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.
At the same time, the versatile Gumbs was also part of the Noel Pointer band, and toured with Pointer after his first GRP album. "I was playing electric piano and the whole nine yards. Then I'd get called by Woody and I'm back to straight ahead again. There was always an overlap. Folks who heard me with Woody, even though it was a straight-ahead tune you would hear some funk in there. Maybe in the comping I did behind Carter Jefferson or Woody. And with Noel, there might be some other kinds of chords I would play that would come from my straight-ahead discipline, says Gumbs.
"For me, it's not like I went from one thing to another. Everything was an extension of the other. It's like different recipes I adapted to the situation I was in. It was natural for me to flip the script, so to speak, and go from one to the other. It was also challenging in that I always wanted to see what I could do. How can I bring the best to this situation, that situation? It feels great to do that.
Gumbs is rightfully proud of his accomplishments in all those idioms. "I feel very honored about 'Betcha By Golly, Wow,' for Phyllis Hyman. By this time I had done about three albums with Norman [Connors]. He asked me to arrange this song, which I really didn't want to do. But he was adamant. The song was already done with Jean Carn singing. But she got signed at Philly International, which bumped her from doing any other vocal with any other label. He still was determined to do this song. He found Phyllis Hyman. The rest is history.
"It still stands as one of her signature features, Gumbs continues, "which I feel honored between 'Betcha By Golly Wow' and another song she did called 'The Answer is You,' and the instrumental I did with Stanley Jordan in 85, 'Lady in My Life.' They pretty much stand as signature songs... I feel honored that I was one of the few who can say they contributed a signature arrangement or a signature sound for certain artists.
And well he should. But past laurels don't automatically mean continued success in a climate where music has become too much commerce and too little art.
"A lot of the situation with the music industry has changed. It's a different animal now, where you have club owners who are not like the owners of the past, the Max Gordons who loved the music. It's not like that anymore. It's like, 'How much money can you make?' It's not about the music anymore, says Gumbs. "It makes it very hard for artists to do that and they have to end up doing other things. That's why, even early on, I wanted to do more than just be a pianist. I wanted to be an arranger, I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be a composer. I wanted people to record my music, where I might not be involved as a pianist; where I can produce a record and I don't play.
"The industry overall, is suffering, continues Gumbs. "It's because music has taken a back seat to everything, the money, the theatrics and everything else. Even talent. You don't have to be talented to get out front. What happens is really talented people get left behind.
Gumbs feels good about Sack Full of Dreams and its potential to make some noise. "I think it's some of my best playing as a leader, he says. "Looking back, I feel good about the work I've done, especially with Woody and some people. But for myself as a solo artist, this album right here lays some of the work that I always wanted to do as a performer on my own title.
There is not yet a tour planned around the music, but Gumbs is hopeful it can happen. But he's already looking ahead to other projects, including a duet project with South African pianist Hotep Galeta, and possibly a tour with vocalist Gino Stitson of Camaroon, who also has an album out on the 18th & Vine label.
The humble and compassionate Gumbs remains resolute, "I can't give up because I know I have a mission with my music. As I know other artists who also have a mission.
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Sack Full of Dreams (18th & Vine, 2007)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Remember Their Innocence (Ejano, 2005)
Clifford Adams, Love's Gonna Get You (Orpheus, 2004)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Return to Form (Half Note, 2003)
Ronald Shannon Jackson, Puttin' on Dog (Kitting Factory, 2000)
Ronny Jordan, A Brighter Day (Blue Note, 1999)
Pieces of a Dream, In Flight (Manhattan, 1993)
Carmen Lundy, Moment to Moment (Arabesque, 1992)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Dare to Dream (MCA, 1991)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, That Special Part of Me (Zebra, 1990)
Billy Cobham, Power Play (GRP, 1986)
Buster Williams, Dreams Come True (Buddah, 1978)
Woody Shaw, Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia/Legacy, 1978)
Woody Shaw, Rosewood (Columbia/Legacy, 1977)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Onaje (Steeplechase, 1976)
Noel Pointer, Hold On (United Artists, 1976)
Betty Carter, The Betty Carter Album (Verve, 1976) Norman Connors, Saturday Night Special (Buddah, 1975)
Lenny White, Venusian Summer (Nemperor, 1975)
Roy Ayers Ubiquity, A Tear To A Smile (Polydor, 1975)
Woody Shaw, Moontrane (Muse, 1974)
Norman Connors, Dark of Light (Buddah, 1973)
Top Photo: Rick Gilbert
All Other Photos: Courtesy of Onaje Allan Gumbs