Wicked Theory, Naked Practice: A Fred Ho Reader

March 8, 2010

Edited by Diane C. Fujino
University of Minnesota Press

Composer, bandleader and baritone saxophonist; theorist about American Black, Asian and what he terms Womyn’s liberation; plus a committed revolutionary socialist, Fred Ho writes essays that are as uncompromising and defiant as his composing.

This wide-ranging collection elucidates his evolving philosophy from 1984 to 2006 while tracing his development as he terms it “From Banana to Third World Marxist”. Although his essays on the twists and turns of identity politics seen through the prism of dialectical materialism and Mao Zedong-styled Communism may alienate readers interested in music, politics are his very fabric. As he states: “When people ask me how long I’ve been playing the saxophone, I tell them as along as I’ve been in the struggle. When activists ask me how long I’ve been in the movement, I tell them as long as I’ve been playing the saxophone.”

Born to an assimilated family in Amherst, Mass. in 1957, Ho discovered improvised music when most students’ interests consist of Wiii, skin care and sports. By 25, he was a New York musician. His commitment to avant-garde jazz stemmed from exposure to charismatic tenor saxophonist and Black Nationalist-Socialist Archie Shepp, who taught along with Ho’s father at the university, and trumpeter Cal Massey, a Black Panther sympathizer, whose Afro-centric compositions were recorded by major figures like John Coltrane. Some of Ho’s most perceptive writing is his analysis of the influential, but little-known Massey, plus the roles of Shepp, poet Amiri Baraka and other jazz-sympathetic figures of the 1970s Black Arts movement.

Central to this is the saxophonist’s insistence that jazz is America’s true revolutionary music. “Every feature … is an expression of revolutionary dialectics. Demarcations are dissolved between soloist and ensemble; among melody, time and harmony; between composition and improvisation; between “traditional” and “avant-garde”; between “artist” and “audience”; …between “Western” and “Eastern” etc. Jazz involves the impulses to “go to the people, speak to the people” and “change the people”.

From 1976 to 1989 Ho was a self-described “cadre” of I Wor Kun (IWK), an Asian Black Panthers counterpart, then in the League for Revolutionary Struggle (Marxist-Leninist), which united IWK, Chicano and Black organizations forming a Communist group with what he calls a majority “oppressed nationality membership”. After he researched folk traditions of Asian groups in the United States, Ho’s jazz bands consciously used Asian instruments alongside Western ones and played compositions based on earlier Asian-American musics. Simultaneously he created multi-media programs including a martial arts ballet and operas with titles such as “Bound Feet” and “A Chinaman’s Chance”. Consequently his insider’s knowledge and jaundiced view of Asian American improvised music is another of his substantive themes.

According to Ho, not only must music “…draw from or reflect aspects of traditional Asian music influences” but also “help catalyze …consciousness about our oppression and need to struggle for liberation”. Subsequently, although most committed Asian-American improvisers have avoided what Ho labels “chop-suey ‘fusion’ music… [with] cute koto frills, ceremonious Chinese gongs and parallel fifths thrown in for spice like MSG”, the majority of players reject politics. Although Ho was involved with these musicians and initially recorded for the Asian Improv (AI) label, their a-political stance caused a rupture, and he charges he has since been banished from AI’s history.

Non-mainstream musicians will be most interested in parts of Wicked which illustrate how a defiantly anti-establishment, transgressive and ideological Marxist artist such as Ho manages to get his music before the public. How he “sells without selling out”. Ho controls his own means of cultural production through Big Red Media (BRM), a production company of which he is sole owner, president and chief executive artist. With his collaborators working part time on a commission basis this “guerilla enterprise” is a “combination of a small business corporation and old-time Leftist collective”. Raising money through such strategies as grants, fundraisers, sales and donations, BRM uses earned income to pay for new projects such as concerts and CDs and covers Ho’s living expenses. With associates who are “extremely committed and professional” and without a manager, BRM manages to be more profitable than if he was affiliated with a major record company. This strategy may be disingenuous since Ho appears to have made the free enterprise system he fervently opposes work for him.

Furthermore, Ho’s hostility towards capitalism may have intensified since 2006 when he was diagnosed with cancer despite monitoring his diet and exercising rigorously. Having twice undergone chemotherapy he figures that cancer will only be vanquished when the toxicity associated with burgeoning capitalism is eliminated. One wishes him well, but the ghoulish irony remains that if this revolutionary socialist is silenced, it will result from the carcinogens created by the society he has fought against for so long.

— Ken Waxman

— For MusicWorks Issue #106