James Ward was born in Belleville, IL on March 11, 1950. His parents, Samuel and Rosalie Ward, were engaged in Christian ministry at the Grandcote Reformed Presbyterian Church in Coulterville, Illinois, a small farm town fifty miles east of St. Louis, Missouri. James was the fifth of six children. His younger brother came along seven years later, so James developed that youngest child, entertainer personality early on. He was always comfortable singing and playing in public. Samuel Ward was a pastor and Rosalie was an educated teacher of children. It was she who led little Jimmy to the Lord as a child. Samuel was musical and artistic, with skills on guitar and ukulele. He would sing and play 1930s and 40s pop songs for relaxation, and undoubtedly it was this that led to James’ musical inclinations.
The Coulterville home was a defining time for the Wards. The old house James grew up in was a drafty two-story frame house with a large garden and goat house in the back. Large fields of soy beans and corn covered the landscape, and many families in the church were dairy farmers who shared their resources with the Wards. Later as the older siblings went off to Covenant College in St. Louis, James and his brother Paul lived in a newer manse built by the church. It was here that James studied piano with his older sister as his teacher.
When James was thirteen, Samuel and Rosalie accepted a call to the Calvin Reformed Presbyterian Church in Irwin, Pennsylvania. As James entered junior high, there was a significant social change in his environment, as the school in Irwin was larger and more suburban. James and his brother Paul walked to school that first year, and he began studying French as well as finding a place in the large 9th grade class. He continued his education and graduated from Norwin Senior High School in 1968. Norwin was a new school building with a large music program with choirs and marching bands and a football team. But James was not involved in the school music that is designed for students to develop talents for careers in music. Instead, due to conflicts with the church’s schedule, his musical development was entirely focused on piano and guitar with vocal music added in as a part of the family’s traditional Psalm singing. In high school James also had a platonic relationship with a girl, which inspired him to write several love songs after the style of the Monkees and folk song writers of the day like Paul Simon and Gordon Lightfoot.
His church also needed a pianist, and he played hymns and church music there, but also the church building provided a place for James to act out his performance fantasies on the piano, creating improvised faux classical pieces after the style of his piano studies.
James excelled academically, and the day came when a college recruiter from their denominational college, Covenant College, came to visit. Four of his siblings had attended this school, and the recruiter enrolled James and loaded him up with scholarships. But it was that summer that James had surgery on a lower back problem he had developed through high school, and in August before college, he was recuperating from surgery as he arrived three weeks late into the fall semester.
He was met by Registrar Rudy Schmidt at the front door of Carter Hall with all his books and class schedule! Covenant was a small school of 300 students, and James soon became comfortable sitting in the lobby with his guitar, singing Simon and Garfunkel with his roommate Rob Sanderson, or singing Bach chorales in the reverberant stairwells. But James was a history major at first. He made such an impression as a singer and pianist that the piano teacher approached him about switching to music. In second semester sophomore year, James became a music major, and had to work fast to catch up with the rigors of an arts major. As his college career unfolded, he ended up switching from piano to pipe organ as a major instrument, and performed his senior recital on organ at the nearby Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church.
But more importantly, the Edwin Hawkins Singers had a hit song on the radio in 1971. “O Happy Day” changed the direction of James musical muse, as he fell in love with gospel choir and piano music. At about that time Francis Schaeffer made his first appearance in the United States after the storied beginnings of L’Abri in Switzerland as a thinking person’s academic retreat center. When Schaeffer’s conferences drew hundreds of seekers to the small campus, James began to think of music in terms of its Kingdom implications, as a field into which a Christian could go with confidence, doing art for the glory of God, and raising a higher standard for art in the church. This philosophy, together with the Reformational Movement emanating from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, was to keep James motivated creatively for years to come.
This passion for creative musical expression materialized into an extra-curricular project called the Black and Blues Band—a gospel choir with piano, drums, and bass accompaniment. After three performances on campus to packed audiences, James trimmed the choir into a touring group called the Maranatha Singers with James on piano and vocals, Hal Pendergrass on drums, Dan Herron on bass, and singers Joan Nabors, Linda Schwab, and Rod Ailes. Ailes was later replaced by Oliver Trimiew. James’ first album, To the Glory of God, was recorded with this group in the summer of 1972. The record was funded by supporters from the Peniel Bible Conference in Lake Luzerne, New York, the most enthusiastic of which was Dr. Richard Lovelace, who later wrote the Christian classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life. James is mentioned in the book as one of the young musicians “who are creating works which fuse popular and serious elements.”
