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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.

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