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Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect

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Here is the principal part of the text of a fifteen-minute conference paper I delivered in September 2007 at the University of Guelph, speaking at the colloquium of the Guelph Jazz Festival, entitled that year “People Get Ready,” and focused on the community-building and political engagements of improvised musics.

Fred Ho wants a music that speaks, and he wants to speak through music: “The music,” he writes, meaning for the most part jazz-derived improvisation, “has to and will embody messages, either explicitly (in the form of lyrics and/or song titles) or implicitly (in the sound and in its spirit).” To start out, I think, there are at least two things to note in such claims, of which Ho makes many. The foremost is almost unremarkable for its transparency, as it’s probably intended to be: Ho writes and speaks about improvised music as much as he composes and performs. The series of manifestoes, polemics and mandates that he has delivered, in essays and addresses over the last two decades, are instances of musical embodiment, not just statements about what he thinks his music does, but language forms representing the state to which his own music aspires: it wants to say what it means, directly and transparently, to its audience, “the people.” Second is a stylistic and grammatical point, really, a feature of his characteristic language that tends to be read back, by listeners of various persuasions, onto his music, often as stridency or brashness: Ho’s language, if we mean to treat it as in any way poetically shaped, is inevitably cast in an imperative mood. My question today, which I want more to pose than pretend definitively to answer, is how concretely music works toward what we might take for meaning. I want to take Fred Ho at his word. Can a baritone saxophone solo, for example, of the sort you’re hearing now, be said to speak? [Fred Ho’s arrangement of “Naima” was playing in the background, as I presented.] How does music aspire, beyond obvious programmatics, to the condition of speech? What exactly is being declared?
         Jazz journalist Bill Shoemaker has written, perceptively and with a somewhat troubling accuracy, that
There are many musicians through­out jazz history who have been labeled revolutionaries, but that’s usually because of their musical accomplishments. Fred is a revolutionary who uses jazz as his medium.
The presumption, coming out of Ho’s work as much as Shoemaker’s well-attuned audition, is that sound can carry political and social meaning directly, formally; that revolution isn’t a trope but an aesthetic practice, enacted both for and with audiences. Ho describes the reaction he wants from listeners as akin to those of a child, who can “be both spellbound and revolutionized” by a given performance; music at once enthralls and enables, two countervaling states of raised consciousness – piety and critique, mimetic wonder and diegetic detachment, in a sense – that inhere in his populist claims. To play for the people, if you think about it, is both to invite mimicry and to call for unruliness, to refuse that same invitation. How, if music means to speak, can “people” be empowered by the cultish image of the inspired soloist, by his polemic force, exactly to speak out, not to be silenced by the verbal or expressive force of that declaration?
         There’s a deeply embedded formal contradiction here that speaks to the nature of a musical politics, and to the ways in which music operates, I think, as a cultural pedagogy, as instruction in democratic or revolutionary forms of critique. In a talk at the triennial conference of ACLALS on 19 August 2007, Henry Giroux spoke with some dismay about what he called “the politics of disposability” among American young people, calling for a renewed and hopeful cultural pedagogy, following Paolo Freire, a radical futurity that dignifies people “so that they can become fully free.” This is Fred Ho’s vocabulary. Not only is it necessary to foster critical engagement among students with the cultural materials in which they find themselves immersed, teaching how to “read critically,” but there is a pressing need, Giroux argues, “to prepare students to function as critical agents capable of understanding, engaging, and transforming those discourses and institutional contexts that closed down democratic public life” (119). They need to take part. Despite his deep suspicions of aesthetics, which he suggests is tainted by “the residue of nostalgia and elitism” and also “seems particularly out of date, if not irrelevant” given the pervasiveness of a largely debased popular culture (are there echoes of Adorno here?), Giroux insisted on moving beyond critical thinking toward enabling students as “cultural producers,” as makers, as co-participants. But what do such arts sound like? Should we still be cautious of aesthetics, given the barometers of taste and technique that tend to manifest in such contexts? How do we face up to the demands of a democratic or popular art, of its audience? We’re negotiating a tension over the declamatory and the formal here: the expressive and the well-made. Addressing the rigour of our engagement depends, if you think about it, on a set of standards against which the openness of that participatory dynamic mitigates.