Graduation from Covenant brought marriage to Beth Moore, his college fiancée, and the beginning of a performance career. That summer the Wards settled in Chattanooga to work with Randy Nabors and the Inner-City Mission. They had become committed to that work during college and some of James earliest songs were written for the fledgling church Nabors and others were planting. Rudy Schmidt, who was registrar at Covenant, was the first ruling elder. But during that summer Ward met Pete Hammond of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and played a showcase for IVCF summer training conference. After that concert, Hammond offered James an internship with IVCF. It would mean traveling to campuses and performing in cooperation with campus ministries to give them a more public image. So the first year of marriage was funded by their local mission and IVCF engagements, interspersed with other opportunities.
James had read in a trade magazine about Fellowship of Arts, Media, and Entertainment and called one of its Nashville-based members, Randy Matthews. Meeting Matthews at a Nashville studio led to Ward’s second recording James Ward Himself after the producer of Randy Matthews’ record funded a quick solo recording of James’ best songs. Himself gave James a record to sell at concerts, and it continues to be a favorite among his early fans.
Working with an inner-city church produces myriad opportunities for cultural and creative discoveries and James wrote prolifically for the little church named New City Fellowship. “Morning Sun,” “Consider the Lilies,” “O Father,” “Faith is What You Hope For,” and “He Shall Be Satisfied” were all written during the first two years of that employment. Inter-Varsity provided a wider audience, and James played one of many off-site concerts at Urbana 73. Both mainstage speakers Samuel Escobar and Elizabeth Elliot were in attendance at that performance. Driving around the southeast United States afforded many unique experiences, and life-long friend and youth ministry leader Duffy Robbins was in the audience at UNC-Chapel Hill. Later at Smith Mountain Lake conference, author and lecturer Dr. Carl Ellis was guest speaker, and new IVCF staff members Tony and Veronica Warner found James’ gospel-tinged performance to be an encouragement as incoming black staff.
In 1975, James Ward was getting restless with solo performing, and also found his songs to be creatively limiting. It was then that he met Ed Mathews at a summer camp at Peniel, and they agreed to get a band together with a more artsy goal. This was the time of early CCM music; James had already corresponded with Phil Keaggy and met Larry Norman at Geneva College. The two young aspiring band members then drew in Paul Loranger, a bassist friend of Mathews, and then they heard about Kit McDermott, a drummer from Connecticut. These four musicians subsequently moved to Western Pennsylvania, where God led them to a farm near the Ligonier Valley Study Center where Dr. R.C. Sproul was headquartered. They named their band Elan, and began playing concerts in the area for Christian campus groups. After rehearsing Ward material and adding new, jazz-oriented compositions, the band began playing Christian sponsored events, but were met with ambiguous response. No longer was it James Ward pounding out gospel piano, but it was a 4-piece band with edgy harmonies and full-on jazz soloing.
After one year, Kit returned to Connecticut and Elan continued with Mark Farley as new drummer. In 1976 after a performance at Taylor University, James and Beth’s first child Kathryn was born in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Although they continued to book select tour dates, the sound and complexity of the new band quickly dried up Ward’s client base. Soon they became primarily a club band with danceable hit tunes and a circuit of bars in the Pittsburgh area. One of their last concerts was at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church across the street from Westminster Theological Seminary. The reaction was palpably negative, and Elan retreated to making a living with dance gigs. Finally, in 1978 James announced his intention to return to Chattanooga to resume his solo career. Although there was disappointment and even anger among the other members, the assets were divided, and Elan was no more. No studio recordings were made.
James Ward and his family began planning their return to Tennessee, and Ward contacted Elan sponsors who still had concert bookings to fill those as a solo artist. It was at Trinity Christian College, during a high school visitation weekend, that James met Hans Altena, a Christian music entrepreneur and a new partnership was formed. Soon they went into Hedden West Studios in Chicago to record Mourning Into Dancing as an independent release. It was picked up by Benson Company’s Lamb and Lion Records and released with a new cover in 1979. It was that year that the Ward’s second child Kirk was born.
