The New York City Jazz Record Interview:

With Fred Ho
By Ken Waxman

Composer, bandleader, baritone saxophonist, political activist and cancer survivor, Fred Ho has forged a singular path since the mid-1980s. Known for his multi-media creations, evoking his Asian heritage alongside African-American influences, Ho has received numerous awards, while his fight with colon cancer is documented in a new book.

The New York City Jazz Record: Both of your big bands are being featured this month. What distinguishes one from the other?

Fred Ho: My core band is the Afro Asian Music Ensemble [AAME], founded in 1982. The AAME is a sextet often used as the instrumental ensemble for many of my operas, for example, Warrior Sisters, Night Vision, Voice of The Dragon Episodes 1, 2 and 3, etc. The Green Monster Big Band was founded at the end of 2008 just after my diagnosis of a third cancer tumor and I was only given 1 in 30,000 chances of living. I wanted one last venture with my favorite musicians so a big band was logical. Until The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring of Muhammad Ali which premieres this month and includes dancers-choreographed by Christal Brown, the AAME was the group that played the scores to my operas. The AAME celebrates its 30th season for 2011-2012. Before composing new works for the Green Monster Big Band I listened to all the important big band recordings of the 20th century in order NOT to regurgitate any of these influences, but to create a big band repertoire that would represent the apex of the African-American large form.

TNYCJR: Are there musicians in the bands who have played with you over that 30 year period?

Fred Ho: No one has played with me for the entire 30 years. The tenures of my AAME are drummer Royal Hartigan since 1987; saxophonist Masaru Koga: since 1998; saxophonist Salim Washington and I didn’t professionally perform together until 2006 although he and I were musically collaborating since our days as teenagers at Harvard University; bassist Wesley Brown since 1995; pianist Art Hirahara since 2000. [Saxophonist] Sam Furnace played with me for 20 years before his death in January 2004.

TNYCJR: Most of your works over the years have been extended compositions. Were they extension of concepts by Duke Ellington and/or Charles Mingus you appreciated when you were younger?

Fred Ho: While I love the music of Ellington and Mingus, I have chosen not to regurgitate anyone or any influence. My extended works are the result of my desire to compose film scores of fantastical imaginative new worlds and new beings. The closest comparison is to Sun Ra’s cosmo-dramas, though my works are more narrative and utilize more stage production craft. I call my operas ‘living comic books’ or ‘manga operas’. The concept of opera is very radical, ‘root’ and ‘experimenal’ according to dialectical definitions: literally in Latin, to be ‘The Work’ and not just with singing and staging. For example, my martial arts operas feature martial arts instead of singing.

TNYCJR: Saxophonist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Cal Massey influenced you as a younger musician. Can you describe what each contributed to your work?

Fred Ho: I was a teenage when I studied and performed with Archie Shepp, in the early 1970s, when he joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I grew up. Archie then had a great sensibility about theater, and uniquely for a ‘jazz’ artist, had some of his early plays produced in New York. Archie had met and formed a close bond with the older Cal Massey, who Archie described as ‘the Coltrane collaborator.’ Cal’s music was at that time an important part of Archie's repertoire, including the musical, Lady Day, for which Archie, Cal and Stanley Cowell were musical composer/collaborators. I was very fortunate to not only be exposed to this music, but to perform in it. Cal’s music especially resonated with me, for its searing revolutionary politics, harmonic complexity and clarion soulful melodies.

TNYCJR: Were there other pivotal musical influences on you?

Fred Ho: All the baritone sax players, from Harry Carney, to Leo Parker, to Serge Chaloff, to Pepper Adams, to you name it, influenced me greatly, so much so that I clearly did not want to regurgitate any of them. I’m Chinese American. I wanted to play Chinese/Asian American baritone saxophone, not ‘jazz’ baritone saxophone. All the big bands influenced me. So did all the great composers. I revere the music and the artists so much so that I never want to replicate or allow them to have any direct influence upon me. Sun Ra influenced me to create cosmo-drama-like epic musical journeys on a shoe-string budget.

TNYCJR: Most of your projects celebrate such non-mainstream figures as Malcolm X, Mao Zedong and the Black Panthers. What difficulties have arisen trying to perform and/on record music involved with subjects like these?

Fred Ho: I was told by a celebrated record label and its executive producer that if I had Malcolm X on my album cover, with the U.S. flag turned upside down that the recording wouldn't be distributed in the U.S. I was told by the first executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center that while I am a talented composer and arranger, that I was completely wrong when it came to politics and ‘jazz’. I was told by the director of a division of a major music licensing agency that I would never ever have a career again for opposing racism in the music business. Repression against me wasn’t blatant or conspiratorial, it was ‘ignore him, he'll be marginalized and that’ll be his end’. The carrot and the stick. The carrot as many hope that if they keep their politics hidden, obscure or unnoticed, that they’ll have a chance to become ‘stars’. The stick as a former executive at a one jazz label I recorded for said to me: ‘This won't sell’.

TNYCJR: Your newest work honors Muhammad Ali. Isn’t he a more mainstream and less revolutionary figure than some of those who you have composed works about in the past?

Fred Ho: Damn man, Muhammad Ali was a revolutionary. After he wins the Olympic gold medal in boxing, but is refused service in his hometown diner, he throws his medal into the river. After he becomes the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, , he announces that he has joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Ali opposes the U.S. war in Vietnam, citing ‘No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger!’ He is stripped of his title, denied a career in the U.S., imprisoned for six months, vilified as an un-American draft evader, loses every penny he’s made, barely able to make a living, and can’t box professionally in the U.S. for over three years, at the height of his abilities. Against a far superior opponent, given no odds to win, the only boxer to knock out George Foreman, Ali, regains his title, becomes a hero beloved among the Third World and among all anti-racists and anti-imperialists, and has achieved world-wide recognition. If that isn’t revolutionary, then what is? My personal interest to homage Ali is motivated by how much his courage inspired me to fight on during the darkest days of the cancer war.

TNYCJR: Many of your CD length suites include what many would consider less-than-serious song as well as other material, including the Spiderman Theme and ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’. How do these pop-artifacts fit in with your other work and why record them?

Fred Ho: Again, a spurious dichotomy when what I do is create a ‘popular avant garde’. I have recontextualized ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ to be about the fall from the Garden of Eden. Did you examine the score? It is far more sophisticated than you might presume; for example, the voicings. The Spiderman theme is a blues. Is any blues less or more a pop-cultural artifact? Mission: Impossible theme is in 5/4 meter and I regard it far ‘better’ than Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’, which is supposed to be less a ‘pop’ piece because it wasn't a TV theme. I picked Spiderman because he was a breakthrough superhero character who had neurotic problems, human faults and weaknesses, etc.; ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ because it took up an entire side of a pop record album, the first time this was ever done. It’s often used in zombie and horror films for its ‘pagan-istic’ quality, but I chose to create a contrary view; instead of the prevailing and predominant view of human history as an ‘ascent’ from the primitive to the modern and civilized, but rather, as a descent from nature.

TNYCJR: In the past you have said that you dislike the word ‘jazz’ to describe your and others’ music because it is used pejoratively by whites to denigrate the music of Black Americans. Do you still feel that way? What about that the ‘jazz’ word seems to have been taken over by black conservatives such as Wynton Marsalis?

Fred Ho: Does the fact that gangsta rappers use the word ‘nigga’ lessen its deprecation? ‘Jazz’ is a racial slur and the continued usage ghetttoizes the art form, meaning, if it is truly America’s classical music’, then why call it ‘jazz’? Russian classical music isn’t called Ruzz. French classical music isn’t called Frazz. Chinese classical music isn’t called Chazz. I discuss this topic in an essay ‘What Makes 'Jazz' The Revolutionary Music of the 20th Century, and Will It Be For The 21st?’ in my book, Wicked Theory, Naked Practice. Wynton Marsalis is a Negro comprador. It makes sense he perpetuates the Auto-Oppression Syndrome so prevalent among the colonized and oppressed.

TNYCJR: Many of your CDs say that the ‘old’ Fred Ho died on August 4, 2006 from advanced colo-rectal cancer and notes that the ‘new’ Fred Ho was born on August 5, 2006. How is the “new” Fred Ho different from the “old” Fred Ho?

Fred Ho: I am 54 years old and simultaneously six years old. This is not gamesmanship or trying to be eccentric, it is very palpable. I am far more creative than ever before, and have reached a higher level mastery of baritone saxophone playing eight octaves. Here is the new Fred Ho: a. Eliminated ego; b. A part-time farmer and aspiring Luddite; c. Committed only to his mission on the planet to do the music/art and politics that no one else can or will do. d. Committed more than ever to living the impossible. e. Living life while prepared for death

TNYCJR: How will your health affect your future plans?

Fred Ho: One is never ever free of cancer. On one hand, the physical losses are tremendous; on the other, the philosophical and creative gains are tremendous. I have let go all baggage from the past and am only future-forward-minded. I have something few people ever have: the ability to see beyond corners, edges, boundaries and lineaments.

Do I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder? My legacy far exceeds that of ‘jazz’ and it is precisely this reality that is unfathomable and inconceivable to almost everyone in the ‘jazz’ industry On top of this, I’m financially more successful than the heralded ‘stars’. The enigma of Fred Ho is akin to giving Fred Ho one in 30,000 chances to NO chances of living from cancer.

—For New York City Jazz Record November 2011