Frank J. Oteri: We’re talking to each other today at a really difficult point in world history. You’ve devoted your artistic life to activism, so it seems that a good place to begin our conversation is with what you feel should be the role of a creative artist in an environment like the one we’re in right now.
Fred Ho: I think the creative artist is someone who really needs to be a guerrilla entrepreneur, someone who thrives when crisis abounds in the mainstream. That is really the message or the purpose of the avant-garde artist, to be at the vanguard or forefront. When the mainstream prospers, we may perhaps be overlooked and have perhaps more obstacles. But when the mainstream is in chaos, confusion, and crisis, that is when we can really assert ourselves and shine the best. I think this is a pivotal moment for the world, but I say particularly for the first world, the United States of America. We’re in a situation where all the paradigms are in crisis.
But I think this is a very exciting time, if we look at it as a time of real possibility in which we can really now exert ourselves and not as a time to be worrying and anxious. I just wish that more artists could see it that way. But many artists themselves are caught up in ego trips. They want to be the next star. They want to be the next “it” phenomenon. And so they put their chips into the basket of the big forces and don’t see themselves really as opposition, as subversives, as guerrillas.
FJO: To follow-up on your assertion that when the mainstream is more entrenched it’s harder to be experimental, there’s always been a dichotomy between art with a propagandistic component and the avant-garde. They’ve often been opposing camps. There’s the famous Cornelius Cardew story: he was a highly experimental composer, but when he became politically active he decided that he had to write music that was more mainstream-sounding so that he could influence a broader audience. But throughout your career you’ve been both an experimenter and an activist.
FH: My own research and study into the quote-unquote avant-garde has revealed two distinct poles. There’s the avant-garde of privilege, the avant-garde that primarily emphasizes quote-unquote art for art’s sake aesthetics above everything else. Then there’s what I would call the populist or the radical avant-garde. In America, I think those two kind of poles happened during the late ’50s, and through the ’60s and early ’70s. I think the privileged avant-garde really wanted to create this wall between social activism, political radicalism, and aesthetic radicalism, whereas there was no distinction, say, between members of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Liberation Movement. The Panthers brought Sun Ra to be a guest faculty member at the University of California in Berkeley. There was a kind of recognition that the politically and artistically radical were two heads of the same coin. I’ve always identified myself with these movements; expanding humanism requires new forms. It requires new expressions and new vehicles to express those ideas and those feelings. To me, the quote-unquote utilitarian value of the arts of any discipline really is about expanding and deepening human feeling, the human soul, and the human imagination. And that imagination is critical to any progressive political or social movement. I often say that our responsibility is to make politics a creative and artistic process, and to make the arts politically committed. So I’ve never seen a separation between the role of experimentation and the vanguard role of politics. All those things are inextricably interrelated and mutually necessary.
FJO: A big part of that comes out of your upbringing. You were born in the Bay Area, but you grew up in Amherst, which at the time was a very segregated community. Then you went on to Harvard, not studying music, but sociology.
FH: Before I could probably do addition, I came to recognize racism in America. One of the earliest experiences in my life that I can remember, as a pre-school child, was the fact that my sandbox was segregated. The schoolteacher basically said to the white kids, “He’s Chinese, don’t play with him.” On one hand, I was very alienated and felt isolated, but on the other hand, I had my own sandbox to myself and I could do anything I wanted in that sandbox. So it actually became a metaphor for the rest of my life. When you’re isolated or excluded, you can turn that pain into power. You can make it your own universe. I’ve always contended that when people are self-reliant and independent, there’s no problem such as the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling exists for those who want to exist in the big house, or in houses that others construct for them. They bang their heads on that ceiling because whoever designed that ceiling made it that height. But if you make your own house, you can decide whatever height you want that ceiling [to be] or [have] no ceiling. It can be whatever you want to make it
The second thing I understood very young in life was that I grew up in a household with a tremendous amount of domestic violence. I knew that violence would not end or stop unless one defended oneself. And that became an important lesson to me in the sense that it became very important to resist, to speak up, and to object to the things that are wrong. But at the same time, offer something better: an alternative.
