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Systems of Governance


A jazz suite in the key of red. Gwen Ansell and Salim Washington celebrate the revolutionary life, language and hard-ass leadership of an unconventional saxophonist, composer and generous collaborator.

Gwen Ansell

Prelude: Home is where the violence is
‘Everything I create starts with the music… [and music]… like any conscious human activity, can be a force to change humanity, society and the world.’ Baritone saxophonist, composer, martial artist and revolutionary polymath Fred Ho (Fred Wei-han Houn) was born in Palo Alto, California in 1957 and grew up around the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where his father taught political science. By his mid-teens, he was playing baritone sax in his high school orchestra and consuming everything he could learn about the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement, the music called ‘jazz’, (Archie Shepp and Max Roach were on the faculty and their sons were his friends), and the emerging Asian-American movement.

His ‘first insurrection’, he told the Harvard Review, was staged at home. He used his fists to defend his mother against beatings from an authoritarian father who, despite the academic distinction he achieved, still suffered racism, which he ‘internalised and took out on those at home’. After high school, Ho was undecided about his future. A brief foray into the Marines taught him more about the violence of arbitrary command structures, imperialism and racism, his resistance contributing actively to its brevity. It also taught him skills – particularly in hand-to-hand combat – that he would later employ and teach in situations he saw as demanding revolutionary self-defence: ‘I’ve never subscribed to turning the other cheek, or to pacifism.’

Toyi-toyi: Fuck patriarchy
Fighting patriarchy at home made Fred Ho a militant. When he wrote his first opera score in 1985, Bound Feet, he attacked the Confucian practice of defining and restricting women through their bodies: a recurring theme in Ho’s compositions and texts since then. ‘I share the political view that violence against womyn [spelled this way by myself to take the ‘men’ out] will only end when womyn defend themselves by any means necessary and overthrow patriarchy.’ Ho saw all oppressions as rooted in capitalist patriarchy, and thus all struggles – for worker rights, immigrant rights, gender rights, land and environmental rights – as interconnected. He did not campaign ‘for’ women, with all the patronising baggage that position carried. He worked alongside women. His music, whether directly pro-matriarchy, such as Warrior Sisters (1991),Yes Means Yes, No Means No (1998) and Momma’s Song (2002), or more broadly radical, showcased the words of women, including poets Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Andrea Lockett and Christine Stark.

On stage or record, female musicians and performers featured in the line-up. As a writer and editor, Ho valued ‘first voice’, so in the books women speak for themselves and their own self-selected images were seen. For a couple of years, from 1998, Ho edited the Calendar of Sheroes and Womyn Warriors. All the works are often searing in their honest naming of abuse, but defiance, strength and hope also resound: ‘The blues is not about sorrow, but about hope.’

Slow blues: From a whisper to a shout
Racially bullied at school, Ho read the autobiography of Malcolm X and joined (and left) the Nation of Islam before he entered Harvard. There, he joined the radical Asian-American organisation, I Wor Kuen, which later became the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS). He described moving from nationalism toward Marxism as Harvard taught him ‘what I did not want to become… part of the elite’, and as he and his comrades saw the interconnectedness of all struggles. That was an era when many radical organisations argued that national and gender struggles should be mentioned softly, subordinated to the bigger battle; either the revolution would solve them, or they could be dealt with ‘later’. That’s not Ho’s position today. There is space on his pages and in his grooves for Chicanindio poet and activist Raul Salinas, feminist writer Christine Stark, African-American saxophone colossus Sam Furnace, Persian-American vocalist Haleh Abghari, and too many more to number. The battlement-shaking shout of protest in his work is made up of diverse voices, each confident in its identity, all hollering together.

The diversity of militant voices in Ho’s work owes much of its inspiration to the Black Arts Movement (BAM), which flourished between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. For cultural workers around BAM, art was a powerful tool for social change. To enhance its punch, inspiration was drawn from multiple sources, and art forms and codes of expression – words, images, sounds – were integrated and deployed in iconoclastic ways.

Intermezzo: wooden-fish chant.
Buddhist monks used hollow fish-shaped wooden blocks to strike rhythm while chanting the sutras. The practice was adopted by Taoism and much later fed into the Gold Mountain lyrics: workers’ songs by Chinese immigrants to America. By legend, the fish never sleeps: it’s all about wakefulness and so is Fred Ho’s work. Political, academic and mass-media hegemonies have rendered words like ‘struggle’ and ‘revolution’ unfashionable even when they are the most useful words for certain realities. They have buried the histories of militants, such as jazz trumpeter and composer Cal Massey, inside whose music ‘one could hear the Black Panthers marching’. Ho tells it like it is, restoring memory, replacing linguistic fashion with revolutionary style, waking up our ears and tongues again to the discourse of change.

