Idris Ackamoor isn’t often included on lists with Justin Bieber, Shakira, Barry Manilow, and Keith Urban, but the San Francisco saxophonist, composer, and bandleader recently joined their rarified ranks.
A foundational figure in the Afrofuturist movement who’s been creating spellbinding jazz theater for more than half a century, Ackamoor sold his musical archives to Strut Records, a U.K. label that’s acquired a treasure trove of Black music in recent years, including Patrice Rushen’s Elektra catalog and Miriam Makeba’s Reprise albums.
After decades of producing his own projects and recordings, work that he’s painstakingly preserved, archived, and digitized, Ackamoor was more than gratified when Strut made him a low six-figure offer for all of his masters, including many unreleased live and studio recordings. (He retains all the mechanical and publishing rights.) In November, Strut gave a taste of what’s in store with the album Idrissa’s Dream, featuring The Collective (Ackamoor’s predecessors to The Pyramids) and drawn from a 1971 concert from Antioch College. Ackamoor was still an undergrad at the Yellow Springs, Ohio school, and the short-lived Collective emerged out of pioneering free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble.
Knowing that all his work has found an ideal home “is one of the most important developments in my life,” said Ackamoor, who celebrates the 50th anniversary of his Pyramids ensemble with free concerts Friday and Saturday at the Presidio Theatre. “I can’t overemphasize how blessed I feel to be one of the first of my generation to sell my catalog, other than the rock ’n’ roll guys.”
The rock and pop folks have experienced a gold (record) rush over the past couple of years as companies like Hipgnosis Songs and Primary Wave Music indulged in a spending spree, shoveling out tens of millions of dollars for marquee catalogs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks, and Sting. In Ackamoor’s case, it’s not surprising that the offer came from the U.K. rather than a stateside company.
Over the years Ackamoor has maintained a significant presence in the Bay Area with Cultural Odyssey, the musical theater company he founded in 1979 and runs with his longtime creative partner, Rhodessa Jones (sister of celebrated choreographer Bill T. Jones). But as a bandleader he followed a well-trod path for African American artists, playing long theater engagements in Europe for audiences steeped in jazz and all manner of musical theater.
When Ackamoor and The Pyramids arrived in San Francisco in 1973, the arts scene was a creative cauldron much more akin to a European city. They arrived after a sojourn in Amsterdam and a formative yearlong trek across Africa, recording their encounters with musicians along the way, impromptu sessions for which Strut has plans.
Ackamoor’s early, self-produced releases with The Pyramids, like 1973’s Lalibela and 1974’s King of Kings, quickly became collectors’ items, available only from the artists and sold out of the trunks of their cars. While he disbanded the group in 1977, Ackamoor has reestablished the band several times, with Strut releases like 2016’s We Be All Africans and 2020’s Shaman! paving the way for the deal with the label.
“He’s quite a unique guy,” said Quinton Scott, Strut’s label manager. “He’s such a great player, but he hasn’t put himself out there to play the game. Partly it’s that there wasn’t the nucleus of the scene on the West Coast or bigger labels, so he got on with it himself. A lot of his music was privately released.”
With his legacy firmly secured, Ackamoor has been forging ahead, creating an ambitious new body of music with expanded instrumentation. The 50th-anniversary celebration this weekend features the North American premiere of music he and The Pyramids honed during a residency at Le Guess Who? festival in the Netherlands, which was accompanied by a major exhibition of photos, posters, and other ephemera from Ackamoor’s archive.
In many ways, selling his masters cleared the deck for Ackamoor. “Now I could just go forward with my new work,” he said. “This also came out of the pandemic lockdown and is the culmination of my transition, emphasizing my work as a composer more than a performer. This is my maiden voyage writing for what’s essentially a chamber orchestra with a string quartet.”
The concerts feature some players who share deep and extensive history, most notably New York flutist and vocalist Margaux Simmons, who was a founding member of the original Pyramids and formerly married to Ackamoor. Guitarist and vocalist Bobby Cobb, one of the original members of Cultural Odyssey, rejoined the fold right before the pandemic. And bassist Mark “Hashima” Williams joined The Pyramids as a rising young player on the San Francisco jazz scene, recording on the group’s last 1970s album, Birth/Speed/Merging.
It was a heady time when the arts scene brimmed with groundbreaking multimedia collaborations and radical politics, and Williams was drawn to the “whole Afrocentric concept Idris brought from Antioch College,” the Berkeley bassist said.
“He brought some of the first concepts of world music with the African instruments he collected on the trip: balaphone, thumb piano, and a whole complement of percussion instruments all merged into the band. Coming out of the San Francisco State Black studies protests, we were embracing the history of African American experience, and Idris was exemplified in bringing all those elements together. That’s why I gravitated to The Pyramids.”
It turns out that self-consciously forging a path into the future in his art prepared Ackamoor to secure his legacy — for both his work and his family. Even as Strut reveals the extent of his explorations in decades past, he’s creating works that extend his vision to new terrain.
“Now I can concentrate on harvesting the publishing and writing,” Ackamoor said. “It’s really satisfying; not only does part of my legacy have a home, it’s my legacy for my heirs, my daughter and granddaughter.”