Saxophonist and composer Idris Ackamoor is best-known as the founder and leader of the Pyramids, an Afrocentric world music and spiritual jazz group whose music emerges from a fertile creative zone that overlaps the aesthetic terrain explored (like Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but with a different emphasis).
He is also a trained tap dancer, actor, and the founder and co-artistic director of the San Francisco performance art company Cultural Odyssey.
Born Bruce Baker in 1950, Ackamoor grew up on Chicago's South Side. He fell in love with music early on, and took lessons in saxophone, clarinet, piano, violin, and trumpet. While in high school he gravitated toward sports and won an athletic scholarship to play basketball in college. During his first semester, however, Ackamoor had an epiphany and knew music was his true vocation. He transferred to Ohio's Antioch College and declared music his major. While attending the school during the early '70s, he studied with pianist Cecil Taylor, as did flutist Margaux Simmons (they were later married) and bassist Kimathi Asante, his original partners in the Pyramids. He wrote a proposal to form a jazz band that would tour Europe and then Africa. Landing first in France in 1972, they soon left for Amsterdam with Parisian drummer Donald Robinson. They arrived in Africa as a trio in December of 1972 -- Robinson remained behind in Amsterdam. They traveled and played throughout Morocco, Rabat, Casablanca, and eventually, Dakar, Senegal and Accra, Ghana, where they established residence and made the acquaintance of Hugh Masekela, who was playing with Hedzoleh Soundz at the time. The places and the musicians they encountered deeply influenced their sound. They collected a massive number of instruments and began to use them in their own way. They adapted the various rhythms and harmonies they heard to free jazz and funk to create the group's signature sound. They played across Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. During that time, Ackamoor was making field recordings of African music and was especially influenced by the drummers of Lalibela.
After returning to Ohio in 1973, Ackamoor graduated and the Pyramids were a full-time concern. Influenced by Taylor's example of releasing his own recordings, they cut, produced, and issued their debut offering, Lalibela (1973), on a four-track in a run of 500 copies. They sold them at concerts and to friends and family, out of the trunks of their cars. They made enough money to order another 500, which proved the business model for their second offering, King of Kings (1974). The Pyramids' emergent sound could not be contained by a single genre: Theirs was a meld of free and spiritual jazz, the deep rhythmic influence of Africa, and their common experience of loving American R&B and funk. During this period, the band garnered attention for their striking live shows, which mixed percussive, spiritual, and space-age jazz and funk with performance, theater, and dance. After migrating to San Francisco to perform on the Bay Area arts scene -- where they released Birth, Speed, Merging in 1976 -- they disbanded in 1977 after a final show at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival.
For nearly 20 years, Ackamoor threw himself into his work with Cultural Odyssey, recording only occasionally. In 1985, he released a double A-side single, "Acka Backa"/"Your Body," but limited his own musical activity to Cultural Odyssey and live performances. With choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones and Rhodessa Jones, Ackamoor received an Izzie Award in 1992 for the choreography in Perfect Courage. In 1997, the Idris Ackamoor Ensemble issued Portrait on the independent Aomawa Music label, and followed it with Centurian in 1997 on Cultural Odyssey Records. In 2003, the San Francisco Bay Guardian presented Ackamoor with a lifetime achievement award for his cross-disciplinary work. He issued the double-album Homage to Cuba in 2004.
Ackamoor continued to guide Cultural Odyssey. He was trained in bookkeeping, grant writing, and various technological fields, from editing to filmmaking, and the U.S. Department of State, Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau selected Ackamoor as an arts envoy twice. In his role as an arts ambassador, he journeyed to Johannesburg, South Africa, conducting residency activities inside the Naturena Women's Prison with Rhodessa Jones. In 2007, Ackamoor conducted his first U.S. Department of State Speaker's Tour of Russia, where he conducted performances and workshops at University of Moscow, The American Center, and University of Rayzen. While performing and touring with Cultural Odyssey, Ackamoor was increasingly asked, by both fans and musicians, about the Pyramids, whose albums had all seen reissue on vinyl, legitimately and otherwise. He staged the first reunion of the group in 2004, and then again in 2007. In 2010, the group did its very first European tour, mainly performing their '70s music, and in 2011, they recorded new tunes for Otherworldly at Faust Studios. It was their first album after reuniting. The new group was a quintet with drummer Kenneth Nash, second bassist Kash Killion, and percussionist/electronicist Bradie Speller. Simmons and Asante decided not to tour for financial and health reasons.
In 2012, Ackamoor was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award by the BBC's Gilles Peterson, and released The Beginning of the Second Earth with Cultural Odyssey. 2014 saw a slew of new recordings, including Idrissa's Dream under the the Collective moniker, Live in Europe in collaboration with pianist Hakeem Muhammad, The Periphery of the Periphery by the Idris Ackamoor Paris Quartet, and Ascent of the Nether Creatures in collaboration with Rashied Al Akbar, Muhammad Ali, and Earl Cross. The Pyramids were always in the picture during this period, however, and in 2016, Ackamoor reconvened the group for the widely acclaimed We All Be Africans, cut in Berlin at Max Weissenfeldt's analog Philophon studio and issued by Strut. After long tours and numerous festival appearances, Ackamoor's Pyramids reconvened in 2018 to record An Angel Fell for Strut as a sextet, with their leader on alto and tenor saxophone, keytar, and lead vocals; Sandra Poindexter on violin and lead vocals; David Molina on guitar and backing vocals; Skyler Stover on double bass and backing vocals; Bradie Speller on congas and vocals, and Johann Polzer on drums. An Angel Fell was issued in May. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi