Onaje Allan Gumbs, Pianist Whose Reach Spanned the Soulful and the Smooth, Dies at 70

Apr 7, 2020

Onaje Allan Gumbs, a pianist-composer whose firm foundation in hard bop supported an expansive career in pop-R&B and smooth jazz, died on Monday at Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, N.Y. He was 70.

His sister-in-law, Linda Bannerman-Martin, said she had been unable to confirm a cause. Gumbs suffered a series of strokes over the last decade, most recently in Dec. 2018.

Gumbs first emerged in the early 1970s as a perceptive and versatile piano accompanist.  It hardly seems a coincidence that his chosen moniker — Onaje, which he found in a book of African names compiled by Amiri Baraka — means “the sensitive one, owner of the feeling.”

He appears on several albums that trumpeter Woody Shaw made for Columbia Records, including the landmark Rosewood; he also recorded with cornetist Nat Adderley, singer Betty Carter and bassist Buster Williams.

But even as he made a name for himself in the acoustic jazz mainstream, Gumbs was amassing credits in R&B and pop. He plays on a slew of albums that yielded chart success for drummer and producer Norman Connors — including You Are My Starship, whose title track, with a vocal by Michael Henderson, was a Top 40 hit.

Phyllis Hyman, who also sings on that album, made Gumbs her musical director; he appears on her first two albums. He also played on the self-titled 1980 debut by rapper Kurtis Blow, a hip-hop touchstone. Among his many partial songwriting credits is “Diary of a Fool,” a 1985 single for Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band.

Gumbs came into his own as a solo artist in the late 1980s, during the dawn of the commercial radio format known as smooth jazz. That Special Part of Me, which MCA released in ’88, played a part in that boom, with serene, synth-laced ballads like “Quiet Passion” and “All My Love (For You).”

A 1991 follow-up — Dare to Dream, coproduced by V. Jeffrey Smith of The Family Stand — further solidified Gumbs’ high stature at the crux of smooth jazz and quiet-storm R&B. The album, with contributions from guitarists Kevin Eubanks and Jef Lee Johnson, among others, could be considered a paragon of the so-called “contemporary jazz” style of the peak CD 101.9 era. 

In a 2017 interview with WBGO’s Sheila Anderson, Gumbs expressed bemusement about the given narrative of his album Return to Form, which had been recorded live at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The title had been the idea of his producer, Jeff Levenson, “who felt it was an appropriate title because I had been a ‘smooth jazz’ player for 20 years — so they say.”

“The critics went with that,” Gumbs added. “They said, ‘It’s so great to have Onaje in the jazz saddle again.’” His wry tone made it clear that while a “return” implies an abandonment, he had really done no such thing.

He was born Allan Bentley Gumbs in New York, on Sept. 3, 1949, one of three siblings. (A brother predeceases him; he had long been estranged from his sister.) Raised in Queens, he drew formative musical influence from a perfectly unlikely source: Henry Mancini, the prolific composer and orchestrator. 

“I was eight years old, watching Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky,” he told Anderson, “and I fell in love with the music I heard on these TV shows. Each show would start with this walking bass line. I started to follow his music through his films.”

Onaje Allan Gumbs on a WBGO Kids Jazz concert at the Newark Museum, Oct. 10, 2014.
Credit WBGO

Gumbs attended the High School of Music & Art (now LaGuardia), followed by SUNY Fredonia; he also studied with noted jazz educator David Baker at Indiana University. His first professional break came in 1971, when he played a weeklong engagement with guitarist Kenny Burrell at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.

Burrell’s endorsement opened many doors; in addition to Shaw and Connors, Gumbs worked in the 1970s with trumpeter Jimmy Owens, and in Frank Foster’s Loud Minority band. During the ‘80s he was also associated with saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and trumpeter Terumasa Hino and drummer Michael Carvin. And he appears on the first two albums by guitarist Stanley Jordan, who took his arrangement of “The Lady in My Life” to considerable chart success.

But it would be limiting to hail Gumbs primarily for slick commercial output. He also played synthesizers with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s intrepid Decoding Society, appearing on the 1985 album Decode Yourself, produced by Bill Laswell. Much later in his career, in 2013, Gumbs harked back to this association with an impressive album called Bloodlife: Solo Piano Improvisations Based On the Melodies of Ronald Shannon Jackson.

In recent years, Gumbs often worked with bassist Avery Sharpe; the 2010 album Avery Sharpe Trio Live, with Winard Harper on drums, is a fine document of his style in this setting. His own most recent album is Two, the Top, a 2017 collaboration with vocalist and performance artist Mem Nahadr.

Gumbs is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Sandra Wright; his sister-in-law, Linda Bannerman-Martin; and by a niece, Shameka Gumbs, and a nephew, Nero Gumbs. 

“Music is a healing force that is immeasurable and can affect so many aspects of people’s lives,” Gumbs told Jet magazine in 1988, before the release of Dare to Dream. “Music has the power, I feel, to inspire a person to really bring out the good that is there. My objective is to hopefully touch that part of each person.”