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Onaje Allan Gumbs: Music, The Rhythm of Life


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By Onaje Allan Gumbs

This music we call "jazz" has represented the essence of who we are and who we can become. Music has always been the soundtrack to my life; from the time I was three, I could sing all of the lyrics to the old Eddie Fisher song "Oh My Papa" before I could even say a full sentence. And since becoming a professional musician, I have come to realize the positive effect that my music has had on people.

I say, "this music we call 'jazz'" because that word is too limited a term to really capture the essence and significant impact that the various forms associated with this idiom has had on the world. If anyone questions the connection between jazz and its origins in the black community, one need go no further than the ongoing history of both. There are strong parallels. Both have been ostracized from the mainstream. Even with the constant fight for acceptance and respect by society at large, there is still somehow a reverence held by others for both.

I feel that the true spirit of jazz, at least to the listener, is not to try to intellectualize on it, but to embrace it as we embrace the air we breathe and the water we drink, the cool breeze in the summer and the warm heat in winter. Too much time is spent trying to understand the musician's solo and the intricacies of the music and performance from an external standpoint as though one were trying to understand Einstein's theory of relativity. To truly understand jazz is to approach this music as an internal experience. I've watched many children listen to jazz. They are not concerned with whether the tune is in C# or that the tenor saxophonist executed his solo in the Dorian Mode. As a matter of fact, often times they don't even know what a tenor sax is. They simply find themselves dancing to the joy of the sounds that somehow need no translation or explanation. As we get older, all of a sudden this music needs to be understood, as though we have no clue, as though that experience as a child never happened. There has never been a need to intellectualize on the blues or R&B to "get it". In jazz however, it does become about that tune being in C# and the saxophonist playing in the Dorian Mode. What happened to the internal adventures of discovery we experienced as children listening to this music?

Music in general and instrumental jazz in particular is an audio representation and affirmation of the experiences and complexities of life that cannot be adequately expressed through words alone. Jazz represents, as I've heard by others such as Dr. Cornell West, the essence of democracy. If one was to truly "intellectualize" on jazz, one can look at the journey of democracy and the journey of jazz and see the parallels as I pointed out earlier parallels between the journey of jazz and the journey of the African-American. The spirit of Dixieland jazz had everyone expressing their views...but all at the same time. As time progressed, each player stated his view one at a time as in a true democracy, one man, one vote. In modern jazz, the soloist has that freedom to approach the subject at hand (the song) as he wishes. However in the end, everyone comes back together as they started, with a unified purpose.

To examine oneself honestly can also be seen as a benchmark of jazz. A player is naked to the world while on the stage or in the studio. Of course at the heart of jazz in its many incarnations is improvisation. It's here where the player and the listener are given that rare chance to truly connect with each other and to allow each to connect with their own inner essence.

Like jazz, life is not about always having a set route. But having purpose and sense of direction can yield boundless discoveries of enrichment.

Pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs has worked for more than 30 years as a professional jazz musician, with such artists as Lenny White, Buster Williams, Cecil McBee, Betty Carter, Nat Adderley and Woody Shaw. His two newest releases are Return To Form (Live at the Blue Note) (Half Note) and Remember Their Innocence (Ejano Music).

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