Onaje Allan Gumbs
Born in Harlem, Onaje grew up in St. Albans, Queens, and started playing piano at age 7. Henry Mancini was one of his earliest and greatest influences from watching the TV shows “Peter Gunn” and “Mr Lucky” at age 8. Later, he studied at the Music and Art High School in Manhattan and was introduced by a classmate, Carl “Skip” Kirkland, to his father Leroy Kirkland, who had played with the Erskine Hawkins band, and who would come to mentor Onaje. During this time, he was playing in a Latin band, a big band and playing piano duets, and was also listening to records made by Motown and Blue Note, developing an interest in R&B that would influence his musical career as strongly as the straight-ahead jazz of Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Schifrin, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. Onaje went on to study classical piano, composition, arranging and graduated with a degree in Education at the State University of New York at Fredonia in upstate New York.
In 1971, Leroy Kirkland introduced Onaje to the renowned Detroit guitarist Kenny Burrell, to whom Onaje gave a demo tape. The following day, Onaje received a call to play with Kenny Burrell at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. This work led to further performances with major jazz musicians such as bassist Larry Ridley as well as The Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra. During those early 70’s, Onaje replaced Nat Adderley, Jr. in a great contemporary jazz ensemble called Natural Essence. At that time in the course of two years, some the personnel of this group included drummer Buddy Williams, bassist David Williams, trombonist Earl McIntyre and on percussion, Thelonious Monk Jr.
In 1972, in Buffalo, New York, Onaje met Norman Connors, who hired him to act as arranger for the album Dark of Light. Onaje went on to contribute keyboard work for subsequent albums by Norman including the albums Love From the Sun, Saturday Night Special, You Are My Starsip, Invitation and Mr C. Onaje’s sideman work soon included stints with Buster Williams, Cecil McBee, and Betty Carter.
Toward the late 1970s, Onaje spent two years working in Woody Shaw’s band as pianist, arranger, and occasional composer, including the albums Rosewood, Steppin Stones and Woody III. During this time, the group won the Down Beat Reader?s Poll for Best Jazz Group and for Best Jazz Album in 1978 for Rosewood.
Onaje’s most recent sideman role is on Avery Sharpe’s 2009 album Autumn Moonlight; here Onaje’s fresh approach to the piano and his skills as a composer (“Palace of the Seven Jewels” and “First Time We Met”) are evident.
During Onaje’s time with Nat Adderley (1976), the producer Nils Winter of SteepleChase records, heard Onaje?s improvisations, and invited the pianist to record a solo piano project. Entitled Onaje, the album features standards such as “Giant Steps,” as well as some of Onaje’s original compositions.
Onaje’s interest in R&B is especially prominent in two of his solo recordings, That Special Part of Me (1988), and Dare to Dream (1991). That Special Part of Me also yielded Onaje’s most enduring composition, entitled “Quiet Passion,” which has remained on smooth jazz rotations for nearly 20 years.
In 2003, Onaje released a live album through Half Note records entitled Return to Form, recorded at the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He then released in 2004 a critically acclaimed project through his own label, Ejano, entitled Remember Their Innocence.
Most recently, Onaje recorded an album for 18th and Vine records entitled Sack Full of Dreams. While Remember Their Innocence was a studio-intensive project, Sack Full of Dreams was recorded with a live feel in the studio, using few takes. The film and stage actor Obba Babatunde appears as guest vocalist on the title track.
In 1986 Onaje received the Min-on Art Award “in recognition of his great contribution to the promotion and development of a new musical movement for people with the aim of the creation of Peace.”
Panasonic chose his song, “Dare To Dream”, with lyrics by Charles Allen, as the theme for their tenth anniversary celebration of Kid Witness News.
Onaje composed, arranged and performed the original score for the Showtime film, Override, directed by actor and producer Danny Glover.
In 2006, Onaje was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Jazz Artist category.
Onaje Allan Gumbs