Onaje Allan Gumbs, Musically Ecumenical Pianist, Dies at 70

Onaje Allan Gumbs, Musically Ecumenical Pianist, Dies at 70

Onaje Allan Gumbs, whose expansive talents as a pianist, composer and arranger made him a trusted right-hand man for stars across musical styles, died on April 6 in Yonkers, N.Y. He was 70.

Linda Bannerman-Martin, his sister-in-law, said the cause had not yet been determined.

By his mid-20s, Mr. Gumbs was already a close collaborator with, among others,  Phyllis Hyman, the soul singer; Norman Connors, a jazz drummer who crossed over into R&B stardom; Stanley Jordan, the fusion guitarist; and Woody Shaw, the post-bop trumpeter.

Mr. Gumbs’s devotion to musical ecumenism was borne out not only by his extensive résumé but also by the various albums he made under his own name. They ranged from luminous solo piano efforts like “Onaje” (1977) to “That Special Part of Me” (1988), which featured a mix of kinetic dance music and lilting balladry and broke the Top 10 on Billboard’s jazz albums chart, to the straight-ahead jazz of “Return to Form” (2000), recorded live at the Blue Note in New York.

“One thing that I really feel is important in the music is that we get further away from being so concerned about what it is and start being concerned about what it does,” he said in a 2001 interview. “We spend so much time separating the music.”

His piano style was remarkable for its ability to interweave not only stylistic influences, but emotional content too. Reviewing a 1977 performance by the Art Pepper Quartet for The New York Times, the critic John S. Wilson praised Mr. Gumbs’s “light‐fingered, driving attack” for its “balance between airiness and intensity.”

Allan Bentley Gumbs was born in Harlem on Sept. 3, 1949, one of three children of Caribbean parents. His mother, Edna (Dowdy) Gumbs, hailed from Montserrat; his father, Nichols — who served in the military before becoming a New York City police officer — was from Anguilla.

His brother died before him, and he was long estranged from his sister. He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Sandra (Wright) Gumbs.

Young Allan became transfixed by Henry Mancini’s music after hearing the theme songs to the TV shows “Peter Gunn” and “Mr. Lucky.” They planted the seeds for his future interest in composition, which his piano teacher encouraged. He sought out films that Mr. Mancini had scored — even the “horrible” ones, he later said.

“I became kind of an expert on his musical style, and his way with horns, and how he used it dramatically in film,” Mr. Gumbs said. He discovered jazz on the radio, and he eagerly dug through his older sister’s record collection, which exposed him to a wide spectrum of pop music.

At the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, he played in a band alongside the brothers Andy and Jerry González, who would become prominent jazz musicians themselves.

He went on to the State University of New York, Fredonia, where there was no jazz program but he became a standout member of the student-run jazz ensemble. When Buddy Rich’s band came to perform at the college without a piano player, Mr. Gumbs filled the open spot. Immediately impressed, Mr. Rich stepped to the microphone midconcert to offer him a job. Mr. Gumbs politely declined.

Instead he came under the wing of other stars, particularly the pianists Billy Taylor and Herbie Hancock, whom he had idolized for years before they became his mentors.

After graduating from Fredonia, Mr. Gumbs claimed conscientious objector status to avoid being drafted into the armed forces. Mr. Taylor wrote a letter to the draft board on his behalf. “Allan is a very sensitive person,” Mr. Gumbs later remembered the letter saying. “He will be of no use to you.”

Later, when looking through a book of African names published by the poet and activist Amiri Baraka, Mr. Gumbs happened on the name “Onaje,” meaning “sensitive one.” Remembering Mr. Taylor’s words, he took it as his own.

After a brief stint teaching in Buffalo, where he met his wife, Mr. Gumbs joined the guitarist Kenny Burrell’s band in 1971. Work soon followed with two of jazz’s leading trumpeters, Woody Shaw and Nat Adderley, as well as other notable bandleaders. In addition to playing the piano, Mr. Gumbs often contributed compositions and arrangements to the bands he joined.

In 1977 his work on Norman Connors’s breakout album, “You Are My Starship,” put him in touch with Phyllis Hyman, who was about to record her debut album. Mr. Gumbs arranged Mr. Connors’s version of the R&B hit “Betcha by Golly, Wow,” which featured Ms. Hyman’s vocals and provided her first brush with fame. Mr. Gumbs became her musical director and appeared on some of her early albums.

His arrangement of “The Lady in My Life” for Stanley Jordan’s 1985 album, “Magic Touch,” helped send the LP to the top of Billboard’s jazz chart.

He also developed a close working relationship with the drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, whose music blended blues, pop, funk and free jazz. Shortly after Jackson’s death in 2013, Mr. Gumbs self-released the album “Bloodlife: Solo Piano Improvisations Based On the Melodies of Ronald Shannon Jackson.”

Mr. Gumbs taught for years at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Manhattan and the Litchfield Jazz Camp in Connecticut. As well as offering instruction on theory and technique, he told DownBeat magazine in 2014, “It’s important to talk to students about why we do this.”

“Yes, we try and pay bills, but there is a reason we do music,” he said. “Our mission is to heal.”


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