, so I came right before Herbie Hancock who had just received three Grammy nominations. So I felt good to be alongside him. He is a hero as well as a friend.

AAJ: Have you played with Herbie before?

OAG: We use to do some things with Norman Connors, matter of fact my very first recording assignment was composing, and arranging a tune called ""Dark of Light"" and although I did not play on it, I conducted the song and Herbie was the keyboardist. Then we did some stuff together for the album Love From The Sun. but that particular song did not make that record. It made the next record which was called Saturday Night Special.

AAJ: Onaje, you have worked with so many notable artists in your career. Can you talk about your working relationships with Stanley Jordan, Norman Connors, and Lisa Fischer? What do these relationships mean to you?

OAG: Well, Norman was the first person that really allowed me to expand on what I could do as a composer, as a pianist, and an arranger. Some of my best arrangements came through working with Norman.

At the time, back in the seventies, Norman was very much, kind of like a revolutionary, he had very forward thinking about what could be put on an album and I think a lot of people had to catch up with him, but the fact that he allowed artists that did not have the big names, gave them a chance to show him what they could do.

AAJ: Did he do that with Phyllis Hyman?

OAG: Yes, and Magic Touch. with Stanley Jordan. I did two albums with Stanley but Magic Touch. really came as a result of the late Max Gordon, who use to be the owner of the Village Vanguard. before he died, and of course his wife Lorraine Gordon then took over. I came into the club just to say hello, and next thing you know he has me playing for Stanley's debut performance at the club. We did ""Lady of My Life"" on the set and his manager at the time did not call after the week was over for me to play on the record.

We had done the song kind of like a cover tune and Al Di Meola was the producer and Al said "It sounds nice but all that is missing is Michael Jackson's voice. He did not feel anything special, so that is why I went back into the studio and I came up with the introduction and the vibe of the tune. The rest is history, as they say.

And Lisa Fischer, that was a thing. where okay she is by far, to me, one of the most incredible singers. She can go toe to toe with any top, it may be a controversial statement, but she can go toe to toe with any top female vocalists out there. I am talking about top.

AAJ: Like Mariah Carey, and Alicia Keys.

OAG: Yes, Mariah, and Alicia. Lisa has no diva thing around her, her idea of going to get food was ordering some french fries. It was very very much an enjoyable situation to work with Lisa always. I wish I could work with her more.

AAJ: Onaje, some people are intimidated when it comes to playing jazz, and even listening to jazz. Can you explain to me, what jazz means to you, and if jazz is just a form of expression?

OAG: Jazz to me, I have to be honest, the term itself is not my favorite. Jazz to me is the closest thing to human conversation, because when we talk, we speak in jazz. Meaning we improvise, we speak off the top of our heads.

And the spirit of jazz is just that. What is most important, for a player, is what he/or she is feeling, the emotions of what they are playing. And, when that feeling is transported to the listener. The music is about the listener, not about the artist. It is about your commitment to connect with an audience member, and if it is not that, then you would not need people in a club. You need people in a club so they can hear the artist, and that artist will be able to then connect with the listener through the music. The listener will then know something about what makes the artist tick.

Even without words, although words can be important in the art of engagement, engaging the audience to connect with you. Many times you get on the stage and you do not say anything, you are like cutting off, at that connection. Especially if you are an instrumentalist. As an instrumentalist, you are relying on the people using their imaginations, and sometimes after a hard days work, that is the last thing an artist wants to have to deal with, trying to come up with some scenario in their brain.

The aspect of learning jazz, I feel all you need to do is look at a child. A child will pick up jazz in a minute, with no explanation. I was eight years old when I got into jazz. I would watch Peter Gunn on television, that is how I got into jazz. I did not come from a musical family. I think people put too much into trying to understand it, as opposed to really trying to enjoy it and digest it. Jazz is about engaging the music, enjoying yourself. If that happens, if you can do that, then you like jazz. Not liking jazz, does not necessarily mean you do not understand it, but something touched your life. Your life will know beyond your intellect.

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