RIP: Byard Lancaster, Philadelphia Jazz Icon, Dead At 70


BY DAVID CORBO Byard Lancaster, a Philadelphia jazz icon and a champion of the city’s jazz and blues scene, died Thursday night from complications related to pancreatic cancer.  An internationally respected avant garde multi-instrumentalist who was accomplished on saxophone, flute, clarinet and piano, Lancaster performed with Sunny Murray, Albert Ayler, Kahn Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Archie Shepp, Odean Pope, Sun Ra and others over the course of his long career and released nine recordings as a band leader.  Lancaster named John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and James Brown as major influences and wanted to bring jazz, reggae, blues, R&B and Funk to the streets, the schools and the people.  His business cards said “From A Love Supreme to The Sex Machine.”  Lancaster attended Germantown High and went on to the Settlement Music school in 1959.  He also studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Boston Conservatory.  Lancaster’s two record labels, Dogtown and Philly Jazz both referenced the city he loved and of which he had to say “Philadelphia is a tribal city… it is the spiritual capital of the United States and rivals Mecca. The laws of the country and its culture were born there, and we are the root of all culture in the world because we’re running the world culture now and the root of America is Philadelphia.”  Committed to bringing the music to the people, he was arrested twice by SEPTA police for playing in the subway concourses, subsequently winning lawsuits against the city each time.Byard was always hanging out with the people he loved at local jazz and blues events and could often be seen walking around town playing one of his flutes.  I last spoke with him about four years ago at a local club in East Norriton where he was playing with “The Blues Messengers,” a band he founded and supported.  We called Byard over to the table and chatted about his latest trip to Africa and the new wooden flute he had been given there.  As always, he was friendly, exuberant and accessible.  Byard Lancaster loved his music and the people of his city, and he was loved back.  Godspeed Byard, we will miss you.

RELATED: In 1968, he recorded an album under his own leadership, ‘It’s Not Up to Us’, which was released on the Vortex Label. The record contains mostly original compositions, with a couple of standards thrown in for good measure. Though Lancaster was associated with the free jazz movement, he’s a very eclectic musician (his business card reads ‘from a love supreme to the sex machine’) and the settings on this record are mostly a little easier on the ear, particularly when the leader is playing flute. ‘It’s Not Up to Us’ is particularly notable for featuring an early appearance by Sonny Sharrock on guitar – he sticks firmly in the background on the ballads, but gets a chance to stretch out elsewhere on the record, producing some truly eerie and fascinating sounds on an extended showcase called ‘Satan’. There’s even a version of the tune ‘Many Mansions’, which famously appears on Sharrock’s ‘Ask the Ages’, from 1991. Here its title is ‘John’s Children’. MORE