Byard Lancaster, 70, famed Phila. jazz musician

Posted: August 26, 2012

Byard Lancaster, 70, the Philadelphia jazz musician who earned an international reputation as an avant-garde musical explorer in the 1960s and 1970s, died of cancer Thursday, Aug. 23, at KeystoneCare in Wyndmoor, according to his sister, Mary Ann Lancaster Tyler.

In the decades that followed his early fame, he became a local institution, playing saxophone and flute on the streets, in subway concourses, and at clubs around the city.

Mr. Lancaster played alto, soprano, and tenor saxophones, as well as flute, clarinet, and piano. In the '60s he toured Europe with the Philadelphia free jazz drummer Sunny Murray, and he recorded as a leader as early as 1966, displaying his improvisational skills on his album It's Not Up to Us.

In those years, Mr. Lancaster also often played with the Philadelphia-based trailblazer Sun Ra, and in the 1970s toured and recorded with the pianist McCoy Tyner. Influenced by John Coltrane, he earned a reputation as one of "John's Children," as an It's Not Up to Us song written by the guitarist Sonny Sharrock put it.

The vibraphonist Khan Jamal, who played with the reedman in the band Sounds of Liberation in the '70s - including a gig with Kool and the Gang at the 1974 Miss Black America pageant - said he was also influenced by the free jazz tenor sax player Albert Ayler.

"He loved Albert Ayler, and he loved Coltrane, too," Jamal said yesterday from his home in Center City. "But we followed our own path. He was a damn good player," Jamal said of his friend, with whom he most recently recorded on the 2009 album Impressions of Coltrane.

"He could do everything. From avant-garde to funk to straight jazz. And in music, you have guys who are takers and guys who were givers. He was a giver."

Mr. Lancaster was a respected experimenter but also a crowd-pleaser, and his musical interests were broad. He carried business cards that read "From A Love Supreme to The Sex Machine," linking the epochal album by Coltrane to the funk of James Brown.

He also was an ardent advocate for music education, saying in 2008, "One of the reasons we have violence in the schools is we've taken music out of the schools."

The saxophonist Elliott Levin, who met him in Germantown in the early '70s, called him "an amazing ambassador for Philadelphia music, always spreading the word about our great music scene to the rest of the world."

"I knew him for 25 years, and while he is often characterized as an avant-garde musician, that doesn't do him justice," the Grammy-winning Philadelphia producer Aaron Luis Levinson said. "He was a searcher, and in his search embraced all kinds of music."

In 2001 and 2003, Lancaster was arrested by SEPTA police for playing in Center City concourses. Both times he sued the agency for First Amendment violations, winning settlements of $15,000 and $18,000, respectively. In 2001, he told The Inquirer that street musicians bring "culture, vibe, and spirit" to the city: "Musicians got to make a living, and everybody likes music. You can't live without music."

Mr. Lancaster was born in Philadelphia on Aug. 6, 1942, to Wilbert C. and Minerva Ann Lancaster. A graduate of Germantown High School, he played in the school orchestra and also studied at Settlement Music School. He attended Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., Berklee College of Music in Boston, and the Boston Conservatory.

As a child he studied piano, and, about age 7, began playing saxophone and flute, said his sister, a music teacher and ethnomusicologist.

"I knew Byard was going to be a musician when he was 3 years old," she said, recalling that at a family gathering, the boy got everyone's attention, "then sang 'Back in the Saddle Again,' that old Gene Autry song. I said, 'Oh, he is such a show-off.' "

Mr. Lancaster was a longtime resident of East Mount Airy. Lancaster Tyler said the bassist Stanley Clarke, who lived two doors away, was one of several young Philadelphia musicians her brother influenced.

"Stanley Clarke would run in and out of our house to practice on our piano and just work with Byard. He just came by any time he wanted to be with Byard." She said Mr. Lancaster would "walk around with his flute like it was an appendage, and he loved walking through the streets, playing for children."

State Rep. Dwight Evans called Mr. Lancaster "one of the best musicians I have ever met," noting that he often performed at the now-defunct West Oak Lane Jazz Festival. "He played all up and down Ogontz Avenue and he was worldwide."

In February, City Council cited Mr. Lancaster for "his many years of loyalty and dedication to the music industry," and noted that "he fought publicly for the rights of Philadelphia's street musicians."

In addition to his sister, Mr. Lancaster is survived by children Raquel Phelps, Brian, Marianne, Alicia Lancaster-Silva, Cash Byard Lancaster, and Faythallegra Coleman, and a brother. Another brother died last year.


Contact Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com. Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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