In a world obsessed with finding the secret of immortality, San Francisco Afrofuturist musician Idris Ackamoor attributes the longevity of his career to one simple thing: an unwavering DIY ethic.
“I cannot overstate how this has enabled me to truly live my life as an artistic being,” he says. “This lifelong learning has been instrumental in my self-determination and independence of action and vision. And although it has taken many learning hours, devotion and perseverance, it continues to be my secret weapon.”
The multi-instrumentalist and composer credits this varied learning—which includes video editing, bookkeeping/accounting, Photoshop and even tap-dancing—with enhancing his musical talents.
Ackamoor may not show all those skills when he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his band, The Pyramids, in Underground Jazz Cabaret at the Lab in San Francisco on Feb. 2-3. The two-night run launches The Pyramids’ latest album, “Afro Futuristic Dreams” as well as features Danny Glover and Rhodessa Jones reading features tone poems.
Even with decades in the rearview, Ackamoor has no plans to stop.
On Feb. 1, he will be joined by Glover and Jones in a free workshop, part of a series he founded called “Don’t Drop Dead on Stage: Sustainability, Prosperity and Success in the Performing Arts!” He says he established the series, which stresses nutrition as well as financial know-how, after witnessing his heroes and colleagues spend their final year in poverty.
“Strangers and fans would have to hold gatherings and fundraising campaigns just to bury them,” he says. “The key to keep performing into my later years is good health! I wish John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, or even Bird [Charlie Parker] had the institutional support that provides health care, retirement benefits, and other sustainable life outcomes which might have had them living into their 90s.”
Ackamoor recently secured his future by selling his 50-year catalog of master tapes to a “musical conglomerate” for a six-figure sum while maintaining his own publishing and writing royalties. That sort of forward thinking was what brought him into the orbit of veteran actor Glover and renowned cabaret performer Jones; both were longtime admirers before becoming collaborators.
“He did a one-man show, in North Beach I think,” says Jones, recalling her first encounter with Ackamoor. “I was curious because he was so dedicated to making his presentations work: costumes. He was the first person I saw wear zoot suits, but it was all about jazz. We would stumble upon each other at different events. Then, we would talk about the art world: what happened, what could happen. We ended up doing a show together, and we sort of clicked. Then he told me, ‘Quit your day job. We can do this.’ I was nervous about that.”
For Jones, who created The Medea Project, which unites theater and incarcerated women, meeting Ackamoor inspired her to flourish artistically and gave her a sense of how art should connect with the community.
“You have to be engaged with people at their level,” she says. “My parents were migrant workers. My mom was a singer, my dad was a great storyteller. They had to be busy to feed and clothe 12 kids. I was one who decided not to do that but [instead] flex and have a really good time with my life. Working with Idris, I was privy to watch him create music and tell stories with music. He made me understand that this is really a job. It’s not just a passing thing until you’re too old to play. His tenacity was that, as long as you’re willing to put in the work and time, you could be in arts for a long time.”
Jones introduced Ackamoor to her friend Glover, the acclaimed actor, activist and San Francisco native. Glover, a lifelong jazz-lover, says the friendship he developed with Ackamoor inspired him to attempt something in Ackamoor’s primary artform.
“It’s all music,” says Glover. “It’s all connected parts. I am grounded in so many ways… struggling with ideas, and also in communicating new ideas and emotions in this constantly transforming thing—being. Music is the conduit. No change in the brain. It’s just a different form of expression, inspired, and centering with the story. I think that music and rhythm are part of what we’re evolved from, and how it evolves.”
For Glover, Underground Jazz Cabaret not only represented a chance to celebrate the life’s work of a friend and colleague, but to also reconnect with an audience during the ongoing pandemic.
“It changed how we conduct ourselves with people now,” says Glover. “The older I get, the less I go out. The pandemic had an amazing impact on how we conducted our business lives. What happens in any new situation like this is it establishes new guideline for relationships. People were limited by actions and culture. They say that the 20th century was the century of the self. Well, now there are different ways that we have to adjust our lives as a result.”
Connecting the past with the future is foremost on Ackamoor’s mind. Looking back, he’s still hurt by the 2022 passing of his friend, musician Pharoah Sanders. Looking to the present, he loves listening to the acclaimed jazz album “New Blue Sun” by Outkast rapper André 3000 and produced by Ackamoor’s close colleague, Carlos Niño. Looking forward, he greets news of closed independent artistic spaces with an inspirational optimism of what can come next.
“After a half-century in the performing arts, it seems like I have seen it all, experienced it all, from the depths of the trenches when I had to pawn my instrument, to the heights of having my last four albums declared as ‘albums of the year’ in many music polls,” says Ackamoor. “Although a corporate entity bought my catalogue for a significant sum, I still own all my publishing and writing royalties through my publishing company, Aomawa Music, BMI – which I founded in 1976! The future of Black art must revolve around continuing the DIY ethic, collaborations, sharing of resources, out-the-box thinking. global centrism and connectivity and breaking down barriers and borders!”
Underground Jazz Cabaret is at 8:30 p.m. Feb 2-3 at The Lab, 2948 16th St., San Francisco. Admission is $35-$50. For details, visit thelab.org.