- Scott Yanow
was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child he studied piano and various reed instruments, becoming a skilled multi-instrumentalist and performing with percussionist-pianist J. R. Mitchell while in high school.
Lancaster studied music at Troy University, the Boston Conservatory, and the Berklee College of Music. After graduation he moved to New York City where he had opportunities to play with tenor-saxophonist Archie Shepp and drummer Elvin Jones. In 1965 Lancaster joined drummer Sunny Murray’s group, making his recording debut with Murray in 1966.
Lancaster’s ability to display individual voices on many reed instruments, including alto (where he considered his main influences to be Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman), tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones, flute, and bass clarinet, along with rare outings on clarinet, piccolo, piano, trumpet, and flugelhorn, made him a valuable member of the avant-garde jazz scene throughout his career. In addition to his more explorative solos, he had a lyrical side to his musical personality and could caress melodies even as he altered them.
While he continued performing and recording with Sunny Murray, including playing at the Actuel Festival in Paris with him in 1969, Lancaster worked with many artists in his career. He was part of trumpeter Bill Dixon’s adventurous group during 1966–1967, performed with Sun Ra in 1968 and 1971, and recorded with saxophonist Marzette Watts (1966), organist Larry Young on a more mainstream jazz album (1968), pianist Burton Greene, and altoist Byron Morris. He also had opportunities to work with the blues stars pianist Memphis Slim and guitarist Johnny Copeland.
Lancaster’s first of fourteen albums as a leader was 1966’s It’s Not Up to Us, which teamed him with the pioneering avant-garde guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Although he worked with pianist McCoy Tyner off and on during 1971–1978, he never recorded with Tyner. However in the 1970s he led ten albums of his own including Personal Testimony, which is mostly a set of unaccompanied solos.
In 1978 Lancaster moved back to Philadelphia where he would live for the remainder of his life. While he became a local institution and generally had a lower national profile than earlier, he emerged from Philly on a regular basis. Lancaster showed that he could play in free funk settings with Roland Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society in the early 1980s, and he recorded during that decade with drummer Doug Hammond, trombonist Garrett List, pianist Erroll Parker, vibraphonist Khan Jamal, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Sunny Murray. He is heard at his best on three albums (The Arrow, Crossroads, and Lightnin’ Strikes) that are duets with cellist David Eyges.
Lancaster was less prominent in the 1990s, although he did record as a member of Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir, and on albums led by guitarist Monnette Sudler and vibraphonist Khan Jamal. He toured Europe during 2003–2004, led a religious album in 2005 (God Be with Us), and made his final recording (playing “Mr. P.C.” on Jamal’s Impressions of Coltrane) in 2008.
Byard Lancaster died from pancreatic cancer on 23 August 2012 in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania at the age of seventy.
- Cook, Richard. Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia. London and New York: Penguin, 2005.
- Davis, Francis. Outcats: Jazz Composers, Instrumentalists, and Singers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
- Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London: Macmillan, 1988.