Sunday, March 23, 2008

Don’t Like Jazz? Onaje Allan Gumbs thinks you’re listening too hard

Famed jazz musician and composer, Onaje Allan Gumbs, who has been making beautiful music on his piano for more than 30 years and has a new album out in stores called Sack Full of Dreams, doesn’t believe you don’t like jazz music. He can’t really imagine the possibility. In fact, if anything, he believes you don’t know much about the art form to make such a statement or even entertain the thought.

“Jazz is the closest condition we have to human existence,” say Gumbs, waxing philosophical over his praised passion, “People make generalizations.”

Strong words, but Gumbs doesn’t make such pronouncements out of malice to folks out there who feel jazz is dead. Trust, there are those who actually feel that way and believe the genre hasn’t grown and isn’t keeping pace or beat in the industry. For those folks, Gumbs is offering an open-handed invitation to brush off his or her initial impressions and give jazz a try. It’s a talented hand and a generous offer. But that is Gumbs, who is definitely all about unity and expressiveness.

If he weren’t, he wouldn’t be shaking hands with so many rappers at National Association of Record Industry Professionals (NARIP) events, where he says, many young artists approach him wanting to be his friend, wanting to learn about the art form and wanting to learn how he makes music.

“They embrace jazz artists,” says Gumbs, of the many rappers he’s met in his travels, “They want to learn from jazz artists.”

But if some of today’s hottest musicians are digging the vibrant and passionate thing jazz has to offer, then why isn’t the market, or more precisely, the youth of today, gobbling it up and rushing out to stores in droves to pick up the latest jazz releases? Gumbs believes it’s because many people feel put off by jazz, they’re intimidated and think it’s some kind of big, musical complexity that must be deeply studied to be fully appreciated. Gumbs thinks that’s a whole lot of hogwash.

“People say they don’t understand jazz, but what’s there to understand?” says Gumbs, rather matter of factly, as if he were talking about a warm of slice apple pie just out of the oven, “It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it does.”

And what it does, according Gumbs, is really quite essential to the human experience.

To understand more about how he feels jazz and the universe are intertwined, it’s probably best to hear more about his past and the music that he hopes to leave as his legacy.

First coming on the scene in 1974 with a special arrangement of “Stella by Starlight” for the New York Jazz Repertory Company to help celebrate the Miles Davis’ brilliance at Carnegie Hall–Gumbs calls Miles an undefined genius—Gumbs followed with appearances on other albums, such as Woody Shaw’s, Moontrane, Buster William’s, Pinnacle, Cecil McBee’s, Mutima, and Betty Carter’s self- titled album, Betty Carter.

This was all in the same year, which should dispel any stereotypical image people might have of 70s’ jazz musicians sitting in dungy locales, puffing on endless streams of cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and beating on bongos all day. Gumbs was simply about making music,

In 1976, Gumbs busted his butt to land his first solo record, Onaje. And that occurred after producer Nils Winter at Danish jazz label, SteepleChase, fell in love with the energy Gumbs had in between his fingers and the ivory keys. Whenever he would do his improvisations, Gumbs would create magic—believing all he was really doing was conversing with the audience. “Improvising is like talking,” says Gumbs, “and music has a way of communicating [in a way] that words can’t”

And it’s these words he uses, the words of jazz, that help him with his real goal of bringing harmony and peace to the world, which is something he was actually honored for in 1986 when he received the Min-On Art Award from the Nichiren Buddhist group, Soka Gakkai International. Both pop artist Tina Turner and the legendary Herbie Hancock also share this Buddhist honor.

From 1986 to now, it’s been a long, creative journey for Gumbs, interspersed by a string of peace inspired albums in the interim, 1991’s Dare to Dream and 2005’s Remember Their Innocence—which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Jazz category—are prime examples.

And then there is the nagging issue of jazz not being mainstream again.

But Gumbs doesn’t think it is such a nagging issue though. He actually feels jazz and current popular music, namely rap, has more in common than many people think, including the right to express and say what a person feels when they feel it is necessary to say it.

“Words like the ‘N’ word can be a very useful force,” says Gumbs, who enjoys rap music from artists like KRS-1, Mos Def and Will Smith, but doesn’t much care for gangster rap, which he calls misogynistic. Even so, Gumbs doesn’t hold a grudge over the controversial ‘N’ word, and even thinks it has its place in modern day society.

“We as a people have a history of turning words around—bad, dope, stupid, words like that,” he says. “And when they [Black people] say it, it’s a term of endearment.” And while the Rev. Al Sharpton and others may tend to differ with this analysis of the term, Gumbs is more concerned with the stark reality of the word, and also the stark reality of the music that accompanies it, both jazz and rap alike.

“What [gangster rappers] talk about happens in the street as a result of economics in the street,” Gumbs says, speaking on why the controversial words artists use might be perceived as a form of grief regarding poverty stricken standards and economic injustices.

And this is where jazz, the universal theme of music that can surge through the soul like an electric shock, comes in again. Gumbs feels that people have been listening to jazz since the moment they were resting inside their mother’s womb.

“Our existence is based on music, a heart beating, that’s jazz. With a subway passing, you got some of the best rhythm on Earth right there, man,” says Gumbs, who even goes on to make another bold statement: “without music, this planet would implode on itself.”

Strong words again indeed. But Gumbs is not saying it to challenge anybody or to argue. Rather, he is making a point about how central music, and jazz in particular, is to the world.

So in a way, music, like this article, are coming full circle, and Mr. Gumbs has a sack full of dreams that he would absolutely love to share with you. Are you ready to go for the ride? There is no height or age requirement. Jazz is universal, after all. But you decide.

No comments: