When I first walked through the door of Fred Ho’s apartment in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, I asked, “How are you?” And he said, “Not good. I’m dying.”
Ho has always been matter-of-fact and in-your-face. He painted himself green and posed naked for the cover his album, Celestial Green Monster. In the photo, he has a baritone saxophone placed strategically between his legs. He looks strong — like the Hulk.
Ho is an accomplished jazz musician with 12 operas and several albums to his name. But he avoids the term “jazz” because he says it originally denigrated the work of black musicians. (He instead refers to some of his work as “Afro-Asian Futurism.”) Ho helped solidify Asian-American music as a genre of its own.
And now, 56-year-old Ho is in hospice, dealing with stage four colorectal cancer.
“You push the Hulk too far, you know, the Hulk would become this raging behemoth that would just smash everything this way, and that’s how I saw myself fighting the system,” Ho says about the photos. It’s mid-morning on a Friday, but already he seems tired, speaking slowly, lying on his couch with a catheter tucked underneath the elastic waistband of his pants.
(Ho, who makes his own clothing out of bright fabrics, tells me that he’s wearing the only T-shirt he owns. It’s a shirt that says “BRAISED PORK — WITH FAT” in Chinese and English. Ho loved braised pork so much that one of his friends made it for him after his cancer diagnosis back in 2006. They had a “fat back fan club,” he recalls with a grin.)
Fred says there’s a stereotype that Asian American men aren’t strong — or sexy — and he’s trying to help break that.
And he’s always been fighting against something since he was very young. When Ho was growing up, his father, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, faced a lot of discrimination at work. Ho says his dad was one of the college’s most published professors but also the lowest paid.
“He took it out on us — his anger, his frustrations — rather than fight the white establishment. So I learned a lesson, and it was to never internalize that stuff. So early on I became a fighter. A fighter both against the white establishment, white society, but also against our own kind that internalizes oppression.”
Ho says his father didn’t let his mother drive or even learn to speak English.
“She was on an allowance of 50 cents a week. I saw her arrested for shoplifting sanitary napkins at the age of 6. … The metaphor for my life is to turn pain into power, is never to become a victim. Become a revolutionary,” Ho says. He once told Harvard Magazine that he intervened as his father was beating his mother and gave his father two black eyes.
Ho is known both for his music — rowdy sounds that mix the thin, warbling noises of Chinese instruments with the swinging tunes of big-band music — and for his outspoken political views.
He’s prone to talking at great length about the history of the Black Power movement, or even explaining details of something he calls the Scientific Soul Sessions. The latter is his latest brainchild, born after his cancer diagnosis in August 2006. Scientific Soul Session members are “united by the drive to prefigure a new society free of imperialism, colonization, racism, heteropatriarchy & capitalist exploitation,” according to its website.
He was 14 when he read Malcolm X’s autobiography for the first time. Ho says art from the Black Power movement influenced many Asian Americans — including himself.
“We looked to the black experience as a reference, as a metaphor to our own,” Ho says.
Ho was also 14 when he started playing the baritone saxophone; he took it up and immediately felt a connection.
“This big horn that had this unyielding, raucous, raw and uncontrollable sound. And that came — that became my voice,” Ho says.
Decades later, Ho can coax six octaves out of his baritone — most players are lucky to hit five. There’s even a legend about Ho’s playing and how he knew he was hitting those high notes. He was at a music residency, practicing his baritone saxophone in his cabin late at night.
“I would notice that some points, the wolves and the coyotes were very close to my cabin because I could see their eyes, would be howling, and other times when I was playing in a normal hearing range they’d still be there but not saying anything,” Ho recalls.
But politics are never far from his music, and it’s not just about making beautiful sounds or hitting the high notes. Ho is also known for creating a new type of opera.
In Journey Beyond The West, a three-part opera, Ho re-imagines the ancient Chinese legend of The Monkey King. Monkey is born from stone and gets super powers through Taoist practices. And Monkey is a rebel who wants to become immortal, like the gods who oppress him. You’ll notice that unlike the original story, Fred doesn’t call Monkey a “king.” He’s just “Monkey,” since Ho’s story is set in a Communist paradise.
“It allowed me to create my own genre of opera that combined martial arts movement with fantastical characters and settings … it was filled with humor and satire,” Ho says.
Bill Shoemaker, a jazz critic who’s followed Ho’s work for more than 20 years, says that an artist who can change the dialogue that’s ongoing in jazz is just as important as the artist who creates a masterpiece.
“I think if you took 10 people who really know Fred’s music inside-out and you ask ’em, ‘OK, what’s Fred Ho’s masterpiece?’ I don’t think you’d get a unanimous verdict,” Shoemaker says. “But if you ask the same 10 people about artists who really change the dialogue, who really change the term of engagement between artist and audience, then they would say, ‘Yep, that’s Fred Ho.’ ”
Ho has even been trying to change the dialogue around cancer.
He was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006. He’s had 10 surgeries, five rounds of chemotherapy and all the different types of treatments you can imagine. Yet he’s still in-your-face. He sent graphic emails to friends about his cancer, all his symptoms, all his side effects. He thinks that cancer and capitalism are both toxic. One is bad for the body, one is bad for society. Now he’s published the emails in a book.
“I feel like for a long time, I thought, ‘Fred Ho will never die.’ … He is forever,” says Joseph Yoon, Ho’s long time friend and music manager.
And it seems like Ho is often getting calls from his friends. They phone rings. Multiple times. They ask how he is — even during our conversation.
“Personally, I’ve thought of [Fred Ho as] someone who I’ve both loved and feared over the years. But I think the former has overtaken the latter of late … he’s really helped me grow so much that I don’t have to fear him,” says Ben Barson, a student of Fred’s. Barson is one of Ho’s friends who are taking a 16-piece band on a tour of the Northeast. They want to introduce a new audience to the voice of Fred Ho.
“I’ve gotten over [dying] now. What hurts me most is the loss of my friendships. That’s the hardest difficulty I have… the physical death doesn’t scare me,” Ho says, his voice cracking. “What devastates me the most is the loss of what future joys and discovers might have happened if I didn’t die so young.”