Pyramids Rebuilt: An Interview With Idris Ackamoor

Will Schube speaks to the legendary San Francisco jazz musician about reuniting his epochal band the Pyramids.
By    August 20, 2020

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Idris Ackamoor has seen it all. The legendary multi-instrumentalist, actor, and dancer, was an early fixture in the Bay Area’s thrilling ‘70s jazz scene. He formed his band, The Pyramids, at Antioch College in Ohio as part of Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble before traveling to Africa to tour and eventually settling in the Bay Area. The group changed members, styles, and eventually disbanded in 1977, but Ackamoor was always its heart, center, and soul.

Ackamoor involved himself in a number of different projects after the group broke up, but the Pyramids’ indelible mark on jazz and Bay Area culture more generally kept the project always near the front of his mind. Albums and compilations were pressed and reissued by dubious sources, invitations would be sent to him asking for the band to appear at various festivals―which Ackamoor would occasionally reunite the band for―and the idea of bringing the Pyramids back was never far from his thought process.

The band returned in the late ‘90s, and this past decade, the band united with the inimitable Strut Records to revive the group for a new generation of jazz fans. They’ve released three albums with the label, We Be All Africans, An Angel Fell, and the just-released Shaman! Ackamoor graciously lent some time to POW to discuss his come up in the SF jazz scene, reuniting the group, and the state of jazz both in the ‘70s and today. — Will Schube

When did you begin conceiving the direction for this new album, the themes of it, and getting the players involved who ended up being on it?

Idris Ackamoor: My last album was An Angel Fell, which was out in 2018. Not too long after Angel Fell, I think I’ve been working on this for maybe a year and a half, and particularly was able to get into it through this 9-month period of touring. Playing the music, refining the music on the road in front of audiences, and basically it started in Spring 2018. In Spring 2018, we went to New York and performed at a Premiere show there, and we went to Philadelphia to do a big festival. That was in the spring, and then we did some other shows around the country, around here in the States, and we headed over to Europe in October 2018. That whole period in October 2018, we had a lot of shows in quite a few different countries, so I was able to really work some of the music, not all of it, just some of it – pieces like “Shaman!” or “Theme for Cecil.” When I got back to San Francisco, starting in 2019, I had a need to change some of the personnel, where there seems to be no constant change. Because of the rigors of the road, as well as my expectations for musicians in terms of rehearsal and in terms of touring, I wasn’t satisfied.

What has it been like reuniting with Margaux Simmons? That must be pretty special in many ways.

Idris Ackamoor: I’ve known Sandy and she’s played with me for a long time, but me and Margaux were the originals. Also, she’s my ex-wife and she’s the mother of my daughter, Aomawa. We were married from 1973 to the breakup of the band, which was in 1977. When I got the band back together in 2007, all those 30-something years later, Margaux came to the reunion concert, and she was a part of the very first, original tour in 2010. After 2010, she was going through a couple of health issues, so I look at it as if the band started touring regularly in Europe predominantly from 2010 to the present. That’s 10 years, which is twice as long as the band was together in our initial incarnation, because we were basically together from ’72 to ’77. The band has been together for 10 years, and in that 10 years, it’s been through, in my opinion, a wonderful personnel change. Some very important, some worked out tremendously, some didn’t work out so well, but for me it was always important to be working on a high artistic level.

The first album we put out on Disko B was Otherworldly, and that was in 2012. That was with a whole different band; it was actually a quintet – mainly myself, the master percussionist Kenneth Nash, Kimathi Asante was an original Pyramid, Kash Killion, and Bradie Speller, who was also one of the originals, on congas. That was the personnel that made up Otherworldly, but then the tour went through personnel changes through medical issues because we’re old guys; we’re in our late-60s. I’m the only Pyramid that’s been on every show, on every tour, and thank God, my health has been good all that time. The other members, you would not believe some of the health issues that they went through. Some of them had to get off and not tour, Bradie stopped touring for a while but he got better, and he came back.

