When I began playing jazz over 30 years ago I felt it to be music that was leaning its sounds in the leftist direction. Being in the jazz world gave me the feeling of being in a secret underground, a place outside the all-American white-bread Christian society that was always telling me what to believe and how to behave. To not ask too many questions, to not break the everlasting capitalist rules and regulations, to feel superior as a man with a white face. I never got comfortable in this selfish world where every man was for himself and the goal in life was to try and acquire as many things as possible. For me jazz was a safe place outside this crazy mixed up world. A place with heart. A place with fairness and positive energy. A place with thinking creative people. A place where musicians worked together as equals.
But as I've gotten older I've sadly watched jazz be eaten up by the CD conglomerates and the big promoters who've tried to turn jazz into just another piece in the capitalist jigsaw puzzle. I've seen the jazz world become more and more racially polarized. I've watched as musicians are told to make music that's marketable, to be sure to wear the right clothes and to present a picture perfect package to the 'Crest Toothpaste' buying public. I've watched as King Wynton Marsalis has tried to force his conservative view of jazz on the unknowing public with the help of the critics and filmmakers he has in his pocket. What's a left wing-idealist to do? Maybe we could try and follow in the footsteps of Fred Ho, a fantastic Chinese-American baritone saxophonist, composer, political activist and leader of The Afro Asian Music Ensemble and the Journey Beyond the West Orchestra. Fred Ho has fought his way through the western world with a leftist vision of music and society and points us in another direction toward cooperation and multiculturalism.
I first met Fred 20 years ago when I watched and listened with amazement to one of his performances that combined his Duke and Mingus-tinged jazz with Asian folk music as well as with dance and political poetry. I was very excited at Fred's out in the open, in your face political statements about race, capitalism and culture as well as his soulful diverse musical style. Shortly after meeting Fred and talking to him of my political and musical directions I was asked to join his Afro Asian Music Ensemble. What a great multi-ethnic ensemble this was with altoist Sam Furnace, tenor player Hafez Modirzadeh, bassist Kiyoto Fujiwara, and world music percussionist Royal Hardigan. This was music to sink your teeth in. With titles like Turn Pain Into Power and Bamboo That Strikes Back and We Refuse to be Used and Abused it felt like music with a purpose. I was proud to be a part of this ensemble and to make strong musical and political statements to that world outside I had been rejecting for so many years.
But this is only the tip of the Fred Ho iceberg. Besides being a creative baritone sax player Fred is a brilliant composer of many large and small-scale pieces often commissioned by many important arts organizations throughout the United States. He wrote the first contemporary Chinese American opera which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called A Chinaman's Chance which is based on a bilingual Chinese and English libretto and combined traditional Chinese and Western instruments. He also composed music for a number of theater pieces. One is called A Song for Manong: Part III of Bamboo That Snaps Back which was a tribute to Filipino immigrant laborers in the United States. For this piece Fred combined indigenous kulintang music and dance with his own jazz musical visions. The Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey! is another great musical theater piece that is based on the popular Chinese trickster Monkey and was performed at the Joseph Papp Theater. Fred also wrote Turn Pain into Power, a multimedia oratorio written in both Spanish and English. Also to Fred's' credit is a martial arts ballet and music theater epic called Once Upon a Time in Chinese America, a vampire opera called Night Vision: A Third to First World Vampyre Opera as well as a feminist fantasy action opera called Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors. In addition Fred has edited a couple of great books. One is called Legacy to Liberation: Politics and Culture of Revolutionary Asian Pacific America and the other is titled Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution. For years Fred has been giving lectures at Universities all over the U.S. sharing his political knowledge and musical insights. He's received more awards than you can shake a stick at and has recorded over a dozen albums under his own name. A few recommended ones are: Tomorrow is Now! on Soul Note (Named best album of the year by the Chicago Observer and Village Voice choice album of the decade), Bamboo That Snaps Back on Finnadar/Atlantic (Coda magazine critics choice album of the year), We Refuse to be Used and Abused on Soul Note (Village Voice choice album of the decade), The Underground Railroad to My Heart also on Soul Note (Village Voice best albums of 1994) and any of the soundtracks to his musical theater works and operas.
Fred Ho is a brilliant musician and human being who helps me to keep my faith in the future of jazz and the world at large. Go check him out as soon as you can!