I began studying composition with Fred Ho without knowing quite what I was getting myself into. I was 25 with a fresh graduate degree in composition under my belt, lost in that special way only millennial twenty-somethings get to be. I knew I wanted to write political works and, having met Fred twice before, I knew that he was the one who could help me do it.
The ensuing four years were a study in what it really means to fuse arts and politics: truly understanding the history of struggle and the historical power behind political music. Fred was the great champion of Cal Massey, a composer, bandleader, and Black Panther who was blacklisted from recording studios because of his politics. Fred’s band was the first to ever record and release Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, a nine-movement magnum opus that was commissioned by Eldridge Cleaver and tributes different figures in the black liberation movement. Cal used his music and his big band to hold many successful fundraisers for the Black Panther Party; it was for this reason that record labels saw him as enough of a threat to warrant blacklisting. Fred made sure that I studied Cal Massey’s music like it was the holy grail: his unforgettable Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change! never fails to infuse electricity into the room whenever it’s performed, tripling as protest fight song, audience sing-along, and underrated cornerstone of the big band canon.
It’s now 2015: Fred is dead, his life abbreviated by an eight-year battle with metastatic cancer. His political and musical vision transcended his time on this earth, however, and the implications of his music and lessons are more poignant than ever. As the daily news cycle goes from bad to worse and the non-indictments for cops killing young, unarmed black men pile up, I hear in my head the voice of my beloved and late mentor: WRITE. Fred didn’t believe in separating the arts from politics. Virtually all of his music—even the kitschy arrangements of superhero themes and his blazingly groovy interpretations of Jimi Hendrix tunes—had some political impetus at the basis of it. Fred’s works might have been political slogans, scrawled across a piece of cardboard and carried through a protest: there’s Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes!, written for the Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange; Paper Tigers are Real Scaredy Cats, his reimagining of the Pink Panther Theme for big band; We Refuse to Be Used And Abused!, a suite for his Afro-Asian Music Ensemble.
It’s all too easy for us as a society to forget that jazz has its roots in revolution: slaves used their African rhythms and tonalities to communicate on the plantation. As time passed, jazz became both a method of survival for black musicians and a profession that chewed you up and spit you out (see: the hard lives and early deaths of Charlie Parker, Cal Massey, John Coltrane, and a great many others). The jazz musician became a novelty and a stereotype: poor, sick, often drug-addicted, but genius; the music became appropriated, sanitized, and commodified.
I am lucky enough to have been taught all of these things by Fred; they were part of his requirements for me to study with him. As a young, queer woman in jazz, I take the implications of my craft and calling very seriously. When Fred became too sick, he handed over the baton to his Eco-Music Big Band to me, and I learned that he hired musicians with a serious caveat: at least 51% of his band had to be oppressed peoples. His musicians were his army, effecting change right alongside him.
As Fred’s successor, it is an honor to work with musicians who are moved to do the same. I hear the music that my colleagues are writing and understand the depth with which Fred’s legacy of political music reaches. It goes beyond the instinct to pay tribute to the greats of the civil rights movement and deals with the here and now. The MSO Trio—Albert Marques, Walter Stinson, and Zack O’Farrill (all of whom work within the Eco-Music Big Band)—has two new works that come to mind, both composed by Marques. The first, You’re Under Arrest, is a jazz-meets-heavy metal work about police brutality in the United States; the second, Jazz is Working Class, is a blues with Latin groove about the commodification of jazz for the affluent and its roots in poverty, slavery, and oppression.
If Fred were alive now, there’s no question in my mind that he would be writing works for Eric Garner and Mike Brown. He would want us to soundtrack the protests and then go out and shut the city down. He would demand that our works be virtuosic, loud, and groovy enough to lift the spirits of the masses and reach the families of these young black men.
We as musicians have a responsibility to respond to the world around us, to give the people a song to raise their spirits and fuel the fight in their hearts.
So, in light of the political climate we live in—for Eric Garner, for Mike Brown, for Palestine—I pick up my pencil and write. A melody. An ostinato bassline. It’s got to groove, Fred would say. You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.
Marie Incontrera is a composer, conductor, and band leader whose work spans queer opera, political big band, and music-for-the-oppressed. Marie is the conductor and band-leader of the Green Monster Big Band (Fred Ho’s premiere big band) and the Eco-Music Band (a smaller, variable ensemble), both ensembles for which she also composes and arranges. She was Fred Ho’s last composition and conducting protege.