During the year after Mourning Into Dancing was released, James enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts with the label sending him to the Christian Bookseller’s Convention and a whirlwind tour in Australia. The first single “So His Honor” garnered air play followed by radio and magazine interviews, including one with DJ Paul Richardson in Cleveland, Tennessee. In 1980 James was featured at Pittsburgh’s Jubilee Convention for the first time. A second Lamb and Lion release in 1982 was produced by Turley Richards and featured Nashville’s finest session players. Faith Takes a Vision saw solid airplay throughout the US, and resulted in an opportunity to open for Amy Grant in Dallas due to radio exposure.
The label’s commitment ended with the second record, and once again James Ward was an independent artist. He and manager Hans Altena soon re-recorded the first record Himself and released No Violence in 1983. Ward classics like “Creation,” “Morning Sun,” and “Consider the Lilies” were recorded with hand-picked players at the Master’s Studio in Toronto. Another studio demo session yielded a set of solo voice and piano tunes recorded at Pinewood Studios in Vancouver later in 1983. This recording, released in cassette form, was called More Piano, Please. It included Ward standards “Rock of Ages,” “I Belong to You,” “Death is Ended,” and “O for a Thousand.” This was also the year James and Beth went to Honolulu with Youth Specialties, played with Leon Padillo and Leslie Phillips at a Group Magazine ski weekend, and wrote the music to Maggie’s Song, a music drama by James Schaap from Dordt College.
James Ward’s tour schedule had ramped up with new exposure and consistently excellent performances. His relationship with the Coalition for Christian Outreach in Pittsburgh continued to strengthen, and he became worship leader of that event for several years. The National Youthworker’s Convention invited him to showcase at their Atlanta conference in 1982, and that burgeoned into a yearly house band gig spanning 4 days and 7 plenary sessions, including a gospel choir made up of conferees on Sunday morning. Youth Specialties held conventions in the east and west, so the James Ward Band would be scheduled at dual events in San Francisco, San Diego, Nashville, or Chicago. The Creation Festival in Mt. Union, Pennsylvania became a regular stop when James teamed up with Duffy Robbins in 1988 for the “Morning Cup of Coffee” set between the A.M. speakers. Since that meant three days of 20-minute crowd pleasers with Duffy emceeing crazy stunts and novelty tunes, James would see an expanding base of clients all over the East Coast. Then the Resurrection Youth Weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee began in 1987 and became a 13-year run of worship leading with his band, and finally a live recording James Ward LIVE. Duffy Robbins also recommended James for his speaking engagements at youth events throughout the summers, and this found James and his family at the beaches of the Gulf doing one youth camp after another.
In 1984 James suffered a back injury that interrupted his busy tour schedule. As he recovered from a lower back muscle injury, he wrote the song “Pray, Pray, Pray” and the demo got the attention of Milk and Honey Records in Nashville. In 1985 the album Good Advice was released to critical acclaim. The title cut, as well as “Pray, Pray, Pray” saw airplay and the album was expected to be followed by another Milk and Honey release, but the label could not agree with James’ manager, and a financial settlement was reached, freeing Hans and James to independently record Blue Believer in 1989. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, it was a difficult project and James had to convince his partner to go back into the studio in 1990 to record Over All the World with several popular praise songs which resulted from the shift in Ward’s performance focus to that of worship leader and convention musician. “Ain’t No Rock,” “Glory, Glory,” and “Holy Books” brought fans to the merch table as Ward saw a resurgence of record sales. James also became an affiliate artist with Compassion International and represented child sponsorship at his concerts.
1990 was also the year James enrolled in a Master’s in Music degree program at University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Both of James and Beth’s children were teenagers and they began to think about life after the road. Studying jazz was a growing passion, and the 2-hour trip to Knoxville became a weekly schedule for the next five years. But this did not prevent Hans and James from another album project—Two Days at Shiloh was literally just that. Engineer Gary Hedden assembled a top drawer session band and the album was recorded direct to 2-track in two days.