Shifting groove: The journey to the future
When Ho moved away from the LRS, one factor was:
its ‘line’ on cultural work of producing work that would be ‘accessible’ – in my view, tailing the familiar and conventional… Revolutionary art is about what is coming into being. Therefore it is innovative… I am adamantly against one-dimensional, so-called ‘correct’ prescriptive forms that bourgeois critics try to label as ‘political art’. I’m also not in favour of the errors of socialist-realist art with its glorified ‘socialist heroes’, but favour imaginative critical realism: a sensuous rendering of the colourful material world. Art can fill us with love, with hope and with revolutionary vision.

The future, the fresh, the barrier-breaking were important to Ho. The music called jazz, he declared has ‘revolutionised the world of music by introducing new instrumentations… or refiguring others, [creating] aesthetic transformations of the very components of melody… rhythm… and harmony’. His first opera, Bound Feet, employed Chinese traditional instruments like the son and er-hu. As he explored the use of these further, in ‘using jazz voicings in harmonising traditional instrumental parts’, he ‘discovered fresh timbral qualities – something Afro-Asian in sensibility’. Such musical alchemies, founded on a deep analysis of forms and a mastery of technique, were very different from the pastiches of commercial World Music. Those he described as merely legitimising cultural appropriation while rendering the real authors invisible.

Ho cheerfully mines the now for ideas about what’s coming next: manga comics, pop music and, like Sun Ra before him, science fiction. As he told Jazz Times, since commodified big pop culture has always appropriated ideas from the genuinely authentic, there is no reason why the popular culture of the small – the guerillas – can’t ‘go into the big and abscond with something from it.’

He also tries to live the future: a pared-down, less environmentally wasteful lifestyle; collective music-making and self-reliant ‘guerilla production and distribution approaches’ that bring in a modest income without ‘being indentured to the system’. Ho, wrote Archie Shepp, was ‘making art for the free world even before it really exists outside the rhetoric of those who keep it unfree’.

Rearranging the elements: celestial green giant
Ho was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006 and his book, Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior, documented his struggle with the disease and with capitalist (allopathic) medicine. That first diagnosis, he declared, marked the death of ‘Old Fred Ho’ and the birth of a new one. He now farms and eats a raw food diet, more mindful of the ways capitalism damages life and the earth, and of the necessity for eco-socialism: ‘Capitalism is cancer for the planet; cancer is the social and environmental toxicity of capitalism for the individual person.’ Recurrent tumours have reduced his establishment-calculated odds of survival to less than one in 30 000, but he fights on, embracing the Samurai warrior philosophy of living while preparing for death.

Coda: real dragon-flying
It is hard to construct a complete discography or bibliography for Ho, or even to list all his official awards and accolades. There is simply too much. After his fourth recurrence of cancer in 2010, he embarked on an intensive series of recording projects: ‘I’ve been gifted with continuing life and I don’t want to squander it.’ But go online and listen to his performance of his 2008 composition for baritone saxophone and orchestra, When the Real Dragons Fly, which premiered with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (available at Listen to his baritone soaring up across multiple octaves toward realms that should be impossible for the instrument. Like the man says: ‘The journey into the future should proceed without past hindrances of any kind, including dogma, sectarianism, issues, grudges… Travel light.’

Salim Washington

At Harvard: revolutionary enthusiasm and dedicated technique
What attracted me most indelibly to Fred initially was his relationship to the music. More than the correctness of his political line, it was his understanding of the music that marked him as hip in my eyes, and which initially secured our friendship. We were both saxophonists and flutists, and we were both serious about being composers. I admired his ability to write long forms and he admired my ability to write good bass lines. But although my compositions had been about my love affairs and other adolescent longings, Fred’s were about political struggle and dismantling the capitalist system. I was intrigued.

We began performing together, mostly playing Fred’s compositions and reciting his poetry. His aesthetic was closer to W.E.B. Dubois’s notion of art as truth and propaganda than to Harlan Ellison’s ideal of symbolic heroism. We chanted for the death of multinational corporations, decried the greed of capitalists and landlords, and championed the oppressed nationalities and the working class in our shows. My love of the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk had prepared me for these experiences of meshing political vision with jazz technique. How thrilling it was to collaborate with a like-minded person. While most of our musical peers down the street at Berklee College of Music were staking their lives on being ‘discovered’ and becoming famous as the baddest cats on their instruments, Fred was already demonstrating that an artist could be dedicated and sincere without being careerist and without living in an artistic ivory tower.

Our music wasn’t all politics, and we put a lot of store in building our technique and understanding how the masters built their art. Fred encouraged me to memorise études from Yusef Lateef’s Flute Book of the Blues, and to transpose them in all keys, a text and practice that I use with my students to this day.

There were moments of tenderness as well. We did a performance together in 1979, shortly after the death of my mother, when Fred quietly omitted ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ from the programme. I also remember some slight improvisations I used in the poetry recital that night, to add a more vernacular phrasing and greater urgency. He responded by sending a letter thanking me for playing and reciting, beautifully. This was a cherished letter coming from a young man who seemed long on criticism and short on praise.

