Fred Ho & Asian American ‘Jazz’

Described by the New York Times as a “composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist,” Fred Ho wears multiple hats and uses them all to discuss jazz music and its relationship with Asian Americans. Ho recognizes that, in the increasingly hegemonic hierarchy of culture, the historical roots of jazz are becoming less recognizable, and attempts to draw attention to the issue, as well as its relevancy to/among other racial groups, through written and musical works.

Asian American Writers’ Workshop

Ho’s concept of jazz music begins with a broad analysis of the form. His refusal to even use the word itself in “What Makes ‘Jazz’ the Revolutionary Music of the Twentieth Century…,” refers to jazz as a term coined by the dominant group that hides and erases the struggles of a subjugated people who created the music form. He distances himself from the term by seeking a replacement, such as ‘Spanish-speaking oppressed nationalities’ for ‘Hispanic/Latino’ (Ho 91), introducing early on the multi-group facet of oppression in relation to music. The necessity of the term is broken down further by the very nature of jazz – the music revolves around the liberation of meter and sound, as well as the transformation of traditional European instruments like the piano and string bass, and to define such a genre would contradict its inherent values. Jazz itself is a musical revolution that heightened during the 20th century, a time of political and social revolution. Ho concludes his initial examination of jazz by declaring that it is “the music of all oppressed peoples fighting imperialism” (101), channeling back to jazz’s role as a revolutionary medium.

In “Asian American Music and Empowerment,” Ho intertwines discussion of jazz with Asian American music and politics, first drawing comparisons between revolutionary aspects of traditional jazz and Cantonese opera. Hole hole bushis “speak of the hardships, struggle, and contradictions of an experience as oppressed nationalities in America” (212), much like jazz in its musical concepts. Jazz naturally opens itself up to freedom and other influences, making it an easily malleable form of music should Asian Americans decide to incorporate such cultural elements into traditional jazz. Ho attempts this in his album, “The Underground Railroad to My Heart,” specifically through the songs “An Bayan Ko (for My Country),” “Kang Ding Love Song,” and “Lan Hua Hua (blue Flower).” The titles of these songs initially stand out among the rest because of their “Otherness” in relation to the traditional, dominant discourse of jazz music. The latter two use saxophone instrumentation in conjunction with traditional Chinese folk music, but the first of the three is a curious selection. “An Bayan Ko” is based on a Filipino patriotic piece of the same name, a song now closely identified with protests. The choice to include a Filipino song (Ho is of Chinese descent), especially one related to political dissent, and incorporate heavy saxophone into the piece attests to the revolutionary, multicultural reach of jazz music. It is vital to note Ho’s ultimate emphasis: “the music is fundamentally about freedom… historically embodied in the struggle of the African American people” (214) – even his band in the album is called the “Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.”

Fred Ho and the Afro-Asian Music Ensemble

Though the possibilities are endless with jazz, Asian Americans find it hard to break through in the genre due to economic, social, and political structures in the United States. The lack of such representation in what is now considered a “high-class” genre perpetuates a cycle of Asian American underrepresentation in jazz. Ho claims, in “Kreolization,” that jazz has been subject to multiple “discoveries” by white artists and consumers, stemming from cultural imperialism and capitalism. To combat the profiting off of the oppressed, Ho says “the linking of our common struggles [across groups]… is the beginning of genuine cultural synthesis” (120). Ho views jazz as an inherently African American music form that can be used by other oppressed groups to exercise revolutionary agency.

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