‘The spirits of my ancestors empower me’: jazz great Idris Ackamoor on Afrofuturism, activism and André 3000

A musical seeker since childhood, the 73-year-old’s journeys have taken him from lessons with Cecil Taylor to a formative tour of Africa and now work with the Outkast star. He explains why he’s still chasing the next chapter

The greatest music by spiritual jazz maestro and acclaimed saxophonist Idris Ackamoor suggests a swirling symbiosis between the living and the dead. Take his 2020 song When Will I See You Again?, in which his unfeigned croak of the words “we’ll all be fine” suggests that the “freak storms” of sudden loss will ultimately be replaced by rainbows. Or there’s the more chaotic and wordless Sheba’s Dance Part 2 from 1973. It sounds like Crosstown Traffic played by a revolutionary African tribe, and a flute whistles into the abyss like a shaman hoping to awaken lost ancient spirits. It makes sense that the first instrument the 73-year-old musician ever learned to play was something that carried a link to his ancestors.

“My grandma Mary used to do the laundry for a white family, and they had this old piano that no one ever played,” Ackamoor says, reflecting on a childhood spent largely on the south side of Chicago, where racial segregation was prominent. “The family donated it to my grandma and it was later handed down to me as a seven-year-old. I always have real reverence for my ancestors: whenever I play music, I try to connect to their spirits. I want them to empower me.”

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