What I’m saying is when you look at each of the albums, we’ve got three albums – the first album was with Disko B, and that was Otherworldly, and I told you the personnel. With We Be All Africans, which was with Strut, that band was Sandy, Mark Williams who was a Pyramids member from San Francisco when we moved out here in ’74, Babatunde Lea on drums, who was a very well-known drummer in the Bay Area and around the world who was in Juju back in the day, and Kimathi – that was the personnel for We Be All Africans. Then, the following album went through changes, and An Angel Fell also had personnel changes. I think the changes gave each album its own distinct, unique vision and tapestry of sounds and compositions.

You really piqued my interest when you mentioned going back in the ‘70s and being in San Francisco with the band. What was being a jazz group in the ‘70s in San Francisco like? Was the scene embracing of the work you were doing, was it a struggle, can you talk about that a little bit?

It was a very active and amazing, artistic time. I’d say ’74 to about ’78 or ’79 was very active in the sense that some very unique, original things happened. The Pyramids, we migrated out here from Antioch College, where we were all students in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Me and Margaux, we got married in ’73 and we came out here in ’74, and we were like the anchors. We got to Oakland, and after that Kimathi and Donald Robinson, our drummer who was one of the original Pyramids, they all migrated, came to our house, and that’s when we began to play as the Pyramids all over the Bay Area. We did everything from One Mind Temple, which was a place on Telegraph in Berkeley, Rainbow Sign on Grove Street, and there was this really unique club called McKenzie, which actually inaugurated an amazing solo series with people like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman and a lot of the Auto Sound. The Auto Sound came through a lot because they were traveling so much, and they would come and be in the Bay Area, in Oakland, for quite some time.

The solo performance series at McKenzie was really historic, and the Pyramids also played the McKenzie. It was a pretty active scene of avant-garde music, the rock & roll scene was out here, the rhythm & blues scene, but it was impossible to make a living. We did colleges, art festivals, but you just couldn’t make a living. The economic pressures because we had all just gotten out of college, and once again, when you get out of college, they don’t really teach you what to do after you major in music or how to survive; they don’t teach you that.

The pressures of that, the pressures of economics, the pressures of us going through growing pains – Margaux and myself went separate directions, we got a divorce, and our daughter was born out here in ’75. Our last show was at the UC Berkeley Jazz Festival in 1977, on stage opposite Al Jarreau and Woody Shaw. Margaux didn’t make that show, back then she was trying to do her own thing, and she wanted to go back and study and get her doctorate in music composition. She went on down to San Diego and went to UC San Diego and got her doctorate and PhD in composition, and it was time for the Pyramids to break up in ’77. I wanted to start to explore more of the jazz scene of the Bay Area. Joe Henderson was here, Ed Kelly, Eddie Marshall, Russel Baba, a lot of jazz cats were here, and I wanted to pursue more jazz-oriented music to expand my palate and my learning.

The Pyramids weren’t about playing no jazz tunes, we came straight out of Cecil Taylor’s school. We were fire-breathing, we were straight up from Africa; the eight to 10 months we spent in Africa was the foundation that built the music of the Pyramids. It was life-changing for me. Combining the rhythms of Africa, the music of Africa, with the avant-garde learning and experiences through the Cecil Taylor ensemble, created a very unique sound. It was the end, at that point, to a family band. We had done so much in those five years, we were the first of the DIY generation, we started to distribute, we made three vinyl albums. In ’73, we did Lalibela, in ’74 we did King of Kings, and in ’76 we did Birth/Speed/Merging, all on our own. That really was pivotal, and pretty much, I was the force behind most of it, in the sense of the production, trying to get the financing together, and all that stuff.

In the process, I began my music business education. It was not a happy parting; it was necessary. Obviously, if you just went with a divorce, it’s not going to be a happy thing. Everyone knows when you go through that, it sometimes takes years to get through it. But not only that, musically too. It was like, “What am I going to do now?” There was a little bit of trepidation there, but for me, it opened up a whole other world. I began my Idris Ackamoor Quartets and Quintets, playing with very wonderful musicians here, I began my community work doing orchestras in the community with youth, and that’s when I founded Cultural Odyssey in 1979. It’s been my foundation for over 40 years, as a nonprofit, performing arts company. That’s all due to the Bay Area, but of course, everything changed when I got to San Francisco. I was in Oakland for about 4 years, but it really changed when I got to San Francisco.

With all the ups and downs of the group, what brought that initial urge to get this project back together and to start making music under the Pyramids name again?