As a young person, at first I was quite whitewashed entering into the public school system. I wanted to be like the mainstream group of kids in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was predominantly white. I tried to part my hair on the side. I didn’t want to eat Chinese food anymore for lunch. My mother would make me Chinese bao¸ steamed lotus-shaped buns, and kids would make fun of me and say, “Oh, he’s eating Play Dough.” Those sorts of things made one ashamed of being Chinese or being Asian. I wanted to fit in, to be accepted, to be liked, to be part of the group. And again, I turned pain into power. I realized no matter how much I tried, I still couldn’t get accepted. So I decided to give that up and find my own identity.
I wasn’t really clear about being an artist, a composer, a musician until quite late. I had thoughts that perhaps I was going to be a scholar, or a professor, or a teacher, or perhaps an activist lawyer. But then the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement hit me. I began to realize that that a socio-political liberation would require a cultural liberation—people’s images of themselves, their self-consciousness, the representation of their identity and their ability to express a liberated consciousness and a liberated sense of being. The Black Arts Movement greatly inspired and influenced me. But I did not think about going into music, or composing, as my life work until much later, until after I graduated from college. I actually was accepted into every graduate school of sociology in the country that I had applied to, but I turned them all down. I realized that climbing in the mainstream was not what I wanted to do. It was something I actually disliked. But I wasn’t clear what I wanted to do.
So I went to work as a construction worker for a few years, and I started a community cultural center in Boston’s Chinatown, working mostly with immigrant workers and youth. That was really the beginning of my quote-unquote fusion of quote-unquote jazz with Chinese folk melodies. We started a folk singing group of mostly immigrants who sang in Chinese. We had some musicians—someone who played flute, someone who played guitar, and I played soprano saxophone at the time. And I would do the arrangements. These new arrangements were really the beginnings of what I’m doing today musically.
I was never certified in the academy with any music degree of any kind. In fact, I think that was a blessing because I was spared the cultural indoctrination of that kind of pedagogy. So the only things I could do were to make my own music and invent my own musical identity. Working in the Asian-American community and the U.S. left, I began to understand that my mission was to create radical or revolutionary music from the two main influences or traditions that I grew up with: African-American music and Asian-American forms and traditions: both traditional folk songs and Chinese opera. But I really didn’t think about making this thing called a career. The minute I think about what I’m doing as a career is the minute that I should just get out of it and let someone else do it, because I really see it as a mission. For the longest time, not only did I not make money, I lost a whole lot of money from it. There were so many times I was depressed, dejected, frustrated, and wanted to give up, but I never gave up. I guess my big struggle was I just did not want to seek validation or acceptance in the terms of the mainstream, even more specifically from any white-dominant sources. I did not see that as a goal. I think I had struggles and contradictions and conflicts internally, when I felt sometimes I was slighted or overlooked, denied opportunities and that sort of thing. But it just made me clear that I had to create my own.
I was listening to NPR’s tribute to John Adams because he has a new book out. They were saying that John and Steve Reich and Philip Glass were the harbingers of composers who led their own bands because they weren’t going to write for the standard configurations and the standard orchestras and that sort of thing. Well, I have to point out that Basie, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and so forth, all did that long before this white quote-unquote new music phenomenon happened. It was really just part of the vernacular tradition that people who were not going to be in the quote-unquote conservatory, classical world would have to write for their own musicians. So I knew that. And also the whole tradition of doing it yourself: self-production—people who were excluded had to run their own record labels and had to be their own publishers. Sun Ra did hundreds of albums, and some of them were just limited run. He made 100 copies of vinyl with just white sleeves and he would, you know, hand draw the artwork on the cover. Every cover was unique. It was a special kind of thing, and maybe he would only do about 100 of them. He’d distribute it himself and so forth. So these were just all the necessary things that one had to do to be self-empowered and to not have the glass ceiling over one’s head.
