ONAJE ALLAN GUMBS, the pianist, composer, producer and arranger, whose fingers danced across the keys with nimble dexterity employing the genres of R&B, blues, smooth and straight-ahead jazz, died on April 6 at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, New York. He was 70.
Gumbs’ sister-in-law Linda Bannerman-Martin confirmed his death; the cause was unavailable. Gumbs was originally at the Regency Extended Care Nursing Home in Yonkers. He was admitted for rehabilitation in 2018 following multiple strokes from 2010 to 2018.
The same year that Gumbs suffered his first stroke in 2010, his album “Just Like Yesterday” was released in Japan. Fortunately, with rehabilitation he recovered and was able to return to his music. He suffered another stroke in 2015 that he was able to recover from and he continued playing. The multiple strokes in 2018 eventually became insurmountable. He attended a benefit jam session in Brooklyn given for him in 2018 by his friends and producer Tyrone Corbett, and trumpeter Wayne Cobham, who also started a GoFundMe page in his name.
“Onaje Allan Gumbs was a great musician with a big heart and tremendous feel as a musician. He will be missed by the New York Jazz scene,” stated Cobham.
Gumbs’ most prolific album is his solo self-titled “Onaje,” recorded for SteepleChase Records in 1976 although it wasn’t released until 1994. He composed seven of the nine compositions, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.” The pianist re-constructs the hard swinging “Giant Steps” into a beautiful whispering ballad with cascading rhythms and thoughtful melodic tones to touch souls, demonstrating his great arranging ability and outstanding talent. This will be his signature album for generations to come.
Through a friendship Gumbs developed with session guitarist Leroy Kirkland he was introduced to fellow guitarist Kenny Burrell, who hired him in 1971 to join him on a few Detroit dates. Those gigs proved to be his springboard to working with such musicians as bassists Larry Ridley and Buster Williams; drummers Norman Connors and the edgy Ronald Shannon Jackson; Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra; and Betty Carter, whose bands served as bootcamp for such pianists as Eric Reid, Marc Cary and Danny Mixon. In 1974, Gumbs caught the attention of trumpeter Woody Shaw, who offered him the piano chair, where he played for five years. He set a high bar for those pianists that followed. Later he became a member of cornetist Nat Adderley’s band.
“Onaje was a special guy musically and spiritually. He displayed a multi-spectrum of jazz and other genres of music,” noted bassist Larry Ridley. “I enjoyed playing with him. Having the same birthday created a deeper bond between us.”
Allan Bentley Gumbs was born in Harlem on September 3, 1949. His mother, a homemaker, was from Montserrat and his father, an NYC police officer, was from Anguilla. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., he traveled to Manhattan’s High School of Music & Art (now LaGuardia H.S.), where he graduated in 1967. While attending SUNY Fredonia, Dr. Billy Taylor, music director for “The David Frost Show,” commissioned him to write an arrangement for the show’s house band.
Gumbs became a Buddhist in the early 1970s and adopted the West African name “Onaje” which means “the sensitive one.”
In 1976, Gumbs was a force on the R&B and pop scene providing the arrangement for vocalist Phyllis Hyman’s “Betcha By Golly Wow.” He became her musical director. He was Norman Connors’ go-to keyboardist playing on many of his hits including “You Are My Starship” with vocals by Michael Henderson and Hyman. Among his many partial songwriting credits is “Diary of a Fool,” a 1985 single for Alan Gorrie of the Average White Band.
His 2007 album “Sack Full Of Dreams” highlights his impeccable arranging on Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” to the title cut. He moves from swinging to his smooth sensitive touch that signatures so many of his ballads.
He wrote the soundtrack for Danny Glover’s Showtime film “Override” and his composition “Dare to Dream” was a theme for a Panasonic awards presentation. He was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist.
In recent years, Gumbs often worked with bassist Avery Sharpe in a trio demonstrating his versatility. Whether playing acoustic piano or synthesizers, he was definitive in all configurations.
“I first became aware of Onaje in the late seventies when he was with Woody Shaw’s classic band with Carter Jefferson, Victor Lewis and Clint Houston,” said bassist Marcus McLauren. “That’s when I became a fan of Onaje’s musical gift. It was always musically rewarding to perform with Onaje, because he always demanded that you give the music 150%.”
“Music is a healing force that is immeasurable, and I am committed to being a part of it,” said Gumbs.
