In the 1970s, fired up by the teachings of Cecil Taylor in Ohio, Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids furthered their education travelling around Africa to fuse together new forms of theatre, dance and Afrocentric music. Geeta Dayal finds the flame still burning on their new album We Be All Africans
28 | The Wire | Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids
Idris Ackamoor walks down a nondescript block of Fillmore Street in San Francisco looking like a man from another planet, another time – nattily dressed in a lilac coloured dress shirt and sharp grey suit, a hat, and elaborate pink and purple boots.
We’re walking through the city’s historic Fillmore Jazz District, where Ackamoor still lives. The area was once known as the Harlem of the West, but there’s not a whole lot of jazz left in this neighbourhood nowadays – the street is dominated by bland boutiques, restaurants and expensive condos. San Francisco is currently the most expensive city in the US, the centrepiece of the seemingly neverending tech boom. Well-loved landmarks and music venues are falling one by one. One of the last jazz-related holdouts – the singular, mystical Church of John Coltrane – was evicted from its space on Fillmore Street a few months ago.
Ackamoor is one of the Fillmore Jazz District’s last remaining holdouts from a previous era, and the guiding force behind The Pyramids – a rotating cast of musicians who initially met at Antioch College in Ohio in 1970. The group’s founding members – alto saxophonist Ackamoor, bass guitarist Kimathi Asante, and flute player and dancer Margaux Simmons – met as students in Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble, during Taylor’s influential run as a visiting professor at Antioch. The Pyramids officially formed on a trip to France in 1971, where they joined up with the drummer Donald Robinson, before travelling to Africa, returning to the US and eventually settling in the San Francisco Bay Area. The group released three key albums – Lalibela (1973), King Of Kings (1974) and Birth/Speed/Merging (1976) – before splintering in 1977. They reformed a few times in the decades that followed, and many members have come and gone over the years. But the group are currently touring and recording with a newly revamped line-up including Heshima Mark Williams, Kenneth Nash, Babatunde Lea and Sandy Poindexter alongside Ackamoor and Asante, and a jubilant new album We Be All Africans has just been released by Strut. The band and their associates are currently scattered across the country, and to hear their story I hook up with Ackamoor on the West Coast, and call up Asante in Ohio and Simmons in New Jersey.
Now well into his sixties, Ackamoor himself is buzzing with energy and ideas. He attributes his health to several decades spent tap dancing and working in theatre with his arts group Cultural Odyssey. We enter his colourful apartment a few blocks off of Fillmore. A tap dancing floor is installed in his living room, and next to a piano and two saxophones a collection of African instruments fills the wall near the window.
“We Be All Africans has a lot to do with my love affair with Fela Kuti,” Ackamoor explains. “Fela is one of my heroes, up there with Coltrane… what Fela and Bob [Marley] do that a lot of jazz musicians are unable to do is, they can vocally express a political nature that is not just expressed through instrumental music.” The numerous killings of black youths at the hands of police in the US over the past few years, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protest movement, motivated Ackamoor and his group to make new music. “When I saw these murders with Trayvon Martin, and what was happening in Ferguson, and Michael Brown, I felt, why are we so divided as black, white, or any colour when we are all in so many ways from the same human family?” he says. “Africa is one of the main repositories of human remains, and so for me, saying ‘We be all Africans’ is saying we are brothers, sisters – why would you kill this person or shoot down that person?”
He gestures to another wall in his apartment, which is lined with hundreds of jazz records, books and other music ephemera – a veritable jazz library. But Ackamoor himself doesn’t use the term. “I never considered myself a jazz musician,” he declares. “That word – The Art Ensemble Of Chicago never called their music jazz. It was Great Black Music. Sun Ra didn’t call his music jazz. Cecil Taylor didn’t call his music jazz.”
Ackamoor grew up as Bruce Baker, on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. “My mother was a schoolteacher, my father worked at the post office,” he says. “I’ve been playing music all my life, since I was seven years old.” Chicago’s South Side then as now is a rough part of town. “I grew up at the time of the Blackstone Rangers, one of the biggest gangs that ever existed,” he remembers. “They were highly organised and deadly, but not as deadly as these guys are now… growing up in Chicago was always rough. It wasn’t an easy place to grow up.”
In high school, Ackamoor lost interest in formal music lessons, embracing basketball and Motown. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. “This was in the big days of Black Power, the Black Panthers. I graduated high school in 1968, one of the most incredible years of the 20th century. Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the Chicago Democratic National Convention Riots.”
After a semester spent playing basketball in a small college in Iowa, Ackamoor happened upon an article in Jet magazine about Antioch College, an experimental school in the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, that had the nation’s first separate black dormitory and a refreshingly radical curriculum. He applied to Antioch, first returning back to Chicago to cut his teeth studying with the pre-eminent clarinettist Clifford King. “My biggest influence in terms of music, instrumentally, was my mentor King,” says Ackamoor. “He was one of the renowned saxophone and woodwind specialists – a lot of the AACM went to him, and other older musicians studied with Clifford King.”
King came up during the big band era, playing with Jimmie Lunceford and other bandleaders in the 1920s and 30s. Ackamoor would also go on to study in Los Angeles with Charles Tyler, a member of Albert Ayler’s quintet.
Meanwhile, Ackamoor’s future bandmate Kimathi Asante was playing rock ’n’ roll in Ohio, electrified by the sounds of Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, The Fugs, The Rolling Stones and The Animals. In high school, he formed a band called The Uncouth Experience, and later joined a group called Brute Force, a soul jazz outfit also featuring guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Margaux Simmons was studying music around the same time, inspired at an early age by John Coltrane and 20th century composers like Anton Webern.
Ackamoor, Asante and Simmons converged at Antioch College, just in time for Cecil Taylor’s legendary two year teaching stint at the school. “When Cecil came to Antioch, we were prepared for