FJO: I’m curious, though, as a young person growing up in Amherst and not fitting in, how did you discover African-American music? How did you discover jazz? Where did you first hear that stuff?
FH: I was lucky because I grew up in an area that was in transition. Prior to the 1960s, western Massachusetts was largely tobacco fields, farm land, and some light manufacturing. But by the late ’60s, education was becoming its main industry. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and Mount Holyoke College were becoming big institutions, though in the mid-1970s four tax propositions kicked in. I think the first one was proposition 2 ½ in Massachusetts which lowered restrictions on property taxes which then undercut funding to educational institutions. But before that, as a result of the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union, education was a big investment on the part of the United States. And the five-college area of Amherst, Massachusetts greatly benefited from that.
One of the things that the University of Massachusetts did that really got noticed was that it had purchased and acquired W.E.B. Dubois’ papers. The DuBois Archive brought a lot of interest on the part of black, radical intellectuals and artists. And in many ways, by the early-1970s, that area had become an extension of Harlem. The people who were active in the Black Arts Movement in New York City—writers like Sonia Sanchez, directors like Paul Carter Harrison, musicians like Max Roach, Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman—were all getting teaching jobs in the Amherst area. So they were there, and I was exposed to them. I was then a young teenager, but I was going to the concerts that were going on. All of them were either free or very, very minimal in cost. Then in the summertime, there’d be outdoor festivals. By my junior and senior year, I decided I wasn’t going to go to public school any more, and I just sat in on these classes. I would say, “Professor Shepp, is it OK if I sit in in your class?” He would say fine. It was really an open situation. And I was like a sponge. I just absorbed all that was going on, and it coincided with my own awakening as an Asian American. So I saw all these parallels between my experience as an Asian American and the African American struggle.
FJO: And you later played music with Archie Shepp.
FH: I did. And I continued to play with Archie when I moved to New York. But really by 1987-88, I was embarking upon my own work as a leader, composing for my own ensembles. I would say that by 1989-1990, I was doing it full time.
FJO: I was in San Francisco in a record shop a few years back, and I chanced upon an LP copy of your Bamboo That Snaps Back.
FH: Bamboo That Snaps Back, my second LP. Right.
FJO: It was amazing for me to hear this record, because it was much earlier than any of the other stuff of yours I’d heard before and yet your entire musical vocabulary, to my ears, already seemed fully formed.
FH: That’s very perceptive of you, Frank. I mean, I salute you in what you heard and how you’re analyzing it because you’re quite accurate. I would say, by the mid-’80s, I was very clear about my identity and the path I was taking. I was still young and still learning stuff, but in terms of the core foundation of the direction—yes, I had that. I was not just trying to figure things out. I knew where I wanted to go. There were just more years needed for me to deal with greater amounts of material. But the principles of what I am about were established around that time.
FJO: One thing that’s a bit different on that record from now is how much flute you played. It was really great to hear you play the flute. That isn’t something you do anymore.
FH: No, by the early 1990s, I was dealing with some very difficult financial hardships. I didn’t have a safety net, no day job. And I had bought my first piece of property, a duplex loft, and my expenses jumped up astronomically. I basically was forced to sell all my other instruments. I sold my soprano saxophone. I sold my bass clarinet. I had two old Haynes flutes: a black wood Haynes and a silver Haynes. I think these were early 20th-century flutes. I sold those. But I don’t regret that. I needed the cash. The only instrument I kept was the baritone, and that’s the only instrument I play now.
At that time, I wasn’t clear about how much of being a sideman I would do. I had been trying to do doublings. In the New York freelance world, if you play only baritone saxophone, you don’t get called a lot. But by the early 1990s, I knew I was going really to be my own leader, and the requirements of doing that were a lot greater in terms of financial risk and sacrifice. So I had to sell those instruments and just keep the baritone.