Idris Ackamoor: When you really think about it, I had moved on. Cultural Odyssey was a universe, and that’s how I made my living, through the arts and particularly through theatre. I became a prominent inspiration to music in the theatre through my work with Cultural Odyssey. I began to act. Cultural Odyssey began to produce two-person plays with myself and my partner, Rhodessa Jones, and we began to do a whole series of original theatre pieces. We had a 2-piece musical based on the life of Ike & Tina Turner – it was very popular, all over the world. I had moved on, but at the same time, I was keeping my ear to the ground because the Pyramids kept coming up on the Internet, on social media. It was different things, like I got a call from Gilles Peterson. Gilles called me, and him and Stuart Baker, and Stuart Baker is with Soul Jazz, and he put together this big book, this yellow coffee table book, about jazz album art of the ‘70s.

They devoted two pages to the Pyramids’ albums, so all of a sudden, I was starting to get these inquiries. This guy from a record label in Chicago called Ikef Records and I’m not sure if he’s still in operation now, but he called me because he wanted to rerelease the three original albums – King of Kings, Lalibela, and Birth/Speed/Emerging. This was happening around 2005, and by that time, I was already doing what I was doing in the ‘70s, releasing my CDs. I came out with a CD called Portraits with the Idris Ackamoor Ensemble in 1997, then I released Centurian in 2000 – the Idris Ackamoor Ensemble, and I did an album with the ensemble featuring Chico Freeman on tenor in 2004 called Homage to Cuba, and those were my three CDs. But, with these albums being released on the Chicago label, I got a call from Dawson [Prater], and he said, “Idris, can you re-release these vinyls, but do you know there’s a CD out right now of Birth/Speed/Merging?” “No! I had no idea that it was on a Japanese label.” He said, “Yes, at Aquarius Records, which is right here in San Francisco.” I was like, “What? I had no idea about that. I’m going to check it out, and I’m going to get back to you.”

I drove over to Aquarius, and sure enough, Birth/Speed/Merging, a CD on this Japanese label called EM record. I said, “This ain’t right. This is like a bootleg.” Long story short, this Japanese label, Koki [Emura] is his name, who was the head of the label, I called him and eventually we realized that someone had masqueraded as a Pyramid and gave Koki a vinyl album, which he printed from. Anyway, Koki was very disturbed. Fortunately, this happened at the same time that he was supposed to send the guy some money for the rerelease, so he was able to stop it. It was very mysterious; he couldn’t tell me who he was, but I guess he had a PO box or something. He didn’t send the money, but Koki was so upset about it that he said, “Look, I’m going to take all of those Birth/Speed/Merging’s off the market,” he maybe did a thousand of ‘em, “But I would like to do a two-CD set with you, a combination of your music with the Pyramids and the music on your CD with your ensembles.” He put out this fantastic, two-CD set with a 40-page color insert, and it’s called The Music of Idris Ackamoor in 1971-2004. Have you seen that? You probably haven’t seen that CD, have you?

I haven’t seen the physical CD, but I’ve come across it on the internet.

Idris Ackamoor: Anyways, to answer your question, at that point, I was willing to do a reunion because there was a lot of Pyramids’ music on this CD. At that time, my partner Rhodessa, was the artistic director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. She booked me to do a weekend reunion show at the Yerba Buena, this big theatre here, and I brought all the original members and more for this weekend reunion concert, basically the CD release party for the Japanese release. We hadn’t seen each other for 30-something years; Margaux came out, I flew Margaux out, Kimathi came out, Hakeem Muhammed is a piano player that played with me on The Collective which was on the double-CD, and then of course the Pyramids that were, then, San Francisco-based.

Hashima Mark Williams, Baba Duru, and Donald were already out here, Donald the drummer. That was in 2007, and that was our reunion concert, a very wonderful show. Following, a couple years later, I get a call from a European agent, his name was Christoph Linder, and Christoph said that he also read about the Pyramids and he wanted to do a European tour. This was in 2010, two or three years later when I was doing my own thing with Cultural Odyssey. With the very first tour, the first tour all over Europe of the original band, that’s how it all got rolling in 2010.

You’ve been a part of jazz history and continue to define it. This new album is so good, and I’m wondering, what do you hope people take away from this record when they listen to it?

