When Fred Ho—a composer, saxophonist, writer, teacher and activist, died at his home in Brooklyn, New York on April 12, at 56, the music world lost an artist and thinker of singular vision and extraordinarily potent drive, one capable of playing the baritone saxophone with rare articulation and poise and of sharing a politically charged, spiritually driven ethos with the musicians who followed him. The world lost a tireless and true radical, who advanced an idea of Afro-Asian culture that was ahead of its time and of increasing relevance.
As Ben Ratliff wrote in his New York Times obituary,
Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.
Fred Ho’s music will be performed in his honor Wednesday night, April 23rd at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, as organized by his student, friend and fellow baritone saxophonist Benjamin Barson.
One of the great benefits of my work is that I get to absorb the legacies—the fine details as well as the larger purposes—of musicians through other musicians, which is the richest way to do it. Ben Barson has deep and touching insights into Ho’s music and mind. I invited Ben to write about Fred’s spirit and legacy here. Based on his piece, I trust that my edit process was nothing compared to say, working in Fred Ho’s band (or, for that matter, his kitchen).
TRUTH TO POWER: IN HONOR OF FRED HO (August 10th, 1957-April 12th, 2014)
By Benjamin Barson
To understand the truth of baritone saxophonist and composer Fred Ho is to also speak truth to power. To be around Fred was to be around a very powerful human being, who administered truth gracefully at times and brutally at others, but always consistently.
One forceful evocation of Fred Ho’s truth emerged early in my tutelage with the 5-10″ Chinese-American matriarchal ecosocialist (he believed in the political rule of mothers; and of a humanity retuned to the Earth’s ecosystems) after I set off Fred’s bullshit-detector: I showed up 20 minutes late to a lesson I had scheduled with him. Not a lesson on the baritone saxophone (I had been playing an old Buescher Aristocrat since 2008, and studying with Fred Ho since 2009) but on the stove: a cooking lesson. A lesson I specifically requested of him. He hovered over me, his eyes focused on my every chop of parsley, examining with perpetual disgust my clammy grasp of his magnificent custom-made blades, becoming frustrated at my failure to use the knife’s blade as a pivot (as he had so meticulously demonstrated before we started), and just exuding an undeniable odor of pissed-offness that he had to tolerate the inconsistency of a white male from a hippie school in the town he grew up (Hampshire College, in Amherst, Mass.) who couldn’t tell his parsley from his mint, much less revolution versus reform.
Fred’s ability to turn the aesthetic tables on his oppressors has always been one of his hallmarks; it was also a challenge directed at me, to walk the talk that I had begun to chalk when I was studying African-American studies at Hampshire College. No longer was it mighty enough to quote DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm and Assata Shakur: I had to actually live such ideas. To be Fred’s student, I had to hang as that “white panther.” Or as Fred Ho and Matt Meyer (Matt was an a comrade of Fred’s who worked closely with Fred on the freeing of solitary confinement victim Russell Maroon Shoatz into general population), later termed, become a “Maroon white” in reference to the legacy of (mostly Irish) white-skinned indentured servants in colonial America that escaped the plantation and forged independent communities with escaped slaves that lasted until well after the Civil War.
I do not know if I will ever experience a more unique, dynamic and transformative tutelage than that between Fred Ho and I. Four years later, from scampering around New York City as an inconstant millennial with an overcompensated vocabulary and a near-nil skill set, I can say I founded the music program at Marcus Samuelsson’s celebrated Harlem restaurant, Red Rooster; produced a five-city tour of Fred Ho’s Eco-Music big band; helped found a revolutionary political movement named Scientific Soul Sessions with some of the most creative and progressive artists on the planet; and reached a double-altissimo C on my baritone saxophone as well as all the chromatics in between (a particular feat that Adolphe Sax did not likely think possible when he designed his instrument, and which expands the normal range of the horn over twofold). All of that I owe to Fred, and more.
Fred Ho passed away on April 12th, 2014, at 7:30am, after 8 years of a brutal guerrilla war against cancer that took every front imaginable: from his red blood cells’ oxygen count, which he strove to maximize through oxidization treatments; to the complete removal of portions of his colon; to the quasi-military leadership of his support circle named “Warriors for Fred” that included leading artists and professionals such as librettist Ann Greene, poet Magdalena Gomez, and his composition student Marie Incontrera, all of whom, like myself, found Fred’s particular animus to be a cause worth fighting for.
