Fred Ho, a composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist who composed politically charged operas, suites, oratorios and ballets that mixed jazz with popular and traditional elements of what he called Afro-Asian culture, died on Saturday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 56.
The cause was complications of colorectal cancer, said his student and friend Benjamin Barson. Mr. Ho had been in a war with the disease — his preferred metaphor, which he expanded on in many books, essays, speeches and interviews — since 2006.
Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, considered himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans. …
Born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, Calif. — he changed his surname in 1988 — he moved with his family when he was 6 to Amherst, Mass., where his father taught political science at the University of Massachusetts. He felt a powerful attraction to the art and rhetoric of black culture; as a teenager, he audited college classes taught by Mr. Shepp, the drummer Max Roach and the poet Sonia Sanchez, who were all putting progressive politics in their art. (He never formally studied music, but began teaching himself baritone saxophone when he was 14.)
In interviews, Mr. Ho recalled that his father physically abused his mother. “One of my first insurrections,” he told Harvard Magazine, “was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes.”
He served in the Marines, where he learned hand-to-hand combat, and was discharged in 1975 because, he said, he had fought with an officer who had used a racial slur. In his 20s, Mr. Ho briefly joined the Nation of Islam and then the I Wor Kuen, a radical Asian-American group inspired by the Black Panthers. Like his two younger sisters, Florence Houn and Flora Houn Hoffman, he attended Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1979.