Fred Ho has been a musician for more than 30 years. For most of that time, the jazz saxophonist has combined improvisation with Asian melodies to create music that is its own form of political activism. Fred Ho has composed 12 jazz operas and recorded several albums. He's also a published author. And now, at the age of 56, he has cancer and is thinking about the legacy that he wants to leave behind. NPR's Kat Chow recently visited him at his home in Brooklyn.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: When I first walked in to Fred Ho's apartment, I asked how are you? He said not good. I'm dying. Ho has always been in your face.


CHOW: He painted himself green and posed naked - with a baritone saxophone placed strategically between his legs - for the cover of his album, "Celestial Green Monster."


CHOW: He kind of looks like the Hulk.

FRED HO: The Hulk was one of my favorite superheroes, because you would push the Hulk too far, the Hulk would become this raging behemoth that would just smash everything in its way, and that's how I saw myself fighting the system.

CHOW: Ho says there's a stereotype that Asian-American men aren't strong - and he's trying to break it. That's been a goal his whole life. He was born in California but grew up in Massachusetts. His dad was a professor there who Ho says faced a lot of racism at work.

HO: He took it out on us, his anger, his frustrations, rather than fight the white establishment.

CHOW: He says his father didn't let his mother drive or even learn English.

HO: She was on an allowance of 50 cents a week. I saw her arrested for shoplifting sanitary napkins at the age of 6. So, I experienced a lot of pain growing up. But the metaphor for my life is to turn pain into power, is never to become a victim. Become a revolutionary.

CHOW: An Asian-American activist who's been inspired by the Black Power movement, Ho wants to change the way people think about the world. And he realized he could do that with music when he picked up the baritone for the first time. He was 14.

HO: This big horn that had this unyielding, raucous, raw and uncontrollable sound. And that became my voice.

CHOW: That voice helped him make his political points.


CHOW: Ho's composed for big band, and he's written twelve operas. "Journey Beyond the West" is about a Chinese folk character called Monkey who fights the gods who oppress it.


CHOW: In this opera, Monkey is androgynous. But in many of Ho's works, the heroes are women fighting against a society that oppresses them.


CHOW: Ho's tried to extend what a jazz musician can do.


CHOW: He can coax six octaves out of a baritone. Most players are lucky to hit five.

BILL SHOEMAKER: The thing about Fred's music is that you don't have to know any of this to enjoy it.

CHOW: That's Bill Shoemaker. He's a jazz critic who's followed Ho's work for more than 20 years.

SHOEMAKER: It swings, it sings, it has heat, it has passion, it's full of song.


CHOW: Shoemaker says if you ask 10 jazz experts about artists who really change the dialogue...

SHOEMAKER: Who really change the term of engagement between artist and audience, then they would say, yep, that's Fred Ho.

CHOW: And Ho has even been trying to change the dialogue around cancer. Ho was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2006. He's had ten surgeries, five rounds of chemotherapy and all the different types of treatments you can imagine. Yet he's still in-your-face. He sent graphic emails to friends about his cancer, all his symptoms, all his side effects. He compared cancer to capitalism. He said both were toxic. Now he's published the emails in a book.

JOSEPH YOON: I feel like for a long time, I felt like Fred Ho will never die.

CHOW: That's Fred's long-time friend and music manager, Joseph Yoon.

YOON: This man is a survivor. He is forever.

CHOW: He helps Ho. Takes out trash, brings tea, pours ginger ale. Ho does not seem to be alone.


HO: Hello? Hi Ann, not too bad, though I was vomiting last night, a few times.

CHOW: Ho is lying on his couch. He has a catheter. After a couple of hours, it seemed like he was getting tired, like he was trying to gracefully kick me out. But I wanted to know, are you afraid of dying?

HO: No. I've gotten over that now. What hurts me the most is the loss of my friendships. The physical death doesn't scare me. I've known all along that this would be a possibility and when I would reach Stage 4 metastatic cancer, I knew this was a certainty. What devastates me the most is the loss of what future joys and discoveries might of happened if I didn't die so young.

CHOW: Fred Ho's last completed work is a music and dance tribute to Muhammad Ali. Ho says watching Ali videos helped him keep fighting. Meanwhile, a group of Ho's friends are taking a 16-piece band on a tour of the Northeast. They want to introduce new audiences to the voice of Fred Ho. Kat Chow, NPR News.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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