Arts & Culture

Blowing his own horn

5 min read

Arts Medalist Fred Ho shares ‘rebirth,’ debuts new piece

A lively Fred Ho ’79 told a crowd at the New College Theatre Nov. 13 that he died three years ago.

“A new Fred Ho had to be born,” said the saxophonist, composer, writer, producer, and political activist of his “rebirth” after a successful three-year battle with colon cancer.

Ho addressed the audience as recipient of the fall 2009 Harvard Arts Medal, an honor “bestowed upon a distinguished Harvard or Radcliffe alumnus or alumna, or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts and has made a contribution through the arts to education or the public good.”

A prolific author and composer, Ho is known for a unique musical style that fuses elements of traditional Chinese and African-American music with jazz to create a rich, multicultural, multidimensional sound. He has published several books and recorded more than 15 albums.

At the award ceremony, the artist and onetime Harvard Jazz Band member discussed his life and work with journalist and media commentator Callie Crossley of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Topics ranged from Ho’s approach to incorporating traditional forms of Eastern music — part of his Chinese-American heritage — into his compositions to his radical politics and his cancer diagnosis.

In response to a question about the place of politics in his music, Ho said, “I don’t see it as mechanical, as injecting politics into music. I see music and politics as inseparable. I see the best politics as a creative act, and the best music as art that shakes the world.”

In her remarks before presenting the medal, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn Hammonds summed up Ho’s commitment to his art, saying, “Fred Ho has expanded musical definitions and experiences through the integration of Asian-American sensibilities and historical experiences. His music and aesthetic — his voice — are uniquely his, and there is no mistaking the fullness of that voice with any other.”

The Harvard Jazz Bands delivered a roiling performance the following evening (Nov. 14) in Lowell Lecture Hall, in a tribute to the honoree that included jazz works by composers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Benny Carter.

But the night belonged to Ho and what he calls his “revolutionary earth music.” The concert featured the premiere of his piece, “Take the Zen Train,” which he performed with the Harvard Jazz Bands, as well as with three undergraduate dancers.

With his baritone saxophone sounding at times like a thumping base beat, at times like a screeching animal call from the wild, Ho led the student group through his 1975 piece “Liberation Genesis” and into “Take the Zen Train,” what he referred to in the program notes as his “journey to the future without any baggage, without any past or present predeterminations or preconditions.”

The performance was the culmination of a three-month residency sponsored by the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers program, during which Ho regularly traveled to campus from his home in New York City to work with students on his new piece. The work, commissioned by the Harvard Jazz Bands and the Office for the Arts, is a composition in six movements, and details Ho’s battle with colon cancer.

The dancers, covered in green body paint and sporting brightly colored tights and silk pants, performed in front of the musicians, incorporating three forms of movement: ballet, hip-hop, and the Chinese martial art Wushu.

Daniel Jáquez, who attended the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, staged the dance element of the composition and encouraged the students to improvise and copy each other’s styles and steps.

For the young musicians and dancers, the work was as rewarding as it was challenging.

“I am always interested in looking into the possibilities with movement and how that can be incorporated into my own means of expression,” said Shayna Skal ’13, one of the dancers. A classically trained ballerina, Skal said she loved how the piece challenged her to work “on things that are totally outside my comfort level.”

Alto saxophonist Maxwell Nwaru ’10, who performed two solos during Ho’s “Take the Zen Train,” admitted the piece took some getting used to.

“It definitely took us by surprise when we first looked at it,” said Nwaru of Ho’s unusual melodic and harmonic structures, rapidly changing tempos, and frequent use of “altered” and “diminished scales,” all departures from more conventional forms of jazz.

But over time and after playing with Ho, Nwaru called the final product “amazing” and said the music made him realize “you should never really take anything for granted; it’s a life lesson in many senses … you never know what’s out there.”

After the performance, Ho welcomed admirers and autograph seekers, thanked the young artists for their time and effort, and said the end result was more than he could have hoped.

“The magic of performance always should be beyond your wildest expectations, and that is what it was.”

Tom Lee of the Office for the Arts also contributed to this story.