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Jazz Great and Buddhist Memorialized

Photo by Tariq Hasan

NEW YORK, July 5—The life and work of the gifted jazz pianist, composer and educator Onaje Allan Gumbs were memorialized this month when a street in his Bronx neighborhood was named “Onaje Allan Gumbs Way.”

The longtime SGI member conceived the mission of jazz as lying far beyond the scope of mere entertainment. In a 2014 interview with American music magazine DownBeat, he said, “Our mission is to heal.”

Onaje had been introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by fellow jazz musician Buster Williams in May 1973. Onaje had gone to see Buster Williams and Herbie Hancock perform in Buffalo, New York, where he lived at the time.

According to Buster, everyone in Herbie’s band at the time had a Swahili name. Mr. Gumbs chose Onaje, which means “sensitive one” or “peaceful one.” To honor his mother, he kept his given name, too, calling himself Onaje Allan Gumbs. Buster called Onaje “the top, most exceptional piano player in the world.”

While his technical excellence earned him widespread praise, Onaje always stressed the responsibility of jazz educators to pass on an appreciation for jazz’s deeper purpose.

In a 2011 interview for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive, Onaje said, “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.”

For Onaje, the Buddhist, the jazz great, the peaceful one, what jazz has done and must continue to do, is heal.

—Prepared by the World Tribune staff

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