So the question is, of course, where to start. Winner of a Guggenheim fellowship, developer of a new Asian-American musical genre, bandleader on over 20 CDs under his name and lifelong revolutionary, Fred defied categorization or easy biography. His melodies (Japanese plantation songs meets Mingus) and his mission (“to do the politics no one else can or will do”) have all been analogues for the long-term, living, truth-telling, no-stone-unturned kind of apprenticeship that he exacted on those who wanted to help build the “next world.” It wasn’t just that he taught me saxophone: He taught me the importance of driving the train, of setting goals and following through, of decisiveness or in his words “removing the bend from Ben” (a pun he liked to repeat no small amount). It was about organizing, about consistency and clarity, about the transformation of others through the transformation of oneself: this was, is, and always will be the true raw material of revolution.
Fred Ho’s music, after all, represented everything that I knew was possible at the spiritual center of “jazz.” At the core of Fred’s three decades of compositions was uncompromising innovation (such as one tune, “Rompin, Rumpin, Roastin’ at the Red Rooster,” which will be released posthumously, where an drum figure in 11/8 meter with a hip hop sensibility becomes overlaid with a de-tuned “Chinese” phrased saxophone melody. To top it all off, a trumpet counterpoint harmonization, in Western tuning, made it truly cross-cultural.) It was incessantly political (even his love songs referenced revolutionary metaphors, such as his classic “Underground Railroad to my Heart”). His music was fiercely Creolized (with its Afro-Asian concepts). Topping that all off, the guy could play the baritone saxophone. I’m talking decibel levels that would shake the roof every time he hit his low A or his triple-altissimo B. He could play quarter-tones between the quarter-tones between the Western half-steps, and then he could transform his horn into a cajon drum by using his tongue as a slapping device. His melodies consistently took place well above the official “limit” of saxophone (high F) by a wide margin, usually a 5th or an octave, after which he might suddenly drop down for a 5/4 ostinato that would drive the piece for the next several minutes.
But Fred’s saxophone gymnastics aren’t what made him an amazing bandleader. Fred wasn’t interested in where you were as a player, it was where you were going, what steps you were taking to get there. He saw your potential and he held your soul accountable to its call. His impossibly high four-part trumpet writing challenged his trumpet section (that he loved dearly) to improve their range and dexterity to where few safely tread. His tenor saxophone lines sometimes had to be played with no mouthpiece–evoking a traditional Vietnamese instrument, a To Diep horn (Listen to Bhinda Kidel and Salim Washington on Movement 3 of Sweet Science Suite for this trick); it gave the tenor sax players a whole new tonal concept that was a real Afro-Asian blend. Fred expected not your best, but something beyond your best, in his band—and if you couldn’t do that, he’d let you know, and you would do well to meet with him to discuss it.
Which didn’t stop cats from loving working him. His love of people’s potential overpowered all the false niceties of polite society. Veteran horn player—Earl McIntyre to David Taylor to Winston Byrd to Jay Rodriguez—all commented on how much they loved not only Fred’s music but the spirit required to play it the way it had to be played. Younger musicians such as Adam & Zack O’Farrill and Livio Almeida connected with a tradition of non-conformity and collective excellence that is all too uncommon among those raised within an era during which neocons have reigned supreme. What all cats, young and old, felt and loved was the moving forward of a collective consciousness that was in formation through the very insistence of the music itself: a music that crosses continents, crosses resistance movements, crosses generations, crosses meters, crosses five-part moving horn lines, and crosses people’s prior conception of themselves.
Fred’s hyper-productivity—he released over 20 albums as a bandleader, he wrote 11 martial-arts operas, invented a whole new genre of Asian-American music—was matched only by his constant quest to make himself obsolete, to destroy the vestiges of his ego. It was a lesson he learned in his 8 years of brutal cancer warfare:
“While I still retain my iron discipline, broad outlook and openness, anti-procrastination and ability to multitask, and move decisively, I have accepted that the purpose must not and should not be for egotistical competitiveness, career aggrandizement, accumulation…rather, self-development should be its own standard that is oftentimes counter to status quo terms and conceptions of success.” (p. 72, from his “Diaries of a Radical Cancer Warrior“).
It was his striving forward toward egolessness that led him to commit the end of his life’s work to develop new leaders; and such is the context in which he gave me his horn in November of last year—his glorious 1967 Selmer Mark VI low-A Baritone Saxophone, complete with alternate necks and, I believe, his ghost seeded deep in its bronze alloys. It is a torch I treasure with my soul and entire being.
Image: Courtesy bigredmediainc.com