A Tribute to Fred Ho

by Taylor Ho Bynum

I dreamed I saw Fred Ho last night.

He had just finished a concert with a saxophone quartet – his inimitable, inexhaustible baritone powering and prodding the music like Harry Carney possessed by Charles Mingus. In the dream, the concert was a benefit or tribute of some kind, perhaps acknowledging his own battle against cancer, perhaps raising awareness for one of his many passionate causes (such as his successful campaign to free political activist Russell ‘Maroon’ Shoatz from solitary confinement), perhaps some combination of the two. I saw him in the street after the show, and complimented him on the strength of his playing, but Fred acknowledged this might be his last performance, he knew his time was running out. In a sci-fi twist Fred would have appreciated, I was from the future, so knew this was true. (We then discussed how it was lucky I didn’t run into myself, challenging the continuity of the timespace and threatening reality as we know it.)

In the waking world, Fred died on April 12, 2014. One of the advantages (if one can use so crass a word for such a brutal experience) of a public eight-year war with cancer is you get to attend your own wake in some way – Fred was in the room at the many events celebrating his music and legacy before his death, and those of us touched by his work could testify to his profound influence.

I first met Fred in the mid-90s. As a young Chinese-American jazz musician named Ho, the basic discovery of his existence was empowering. I wouldn’t be the only one in the world of crazy music. But it was the sounds that pulled me in, an intoxicating stew of Ellingtonian harmony punctuated by outbursts of passionate post-free solos, Western saxophones and trombones blended with traditional Chinese erhus and pipas, driving off-kilter rhythms crossed with big band tropes from the glory days of Mancini-era film soundtracks. As a college student, I staged a theatrical version of the Monkey King story using Fred’s music. He was impressed enough to bring me in as a production assistant for the premiere of his epic Journey Beyond the West the next year at Brooklyn Academy of Music – that began an informal mentorship and long friendship that lasted almost two decades.

As Fred’s bio makes clear, he was always a complicated man – who else can count Harvard University, the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the Marines Special Services, the Nation of Islam, and the Gil Evans Orchestra amongst their personal history? Fred was a dedicated socialist, yet one of the most extraordinary artistic entrepreneurs of the past several decades, independently producing and touring several of his martial arts operas, proudly accounting their financial success to the penny. He advocated for a worker’s revolution while remaining dictatorial in running his own band, demanding not just musical excellence but a degree of obedience and punctuality highly unusual in the jazz world (though reminiscent of his hero Sun Ra). In addition to his identities as a musician and a political activist, he was his own kind of fashionista, designing his own clothes with an “Afro-Asian” sartorial style where dashikis and kimonos collided in shocking color. He was confident to the point of arrogance, but always backed it up – Fred produced. Be it solo performances or multi-media extravaganzas, activist organizing or politically charged writings, Fred made it happen on the highest level.

For all of Fred’s uncompromising nature and focused ambition in his own work (we were probably better friends because we were rarely collaborators), he was remarkably generous. He regularly advised younger artists on navigating contracts, grants, and touring; he shared contacts and ideas; he gave tips on bandleading and arranging. He also offered the rarest of gifts – when asked, he would give bracingly honest and opinionated critiques on people’s work, demanding the same excellence of them as he demanded of himself. The consistent aesthetic clarity of his position always provided an energetic and illuminating debate, even when (perhaps especially when) our tastes diverged.

When Fred received his diagnosis of advanced colon cancer in 2006, he spoke of the moment as a rebirth, the beginning of a “new” Fred Ho. However, now in retrospect, I see his last eight years more as an elegant coda. Fred’s commitments and beliefs never wavered. Rather than giving up or succumbing to depression, Fred formed an 18-piece ensemble (the Green Monster Big Band), organized a political activist think tank (the Scientific Soul Sessions), composed an interdisciplinary tribute to Muhammad Ali, and wrote two books about his war with cancer. The inevitability of death brought Fred’s music and words a different and powerful kind of introspection, but in many ways he remained the same brilliant, stubborn, revolutionary hard-ass he always was.

When Fred died, I was in the middle of producing a wildly ambitious four and a half hour opera by Anthony Braxton, so did not have the time to mourn. And I knew Fred would not have me stop for sentimentalizing, the work had to come first. (In fact, I had met three of the singers in that opera through Fred, another testament to the generative nature of his friendship.) Like all great artists, that seems the truest way to honor Fred Ho – certainly to acknowledge his passing, but do it while moving forward rather than looking back. Do it by making new, uncompromising, vibrant, contradictory, beautiful, angry, funny, human art, informed by the trickster spirit that just left us.

I dreamed I saw Fred Ho last night
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Fred, you’re three weeks dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he...

Standing there as big as life
Smiling with his eyes.
Fred says, "What they forgot to kill,
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize!"

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