Fred Ho '79: Playing his grand work at BAM

by Cathy McCormick

Fred Ho '79 has a long, warm, and artistically rich affiliation with the Office for the Arts at Harvard and Harvard Jazz Bands. As an undergraduate, Ho received an OFA grant for music composition. As a professional, he has returned many times, including as Peter Ivers Visiting Artist through our Learning From Performers program, and as a guest of the Jazz Band. In 2009, Ho was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal. He returned to Cambridge in 2011, commissioned by then director of bands and long-time Ho advocate Tom Everett, to premiere The Soul Science Stomp for big band and dancers.

On October 11 and 12 in Brooklyn, Ho presented a monumental new work, The Sweet Science Suite: A Scientific Soul Music Honoring of Muhammad Ali at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. It was billed as Ho’s final grand work, due to Stage Four-C metastatic cancer. Deena Anderson, LFP program associate at the OFA, and I attended on the second night. We were knocked flat.

Conceived and composed by Ho, the ambitious work in five movements was a power-packed interdisciplinary statement of spectacular martial arts movement, complex music performed by Ho’s 18-piece Green Monster Band, and fully integrated lighting, video and costume design. Ho's compositions, a showcase for brass, were full of a robust energy, anger and, in the end, funk and joy. Tenor saxophonist and composer Don Braden’85 (interim director of the Harvard Monday Jazz Band) performed in the sax section and delivered a gorgeous solo.

"I could hear the musical influences of Sun Ra, Mingus, Ellington and Pharaoh Sanders, especially during Don Braden’s solo. He channeled Pharaoh for sure, and that's what Fred wanted," Deena said to me.

To our amazement (we thought the cancer would prevent Ho from playing) there he was onstage, bari-sax in hand, bathed in a spotlight (and wearing a trademark Ho-made suit). He offered the audience and band a tour de force solo, even for someone who is not sick. His use of the low register's gusto, growl and rumbles, and the high register's screaming wails and pops, is never forgotten. He played for his life. He played for life.

Fred Ho is a force of nature. His authenticity to his beliefs is rare. He ceaselessly pursues the historical oppression of Africans and Asians. Drawing from 1960s and 1970s events and iconography, Ho digs hard into the prejudicial cultural framing of African and Asian Americans. The evening was a driving statement of might and pain using the vehicle of Ali’s life, and yet, as always with Ho, bits of humor and hope emerged amidst the utterly tragic and humorless.

The week after the concert - no rest for the Green Monster Band - the musicians were hard at work recording other Fred Ho compositions, including The Soul Science Stomp.

"We had a mind blowing weekend with Fred's big band," said Don Braden. "I haven't had such a powerful musical experience in years."

We love you Fred Ho. You are The Greatest.

Cathy McCormick is director of programs at the Office for the Arts at Harvard.

[Caption: Fred Ho '79 in November 2009, when he was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal. PHOTO: Jake Belcher/OFA]

[Caption: Saxophonists Don Braden'85 and Fred Ho '79. PHOTO: Cathy McCormick]