In addition to his sister-in-law, he is survived by his wife of 44 years, Sandra (Wright) Gumbs; a niece, Shameka Gumbs; a nephew, Nero Gumbs; and a sister Linda Gumbs from whom he was estranged for many years.
ANDY GONZALEZ, the Bronx native who introduced a new definition to the art of bass playing in Afro-Latin and salsa music, died on April 9, at the Morningside Heights Nursing Home and Rehab Center in the Bronx. He was 69.
His sister, Eileen González-Altomari, said the causes were pneumonia and complications of diabetes.
“Andy was very giving of himself, he was an incredible human being,” noted his jazz caregiver and friend Keith Thomas. “I was very fortunate to be touched by him.”
González played in over 700 recording sessions and is credited on a host of albums by Libre and Fort Apache Band, as well as Palmieri, Barretto, Tito Puente, Astor Piazzolla, Hilton Ruiz and Dizzy Gillespie.
However, the bassist only recorded one album as a leader, “Entre Colegas,” in 2016 and it was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz album.
González proved to be the consummate sideman while projecting as a composer and arranger. During his four decades he became the prototype bassist for Latin jazz, Afro-Latin jazz and salsa music. He once noted, “I play the music of the Bronx, and Lower East Side, within my cultural roots of Puerto Rico, with Cuba and Africa.”
“There are musicians who play instruments, some of them freakishly well. Then there are human beings who use instruments to play their understanding of life. This was Andy. He was a fine technician, played in tune and never lost the tempo or groove,” said Arturo O’Farrill, founder and artistic director of Afro Latin Jazz Alliance.
Andrew González was born on January 1, 1951, in the Bronx. His father, Jerry González Sr., was a master of ceremonies and lead singer for bands during the Palladium era; his mother, Julia Toyos Gonzáles, was a homemaker. His father introduced him and his older brother to all forms of music beginning with their Puerto Rican heritage.
When the González brothers resided in Edenwald Projects in the East Bronx during their teen years, Jerry played congas on Sunday in the “big park” with Nanny Grant, Marsalis Jones, Melvin Grant, Morris and Jerry. Andy watched and goofed around. At the time he was attending and later graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan (now LaGuardia H.S.).
The percussionist Juan Rodriguez, who also lived in the projects and remained friends with the bassist until his death, recalls when they created “rumbas.” “We would walk to John Phillip Sousa J. H. S. [on Baychester Avenue] while helping Andy carry his acoustic bass and carrying our drums, we would jam and some kids from the projects came over and danced.”
Early on González was a member of the Andrew Langston Sextet along with his brother; the ensemble played gigs at the Epcoa in the Bronx and at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan where they opened for popular Latin ensembles playing mambo and salsa music like Tito Rodriguez and his Orchestra, Joe Cuba Sextet and Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta. González eventually joined the bands of percussionist Ray Barretto and pianist Eddie Palmieri.
In 1974 González and his friend, the timbale player Manny Oquendo, formed Conjunto Libre. Within the ensembles’ 35-year existence they released many noteworthy albums and influenced a host of aspiring musicians. They played salsa for the masses with a mix of jazz and the edginess of the Lower East Side. González became friends with Eddie Figueroa, a member of the Young Lords and co-founder of the Nuyorican Village Cultural Center, in 1975.
The center was an oasis for political activism, community organization and live arts. Libre played there often along with other musicians and later the Fort Apache Band offered regular performances.
“Andy was a great friend and mentor, he was always very supportive,” said music historian and former band boy for Libre, Pepe Flores. “He was aware of the political and economic aspects of Latin music and he often collaborated with many scholars regarding Latin music.”
In 1980, the González brothers formed one of music’s most significant ensembles to date, the Fort Apache Band (a nickname for a Bronx police station). It was a hard-swinging Latin, salsa, Afro-Cuban, New York slick, en español or English, it was groundbreaking.
“In the history of this music there is no one more prepared to represent the nexus of Europe, Africa and the New World; he played with Bach-ian knowledge of counterpoint but fully inhabited Afro Latino, Afro Caribeño and African American aesthetic,” stated O’Farrell. “We will never see a musician with his combination of inspiration, understanding, and honesty again. Andy González invented modern Latin bass performance.”
Jerry González died in a fire in Madrid in 2018. In addition to his sister, Andy González is survived by a brother, Arthur.