         Fred Ho’s music operates, I think, on versions of this tension, negotiating the uncertainties and challenges between naïve, expressive directness and aesthetic detachment. As a composer and improviser, Ho has pursued remarkable and effective fusions of Asian heritage and folk forms with African-American avant-garde jazz, and many of his ballets, operas and suites – as extended idioms adapted from their “legit” Eurocentric counterparts and re-imaged as culturally porous, collaborative events – have been realized in complex, poly-dimensional, multi-media productions. These structural and conceptual pluralities have become hallmarks of Ho’s creative enmeshment in the unsettled and unsettling irresolutions of his diasporic cultural status, as an Asian-Pacific American. Difference and contrariety are, in Ho’s work, not problems to be resolved but constitutive elements through which liberation, both as a raising of consciousness and as tangible political transformation, might be sought. At the same time, Ho openly acknowledges his debt to the social polemics of Black Nationalism of the 1960s. His work as a writer (represented, for example, in his contributions to the anthology Legacy to Liberation, 2000) remains seemingly bound up in identity-politics and Marxist apologetics, an often fiercely uncompromising discourse that appears, as I’ve noted already, stylistically and theoretically at odds with his radically destabilizing musical practices. At the same time, if you’ve been able at all to listen to the baritone solo and now to his arrangementof John Coltrane’s “Naima” playing in the background, you realize that his music, on the surface, is not premised on inaccessibility or difficulty, consistently, but repeatedly seeks out – through riffs, repetitions, allusions to popular idioms – to involve listeners in its unfolding. The baritone solo, while offered up as an extension of the lineage of Sonny Rollins, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell, doesn’t aspire to Gunther Schuller’s musicological complexities or to radical serialism. Similarly, Ho’s admiration for poets such as Amiri Baraka or Kalamu ya Salaam appears to have much more to do with the verbal directness of their political interventions, with their emphasis on declarative immediacy, than with their linguistic or formal innovations. The title of the suite from which this music is taken bespeaks the politics of verbal directness and transparent engagement that Ho craves: “Yes Means Yes, No Means No, Whatever She Wears, Wherever She Goes.” Meaning, while at issue, wants to be denuded equivalence, unmarred by subtleties or doodads. The lyrics by Ann T. Greene, Andrea Lockett and others for the suite, a pro-feminist anti-patriarchal work commissioned in 1993 by WHAM! (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) and BWARE (Brooklyn Women’s Anti-Rape Exchange), pull no punches. While resolutely opposed to sexual violence, the work, for Ho, has its roots in reactive physical confrontation: “My mother is a survivor of domestic violence, and as a young teenager, I physically fought my father to stop him beating her. I now see this as my first
revolutionary insurrection and challenge of patriarchal authority.”
Still, when Ho asks, in a recent artist’s statement, “how does music free us?” he draws attention to sonic texture and to poetic structure as inherently, crucially political, focusing our ears on how that challenge occurs, physiologically and consciously, rather than simply what it might be about. Ho’s apparently naïve preference for uninterrogated declamation – what some critics have dismissed as crude stridency – actually involves him, along with his listeners, in a difficult dialectic, a deeply rooted tension over the nature and practice of expression itself: of the interconnections between doing and saying. Paul Gilroy’s discussion of jazz and diaspora in Against Race – where he argues for “new possibilities and new pleasures” enabled by the fundamental dislocations of diasporic non-identities – provides a starting point for re-thinking Ho’s indebtedness to racial nationalisms, and for a more careful and attentive reading of his mesh of sounds and words. Coming to Gilroy might seem problematic in this context, given Ho’s overt attachment to what Gilroy dismisses as raciology, but Ho’s frequently discussed but still largely uninterrogated adherence to black nationalism – particularly as a non African American – finds one of its moments of coherence in the context of diaspora. How can a Chinese-American seriously compose a Black Panther suite, for example? There’s no reason why he shouldn’t of course, but the racial politics explicit in this work certainly trouble that allegiance, although trouble is exactly, I think, what Fred Ho might be about.
Working to define “the distinctiveness of diaspora poetics” (335), Gilroy cites Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka’s (1967) poetic formulation of “the changing same”:
This changing same is not some invariant essence that gets enclosed subsequently in a shape-shifting exterior with which it is casually associated. It is not the sign of an unbroken, integral inside protected by a camouflaged husk. The phrase names the problem of diaspora politics and diasporic poetics. . . . Invariably promiscuous, diaspora and the politics of commemoration it specifies, challenge us to apprehend mutable, itinerant forms that can redefine the idea of culture through a reconciliation with movement and dynamic variation.  (“Diaspora and the Detours of Identity” 336; Against Race 129-130)
James Clifford, among many others, criticizes this formulation inasmuch as it tends to abstract and to diffuse collective political and social agencies, the possibility of there even being a “people”:
diaspora discourses such as Gilroy’s refuse to let go of a “changing same,” something endlessly hybridized and in process but persistently there-memories and practices of collective identity maintained over long stretches of time. Gilroy attempts to conceive the continuity of a “people” without recourse to land, race, or kinship as primary “grounds” of continuity. What, then, is the persistent object of his history? How to circumscribe this “changing same?” (Clifford 320)
This is a serious issue for a version of what I’ve heard here start to be called social aesthetics, I think: how effective to locate and to speak to a popular audience.
         Ho’s recording of John Coltrane’s “Naima” (1998) – with lyrics by poet and journalist Andrea M. Lockett – offers listeners an opportunity to address Ho’s deliberately conflicted relationship to the radical sixties, and also suggests how a dynamic critical relationship between Ho’s work and his multiple cultural and musical heritages – what he names a practice of radical respect – has the potential to enact a model for new and liberated human communities, an arduous and challenging idealism he calls, following Sun Ra, embracing the impossible.

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