James Chance - Biography

He was informed by the images of film noir, the sounds of free jazz, the dynamics of James Brown and traded his piano for the sax. That's the brief sketch on the mystery that is James Chance, aka James White. His self-creation as a confrontational showman could've only come from the mind of a far-out jazz lover with an ear for funk, a conservatory background and a desire to be a part of Showbiz. Chance was unique, and there hasn't been one quite like him from downtown New York or anywhere else, before or since.


Chance was born James Siegfried in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 20, 1953. Raised on garage rock, he decided to teach himself jazz; he studied piano at a music conservatory in Milwaukee. "I wasn't really interested in playing typical, straight-ahead jazz…" he told the online publication, The Blow Up. "So I figured if I could play sax, I wouldn't have to worry about being part of the rhythm section." He started an avant-garde jazz combo in Milwaukee and stuck with it for a few years till it became apparent that the Midwest was no place for an ambitious avant-garde sax man. With his conservatory background and performance art leanings, he left the Badger State for New York City. Chance was 23 when he arrived on the nightclub scene there, gravitating toward the experimental music and punk scenes exploding at the time. Within the year he was at the center of both, having forged his identity as James Chance.


With 16-year-old poet and singer, Lydia Lunch, he made his New York debut in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. However, the abrasive, rock-ish group was ultimately Lunch's project and Chance set out on his own in 1977, forming the Contortions, a funk crew that specialized in sonic dissonance. The band included two guitarists, Pat Place and Jody Harris, as well as organist Adele Bertei and drummer Don Christiansen. The Contortions were a key inclusion on the various artist compilation No New York (1978 Antilles) compiled by Brian Eno and also featuring Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Mars, and D.N.A. The album also supplied the downtown New York scene from which the bands sprang with a name: No Wave. Buy (1979 Ze Records) was the Contortions only vinyl contribution to the world. The self-referential track, "Contort Yourself" is arguably the album's most accessible: Doctored by August Darnell to give it a disco sheen, the song made an impact on the then-relevant new wave/disco club scene and record charts.


With input from his girlfriend, Anya Phillips (d. 1981), Chance had developed an image, settling on the look of a classic-era entertainer (pompadour hairstyle and tuxedo jacket); it was a style that would become his signature. Chance was also known to be in-your-face, not only with his music, but in performance as well as in his offstage life. The performances were admittedly over-the-top, the squonks and honks from his sax actually hurting at times. But taking it a step further, Chance would sometimes fight with the audience; other times it was just plain street fighting that got him into jams. He was known to appear onstage with a black eye from time to time.


Chance's influences are many, though he has never cottoned to music made after 1975. Among the artists cites as either influential or enjoyable to him: James Brown, Little Jimmy Scott, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Jackie Wilson, Bobby Blue Bland and Wynonie Harris, among others. He told a French reporter for gonzai.com in 2005, "I basically took James Brown's funk and put free jazz on top of it. He did that himself on 'Super Bad.' When I heard 'Super Bad,' I thought, 'that's the way to go.'" In the same interview he noted that he first discovered Fela Kuti when he bought an album for a dime from a street vendor. He would go on to explore the Nigerian musician's hypnotic Afro-beat sound, incorporating it into his own jams as time went on.


For a white jazzman that played like Ornette Coleman and borrowed the funk and performance style of James Brown, the subject of race was bound to come up so Chance brought it to the table himself, early on. With James White and the Blacks, Chance made his necessary comment on race with the album, Off White (1979 Ze), which includes titles like "Almost Black" Parts I & II, "White Devil" and "White Savages," all dressed in sounds designed to blow your mind. Trombonist Joseph Bowie (brother of jazz trumpeter Lester and Chance's fellow Midwesterner) had assembled the band, however he departed soon after to form his own highly influential punky-funk experiment, Defunkt. Sounding a little like Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra, of course what sounded groundbreaking and otherworldly in the late '70s may sound fairly tame to some ears now. However Chance has earned his place of distinction in the land of free jazz: Not only can he blow, he was also an innovator. His adds were the pulses and rhythms of disco as well as the aforementioned hypno and Afro-beats. Second Chance (1982 Ze) and Sax Maniac (1982 Animal) were additional offerings from the Blacks.


The Flaming Demonics was his project after the Blacks, but it turned out to be just a one-off. After James White Presents the Flaming Demonics (1983 Ze), little was heard from Chance for long stretches, aside from the issuance of some rare ROIR cassette releases and live recordings.


In 2001 the Contortions reunited for a series of appearances and went on to play twice at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival (the original concert event to be "curated" rather than booked). That year, a 4-CD retrospective, Irresistible Impulse was issued (2003 Tiger Style), bringing Chance to the attention of the next generation of no wavers.


In 2004, he sat in on sax with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for the track "Rivals" from the album Damage. (2004 Sanctuary Records). Of course Spencer's downtown New York brand of traditional music merged with cacophony owes a great debt to Chance.


Sax Education, a two-disc set featuring "the hits," as well as live tracks was released in 2004 and was followed by the film-noir inspired jazz-laced album, James Chance and Terminal City Get Down and Dirty (2005 Windbell). Chance of a Lifetime (2005 DBK Works) is a DVD of James Chance live at the Double Door in Chicago with the Watchers (a band with whom he has repeatedly collaborated) in 2003. By mid-decade his backing band was a French ensemble called Les Contortions; they've worked European concert stages since 2006.


As late as 2005, Chance was still talking confrontation in an interview with gonzai.com. Asked about his most recent Paris appearance he said, "It's always a real trial to play in a little club that's so crowded and hot and everything but at the same time, you get a kind of excitement you don't get any other way sometimes. I have to say there were some real jerks there that night."


From a Jerk in Teenage Jesus to a 21st Century bandleader, James Chance will not contort himself to fit anyone's musical vision but his own. Now that's what we call No Wave.


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