Graduation from UTK in 1996 brought a big change. James and Hans ended their partnership and the artist took a job teaching high school music at his children’s school, Chattanooga Christian. For five years he taught high school students music appreciation, Christ and Culture, Jazz Band, and the big one, choir. Under James’ direction the choir program grew to include an auditioned Choral Ensemble and the choirs began attending the East Tennessee Choral Association’s All East and All State Choral Competitions. At the same time as he came off the road, James and Beth took in her parents and aunt as caregivers. To do this they sold two homes and moved into one large home with space for all. The caregiving project took 12 years—from the combining of households till Mrs. Moore joined her husband in glory.
But in 2002, New City Fellowship, the Wards home church, offered James a full-time position as Director of Music. All things considered, that was a better fit for their circumstances, and he left CCS for the third phase of his career—church music. New City was a growing church family with a 600 seat sanctuary, and the contemporary style of their cross-cultural worship taxed the facilities. A rotation system was set up for praise teams on Sundays, and James continued to write and arrange worship music for adult choir, youth choir, children’s groups, and special ensembles. In 1997 a music mission team called Sweet Joy toured Germany and France for two weeks. Later in 2007 a music team went to Kenya for a tour of churches and schools.
In the meantime the Wards were growing as a family. In 1998 James and Beth took in her parents and aunt, expanding into a large home with 4 ½ bathrooms. Their daughter Katie was married in 1999 and gave birth to their first grandchild in 2003. Soon after Kirk was engaged to be married. At the church Pastor Randy left for Desert Storm, after years of serving in the army reserves. The next year James hosted a Global Worship Conference at New City, featuring diversity as a key pillar in New City’s worship music. In June 2004 Beth’s Aunt Phyllis died in a local care facility, leaving her sister and brother-in-law still living with the Ward’s. That same month, Kirk and Sarah his wife left for St. Louis for his first job as full-time music director at New City Fellowship St. Louis.
NCF was a dynamic musical environment for James and his choir. In 2005 and 2015 the denominational General Assembly was held in Chattanooga, and James’ praise team and choirs were part of the worship mix. Perhaps the defining YouTube video of this period was a live recording of “Death is Ended” by the combined choir for an album of James’ Christmas and Easter anthems called I’ll Be More Like Jesus. It was released in 2006. James continued to write music for the life of the church including children’s musicals, and special arrangements for events. The praise band grew to include horns on Easter and Christmas.
In 2015 James had been approached by Dr. Jeanell Brown to direct a jazz band as a music department course. She also wanted jazz piano to be offered as an applied music course. This began an ongoing arrangement with his alma mater that continues to this day. In 2017, James colleague from UT-K Master’s program Alan Wyatt asked him to teach jazz piano at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. That opportunity ran for three years until the spring of 2019 when it seemed prohibitive to make the commute. Both schools provided him with a way to share his experiences and love of jazz with the next generation.
Also in 2015, the Wards sold their large home on St. Elmo Avenue and hired a builder to erect a new home in St. Elmo that would be suitable for aging in place. After their experience with caregiving, they knew what such a house would need. The new home had a special piano room in the front with a reinforced floor for the grand.
The year 2018 brought the conclusion of James music directorship at New City Fellowship. He retired five years after the founding pastor, Randy Nabors, stepped down. The new pastor, Kevin Smith, was a new kind of boss—deferential and less directive than Pastor Randy who was essentially pioneering cross-cultural urban ministry in the denomination. James had prepared his associate, Daniel Young, to take over the reins, and a new pianist, Prakash Wright, was hired to continue the piano-driven worship at New City Fellowship. Retirement brought a new freedom to develop his musical catalog and continue teaching part-time.
James and Beth celebrate 50 years of marriage in June 2022.
The year 2020 brought the pandemic of Covid-19, and James’ teaching was online for the spring semester. Teaching piano over Zoom was different, but students persisted, even to one who was from Vienna, Austria who continued his piano lessons! The jazz band class went online also as a jazz history and theory course until warmer weather enabled the band to rehearse outside. As the pandemic ran its course, the Wards were vaccinated, but James succumbed to Covid-19 in July 2021. It was a mild case, and they were able to go to the beach with Kirk’s family soon after.