Fred Ho — composer, baritone saxophonist and activist — died at his Brooklyn home on Saturday at age 56. Throughout his career, Ho combined Asian melodies with big band jazz, though he never used the phrase "jazz." (He said the word originally denigrated the work of black musicians.)
He was inspired by the Black Power movement. At 14, two notable things happened: He read Malcolm X's autobiography, and he began playing the baritone saxophone.
I interviewed Ho at his home earlier this year, when he was in hospice care. The baritone sax was "this big horn that had this unyielding, raucous, raw and uncontrollable sound," he told me. "And that ... became my voice."
For Ho, music was in part a vehicle to share his political ideas. Over the course of his career, he composed 12 jazz operas and recorded several albums. His skills as a baritone saxophonist were extraordinary: He was able to coax six octaves out of his instrument, while most players were lucky if they could hit five.
Despite his anti-establishment ideas — Ho didn't own a car, made his own clothing and frequently posed for promotional photos buck naked — he graduated from Harvard in 1979 with a degree in sociology and received numerous awards and grants from organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts.
Ho was also a published author. He wrote extensively about his cancer — online and in books — and compared the disease to capitalism. Both were toxic, he said: One for the body, one for society.
Ho had battled colorectal cancer since his diagnosis in 2006. He told me that he underwent 10 surgeries, five rounds of chemotherapy and as many different types of treatments as one could imagine.
But even when facing death, Ho still had a fighter's spirit.
"The metaphor for my life is to turn pain into power, is never to become a victim," Ho said in January. "Become a revolutionary."