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Fred Ho, Musician, Composer and Activist, Dies at 56

Fused African-American and Asian music with radical politics

Fred Ho

Fred Ho, a baritone saxophonist, composer and activist whose radical leftist views informed much of his music, died April 12 at his Brooklyn home. The cause was colorectal cancer. He was 56.

Ho had first been diagnosed with the disease in 2006 and chronicled his progress in battling his cancer in his books Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level and Raw Extreme Manifesto: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind and Change the World by Spending Almost Nothing, and in a blog. A film, Jazz, Cancer, and Life: Fred Ho’s Last Year, also delved into Ho’s life as the cancer spread.

In his work, Ho was known for his fusion of African-American and Asian motifs (including Chinese opera). An anti-discrimination activist, he often incorporated politically charged messages (at times in Mandarin) into his recordings, which generally aligned with the avant-garde.

Fred Ho was born Fred Wei-han Houn in Palo, Alto, Calif., on Aug. 10, 1957 (he changed his name in 1988). He moved to Massachusetts at age 6 and began playing baritone saxophone at 14. Ho spent 1973-75 in the Marines, then received a B.A. in Sociology from Harvard in 1979. He formed the Monkey Orchestra in 1980, followed by the Afro Asian Music Ensemble in 1982. He moved to New York in the early ’80s.

Most of his recordings were made with that latter ensemble for such labels as Soul Note, Koch and Innova; for other recordings he used band names such as the Green Monster Big Band and the Saxophone Liberation Front. Ho’s compositions also included ballets and operas as well as jazz, although he rejected that word, preferring “new American multicultural music” to describe his own work.

For a list of JazzTimes articles and reviews covering Fred Ho, go here.

Originally Published