Pheeroan akLaff was born in Detroit, Michigan January 27, 1955, and named Paul, by his parents in honor of Paul Robeson one of their favorite musicians. Though his parents did not play instruments they enjoyed dancing with the Lunceford, Basie, Eckstein, and Ellington bands. His mother, distantly related to Wings Over Jordan choir director Glenn T. Settlle, was a fan of classical repertoire. His father is a Jazz fan and audiophile. This spawned a musical household in which all seven children had music lessons at some stage of their development. Eric, the eldest became a concert pianist and choir conductor.
Largely an autodidact, with some years at Eastern Michigan University, Pheeroan studied privately with Randall Hicks (New Jersey Symphony Orchestra), and "Pistol" Allen (Motown) in his youth, and was encouraged by his brother Eric Maddox, Dwight Andrews, and several musicians at nearby University of Michigan, Ann Arbor to pursue music. He played in bands, with arranger Travis Biggs, facilitating his first recording date; a 45rpm for local R&B singer Major Lasky titled Remember Me Always (1973). He could enjoy hearing this on the radio when he was 18 years old.
In 1975 akLaff moved to New Haven Connecticut with fellow detroiter Dwight Andrews, started a band named DejaVu, and connected with mentor Rashied Ali, drummer of John Coltrane''s ensembles in New York. He also encountered Wadada Leo Smith who introduced him to Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis and others in New York who set in motion his accompanist career with legendary creative musicians.
Pheeroan akLaff believes that the arts are a way to give thanks, and to work for change. He is a musician who has kept New York vibrant with emerging performance art for over thirty years. His personal style of drumming with adventuresome composers has been voluminously documented in several areas of music.
As a young artist Pheeroan akLaff toured several countries of Africa, Asia and Europe. His associations with Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis, Henry Threadgill, Sonny Sharrock, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Yamashita Yosuke, Amiri Baraka, Liu Sola, Henry Brant, and several vanguard composers present a treatment of expansive musical systems.
He produced a wave of Funk and Reggae influenced performances and recordings in the 1980’s. after his Urban West African music immersion in Abidjan, Cote D”Ivoire with the Marie Rose Guiraud dance troupe. Fortuitously he met Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Sonny Okosun, and Steve Rhodes with scholar Frank T. Fairfax III, in Lagos Nigeria, 1981. In 1982 he performed with Oliver Lake in Malawi, Swaziland, Cote D'Ivoire Togo and Liberia, and in 1992 with Jay Hoggard, in Morocco, Syria,Jordan, Sudan,Egypt and India for the State Department.
In the 1990's he presented at the Willisau festival of Switzerland, the Sju festival of the Netherlands, the Montsalvat festival of Australia, the Moers, and the Nurnberg festivals of Germany. He led the Double Duo ensemble with two saxophonists; Mixashawn and Ravi Coltrane, and with two drummers; akLaff and his mentor Rashied Ali.
In 1996 he performed a musical dramatization of Frederick Douglass Chronicles. On August 6th 2005, a solo concert at Saikoji temple, Nagano marking the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, W Can't Win oratorio March 3, 2003 at Jazz Gallery.
Since 1991. Mr.akLaff has taught drums to University students at New School University in New York, and at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.