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Music Last Updated: Dec 6th, 2012 - 16:12:52


In Remembrance: Willa Ward and Byard Lancaster
By Frank Dexter Brown--SeeingBlack.com Contrbuting Writer
Sep 13, 2012, 13:01

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Within two weeks in the month of August, the city of Philadelphia saw two of its artistic legends transition to their next stage, leaving music lovers of multiple creative styles, from many neighborhoods and across generations feeling an unparalleled sense of loss.


Willa Ward was half of the Ward Singers.
Willa Ward, half of the Ward Sisters, one of the most honored gospel groups to perform in what was known as the golden age of gospel, passed on Aug. 12 at the age of 91.


And Byard Lancaster, the alto saxophonist who is remembered for a sound that rocked from straight-ahead to avant-garde jazz, jazz-funk, gospel, blues, R&B, and even global rhythms such as Jamaican reggae and dub and Nigerian Afrobeat, passed on August 22 at the age of 70.


The two artists, who were born and grew up in Philadelphia, and lived in the city for much of their lives, were part of a rich African American music tradition — one that doesn’t receive enough recognition, even as it continues today through artists such as The Roots and Jill Scott.


Willarene Ward (born 1921) and her younger sister Clara (1924-1973), at the urging of their mother Gertrude, began to rouse audiences as preteens singing in their church. It wasn’t long before the Ward girls as part of the gospel group the Consecrated Gospel Singers, and later the Ward Singers, were singing and playing the piano before church audiences throughout the East Coast. Through a variety of gospel groups, the voices and praise songs of Clara and Willa continued to soar as they built their reputations from the 1940s through to the 1960s, reaching a standard of other great Black women of gospel such as Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar, and Albertina Walker. To experience their glory, listen to the Ward Sister’s memorable single recordings “Surely God is Able,” “I’m Climbing Higher and Higher,” “O My Lord What a Time,” “If We Never Needed the Lord Before,” and the albums The Best of the Ward Singers, Gospel Warriors and The Great Gospel Women. Also read Willa Wards book How I Got Over, which tells the sometimes harsh and tragic story of their lives on the road and as part of gospel royalty.


Byard Lancaster produced an eclectic portfoliio of music.
Bayard Lancaster, whose music beginnings are also rooted in the Black church, has a life that was equally as memorable as that of Willa Ward. Not only was he know for his often fiery, harmonic and melodic sax playing, but he also received acclaim for his other reed work on bass clarinet and other wind instruments such as the flute. He is remembered for his collaborations with musicians ranging from pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Sunny Murray, and trumpeter Bill Dixon. He also rocked with the more unique jazz stylings of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, with blues artists Memphis Slim and Johnny Copeland, and reflected his embrace of global sounds and riddims by recording reggae and dub in Jamaica with toastin’ great Big Youth and Afrobeat sessions in Nigeria with Fela Anikulapo Kuti. In recent years he helped influence younger Philadelphia musicians, including Kamal Gray, who plays keys for one of hip-hop’s leading bands, The Roots. Philadelphians also recall Lancaster for his public-space horn playing, where performances in the city’s subway system were particularly memorable. Check his range on recordings: It’s Not Up to Us, Live at Macalester College, Exodus, Personal Testimony and Philadelphia Spirit in New York, Worlds, and Sunny Murray Quintet.

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