The Interim Years: Building the music and the vision
Shortly after this we went our separate ways. Fred moved to New York and I went down south on the road with a band of jazz spiritualists. It wasn’t long before I got a letter from Fred chronicling his musical growth and success. He had carved out a space for himself in the Big Apple. In between he sent me a letter about the jazz luminaries that he was meeting and playing with after joining drummer Charlie Persip’s band. He was now going through a box of reeds every week, he wrote. His exuberance was just the beginning. He would soon become a big name in the Asian-American jazz community on both the east and west coasts, and recognised as a composer.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had begun to think that my music was best used for fomenting greater connection to spiritual consciousness and became less involved in organised politics as such. Meanwhile, I went to a Boston performance of Fred’s, which included the soulful, incendiary saxophone stylings of the late Sam Furnace, and included a polemic against Trey Ellis’ recently published essay, ‘The New Black Aesthetic’ (Callaloo, 1989), which posited a post-integration black aesthetic removed from issues of authenticity and blackness per se. It was not simply a clearing of space for new black artists who freely mined their white influences, but also a generational and cultural distancing from the political content of the Black Arts Movement. As we were catching up, Fred informed me that he was trying to rebuild the socialist movement in the United States. I got the feeling that he was fully prepared to do so single handedly, if necessary. When I moved more permanently to New York, we began collaborating more regularly again.

From then to now: freedom, discipline and making the new in jazz
I have played in a variety of contexts with Fred during the 30-plus years that we have known each other. We began and ended with duos, combining our musical and political thoughts with songs, poems, speeches, improvisations, and question and answer sessions. Since the late 1970s, I have also played in Fred’s ensembles, ranging from the sextet format of the Afro Asian Music Ensemble (AAME) – which is my favourite – to his various sax quartets, including the Brooklyn Sax quartet and more recently the Saxophone Liberation Front, to the Green Monster Big Band: a slightly expanded big band comprised of his favourite players, put together when he thought his transition was near. Each of these contexts is not only different in format, but also in operating procedures necessitating differing praxes.

In all of Fred’s ensembles there is a strong commitment to creativity, and hence a certain kind of freedom. But at the same time there are also strict orders to not play conservatively and, the larger the ensemble, the more specific he can be about what he wants and does not want from his players. By the time you get to the big band, it is quite clear that this is not a democracy. Rather, this is Fred’s band and his vision, though of course with very individual players who bring a wide palette of expressive devices and strategies to bear upon every aspect of the music. Fred has very specific ideas about what it means to fuse the Asian- and African-American aesthetics, and he will yell, and cajole, and even fire you if you do not meet his standards.

Likewise, he is irritated beyond belief with sloppiness of any kind, especially tardiness, lack of preparation, and not taking initiative to improve things. It is difficult to manage large groups of musicians and jazz musicians are not known for being particularly anal about logistical matters. Fred has absolutely no patience whatsoever for this and therefore runs a very tight ship. But alongside this tendency there is also openness to accepting ideas, amendments and the contributions of his band members. In fact, while there is never any doubt about whose band it is, there is always very meaningful collaboration.

There are other practical reasons for Fred’s hard-ass leadership style beyond the herding cats phenomenon of leading jazz musicians. His music is quite challenging and some passages are downright difficult. He uses very unusual metric schemes, like 15.5/8 or 11/4, and will mix them freely. Many times he will write figures that are reminiscent of the groove musics we are already familiar with, but write them in a very awkward timeframe and demand that we bring the same funkiness that we have in 4/4 to these new contexts. Also, he routinely writes beyond the normal range of the saxophone and has devised his own language, based upon attempts to be supra-normal and heroically non-conventional; all underpinned by a constant effort to make it all swing. The rewards are immense, including the satisfaction of musical achievement in the technical sense, but also in the excitement in the music and for the audience. There is the real sense that we are making revolutionary music to spur us and everyone on to new thoughts and new actions.

One of my most satisfying moments was the collaboration recorded on the Sweet Science Suite, dedicated to Muhammad Ali, and subsequently performed at the Guggenheim Museum along with the InSpirit dance company led by Christal Brown The fourth movement, called ‘Rope a Dope’ – in honour of Ali’s revolutionary strategy to beat George Forman against all odds – is Fred’s arrangement and orchestration of my own composition, ‘Self Love/Revolutionary Ontology’, which I had composed while on tour with the AAME and which I dedicated to Fred. I provided some voicings along with the composition and he made a beautiful orchestration of the piece and also retained space for me to keep my improvisational flair, which has several contrasting motifs and feels. The struggle for self-love – not for vainglorious conceit, but for acceptance in the face of oppression and induced self-doubt, or even what is known as self-hatred – was a struggle Fred had engaged in, as had I.

Playing in Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble is a thrilling experience and satisfying on many levels. For one thing, in an industry that is all too often racially segregated, it is nice to play with Asians, blacks and whites, in a band that acknowledges that there are differing aesthetics at play within the jazz world, but strives to fuse them and create something new rather than reifying the differences and reinforcing the now-prevailing practice of ignoring the margins and establishing a retrospective (conservative) canon.

This piece features in the Chronic (April 2013). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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