When I was in graduate school, I had very lofty idea of what life as a composer/musician would be like. I’d burst on the scene, straight out of my ivory tower, and orchestras and opera companies would clamor to give me commissions, right?
Turns out, it very rarely works that way. When I first met Fred Ho, I was in graduate school, and hearing about his political music was just an idea that lived in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I’d graduated, and was writing opera and trying to produce it, that I learned very quickly that my work was inherently political, and therefore, I’d have a harder time becoming produced.
So I returned to the man I’d met one evening at a seminar with the funky haircut and the head-to-toe handmade Asian clothing – the one who spouted radical politics and played the baritone saxophone like nobody’s business; I began studying composition with Fred Ho.
Fred Ho was a baritone saxophonist, composer, philanthropist, and revolutionary activist. Our time working together was intense: the mentor-protege relationship spanned music and politics – and life and death. Fred was dying and he knew it: when I began studying with him, he was in year four of a stage-four colorectal cancer battle. He’d live well into year eight, which was unheard of for his kind of cancer. So in 2014, as we did the necessary things that musicians must do to secure their legacy and their place in history, we founded a big band.
The Eco-Music Big Band stands on the shoulders of the late Fred Ho, but it was always led by me. I am a woman in the very male-dominated (and often outright misogynistic) field of jazz; the band is not a traditional swing band but one that plays new and avant-garde music by both the living and the dead; and, most importantly, it is part of our mission to propagate music with a vision for a better world. It is through this band’s birth that I learn the true, world-changing power of music.
I am not a political mastermind by any means, so I can only recount this event as the political genius of Fred. Fred had a long-standing correspondence with former Black Panther and political prisoner Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, who, at the time in early 2014, was 70 years old, a cancer patient, and had been in solitary confinement for 23 consecutive years. At the time, he had been placed in a cell that had feces on the walls, and was not getting the nutrition or medical care that he needed. So Fred, in the final weeks of his life, decided to use the band’s inaugural performances to make something happen.
The band toured rural, affluent Vermont, and played the Black Liberation Movement Suite, by Cal Massey. This nine-movement suite tributes major figures in the black liberation movement – Dr. King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, John Coltrane. Massey and Coltrane were contemporaries, and life long collaborators – but the reason Massey’s name hasn’t become immortalized in history as Coltrane’s has, is because Massey’s big band held several highly successful fundraiser concerts for the Black Panther Party – and as a result, was black listed from all major recording labels. As a result, Massey’s big band music was never recorded until 2011, more than 20 years after Massey’s death.
So the band played. The music spoke for itself – music that, in my opinion, deserves its place in music text books and on the jazz radio station. Cal Massey’s music moved our audiences night after night. My job, besides leading the band, was to make a simple ask: please mail these letters asking the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and ask them to release Russell Maroon Shoatz from solitary confinement. And the audience was so moved that the letters went out by the hundreds.
It took all of three days to accomplish what the legal teams had not been able to. On the third day of our tour, we received a call that Russell Maroon Shoatz was in general population for the first time in twenty three years. Fred died a few weeks later – he’d let me know that seeing Shoatz out of solitary confinement was his final mission on this earth.
And I learned something about activism. I learned that you can shout or you can sing: people are more likely to be moved by the latter. Activism is not lecturing people on what they ought to be doing; it is not arguing over semantics; it is not, most of all, about a call-out culture. It is a beautiful struggle that stems from deep love. It is a love that moves us to action. I learned that music is one of the best ways to do that: you can move your audience to tears, you can make them dance, you can make them sing – and you can make them love, which will move them to action.
So the Eco-Music Big Band has become a band that plays music with a vision for a better world. We play at protests, we perform operas about saving the world from the apocalypse brought on by global warming, and we play at Carnegie Hall – because our music is for the people, and it also can stand up next to the legacies of Beethoven and Mozart. And, most of all, we groove. “It’s got to groove,” Fred used to say. “You aren’t going to move people if it doesn’t.”
Here’s a clip from MR MYSTERY: THE RETURN OF SUN RA TO SAVE PLANET EARTH!, our jazz opera about global warming: https://soundcloud.com/ecomusicbigband/all-praiseswere-on-our-way-to-save-the-earth-music-by-marie-incontrer
The Eco-Music Big Band is performing at Carnegie Hall on June 3, 2017. Our program is, as always, comprised of music that holds a vision for a better world. Tickets here: https://www.carnegiehall.org/Calendar/2017/6/3/0800/PM/Eco-Music-Big-Band/
You can find more information about Eco-Music Big Band here:
Their latest album, Rebel Spirits is currently available on iTunes.