Idris Ackamoor: I feel that I brought everything from my existence to this album. I think, more than any of the albums that I’ve done, I wanted it to be theatrical, and that’s why I can’t wait until you actually get the album because the album is very laid out as if it’s a four-act musical theatre piece, and each act has a theme. Once again, it echoes my idea, which I never really thought about much, of a concept album. We thought about how, back in the day, you would have Jimi Hendrix put out Axis: Bold as Love, and there weren’t that many double vinyls back in the day. Do you remember any others?

I feel like it was a relatively new concept at that time.

Idris Ackamoor: It was; the Beatles doing a double album. It was kind of new, but here I am, and all four of my recent albums since 2012 have been double vinyl albums. I’m honestly saying that because it allows such a wide possibility. To answer your question, I just put so much of my person into it – my individual development as a musician, as a person, as a human. All of the tracks have a deep meaning, and people will listen to them. I’ve always been inspired by Selah and I’ve always been inspired by Bob Marley, and I feel like I break the mold as a jazz musician. In fact, the Pyramids, on our tours for 10 years, we haven’t necessarily been on the jazz circuit. We’ve been on the music circuit in Europe. Our audiences now are 20-somethings and 30-something years old and 40.

Shaman! is my nod to Selah, but the idea of being about a man’s vulnerability. We always think of a man breaking a woman’s heart, but this one had a lot to do with a woman breaking a man’s heart as well. It’s that vulnerability and what goes into it. “Clap three times, spin in the air, create a whole new world,” the lyrics became so important to me to create the story of each of these tracks and the narrative of the musical theatre piece. With “Shaman!” and moving into “Eternity,” I really love the track “Eternity.” With “Shaman!” and “Tango of Love” on Side A, that was really dealing with the personal, where we go through relationships. Then, you turn it over and Act Two is about getting a glimpse of eternity. The amazing thing about the album is that this was all recorded before the virus hit, and I think it’s important for people to know that because particularly when you turn the album over, and you have “Eternity” as the first track, and “When Will I See You Again?” as the second track, which is almost forecasting what we’re seeing now with this pandemic.

“When Will I See You Again?” is all about how our lives can change at the drop of a dime when a hole opens in your heart, when too soon a loved one parts. One moment is calm seas and bright sun, and in a blink of an eye, you’ve got to run. It’s kind of a nod to the mass shootings we’ve had, as well as the virus and the disproportionate effect that it has on people of color. It is a call of warning and with “When Will I See You Again?” we’re all asking, because we’re all sitting in our houses right now, not only when might I see a departed loved one, but when will I see people I know? “Will I See You Again?” is a forecasting piece that really affects me when I hear it.

Then when you turn it over, what I talk about on Side Three, whose shoulders we stand upon – with that, of course, I begin with “Salvation,” which is a nod to/because I’ve always been inspired by ‘Trane and Pharoah and Don Gilmore, Charles Tyler, and people like that. They’ve played roles in my development, particularly the ones – Charles Tyler, the alto player with Albert Ayler, or my saxophone instructors, but also the inspiration of ‘Trane and Pharoah and John Gilmore and people like that; shoulders upon whom I stand.

That’s followed by my homage to my teacher, Cecil Taylor, called “Theme for Cecil;” that’s Side Three. Side Four, that’s “Virgin,” and “The Last Slave Ship,” followed by “Dogon.” “The Last Slave Ship” is all about, can you imagine being the last slave to leave the motherland, and you’re the last to arrive in America? We, as African Americans, all think about that. When did my ancestor have to get on that slave ship, and imagine being the very last one? And, of course, “Dogon Mysteries;” I’ve always admired the people of the Dogon, of Mali, who are amazing astronomers and the ritualistic, animists of their culture and their music and their independence. They live on very high cliffs in Mali, and they escaped the influence of Islam when the armies of Islam influenced them and conquered a lot of parts of Africa and that area. The Dogon remained fiercely independent, having left to go to the cliffs, keeping their society and their traditions alive. More than anything, it’s the personnel that made this album special. Each person took my compositions, but they brought a unique amazing color. Margaux’s flute, Sandy’s violin, Bobby, Jack, Ruben. It’s about a unit making this album, and that’s why I’m so excited about it.

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