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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

James Chance (1953 - 2024)

Photo from jameschanceofficial

By Martin Schray

In the early 1980s I used to buy my records at a nice small-town record store; it was run by a hip couple. They knew my preferences at that time - New Wave, Alternative Music, HipHop etc. - and one day they recommended James White & The Blacks’ Sax Maniac. If I wanted something different, this was the record I needed. I went home, put the record on ..... and was disturbed (I didn’t know what No Wave was). The music was weird and atonal, but also kind of funky. Over the years I’ve put Sax Maniac on and off, to this day I struggle with it, but I’ve come to appreciate it. James White, the man also known as James Chance, was a pioneer of deconstructed dance music, and I followed his career and listened to the albums he released over the years. I even saw him with The Contortions in 2015 on the Météo festival. So it was sad news when his family launched a GoFundMe campaign in 2023, because it was clear that he had serious health problems. Now the great saxophonist and singer has passed away.

James Chance was born as James Siegfried and was raised in Milwaukee and Brookfield, Wisconsin. At the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee he joined his first band, Death, which played Stooges and Velvet Underground covers but also some of their own songs. In 1975, Chance moved to New York City and quickly entered the free jazz and no wave punk rock scenes. In 1976 he founded Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with Lydia Lunch, a soul mate. In 1977, after studying for a short time under David Murray, Chance formed The Contortions, who mixed free jazz improvisation and funky rhythms á la James Brown with a punk attitude. Their live shows often ended in violence when Chance would confront audience members. Chance’s stage and musical persona were closely connected to his then girlfriend and agent Anya Phillips, who died of cancer in 1981. Although they broke up already in 1979, the Contortions released four albums in sum: Buy, (ZE/Island, 1979) , and Off White, under the pseudonym James White and the Blacks (ZE Records, 1979) featuring Lydia Lunch under the pseudonym Stella Rico. The third one, Live Aux Bains Douches (S.C.O.P.A., 1980) contains a killer live version of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough“. The last one is White Cannibal (ROIR, 1980). Back in the days it was only released as a tape, but later the album became available on CD and vinyl. The opener is a very rough version of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)“. All four albums are must-have classics of the No Age genre. The Contortions reached a wider audience with their contribution to the Brian Eno-compiled No New York collection of No Wave acts.Chance then re-formed James White and the Blacks with a completely different lineup that appeared on the 1982 album Sax Maniac which was dedicated to Anya Phillips. The group released one more album, Melt Yourself Down, a very limited Japanese release. In 1982 Chance toured with the re-formed James White and the Blacks with his brother David "Tremor" Siegfried and his band David and the Happenings. In 1983 Chance briefly relocated to Paris, returning to New York City in 1983 to record the album James White Presents The Flaming Demonics.

In 2001, Chance reunited with original Contortions members Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar) and Don Christensen (drums) for a few limited engagements. Original keyboard player Adele Bertei appeared briefly, but bass player George Scott III had died of an accidental drug overdose in 1980 and his slot was filled by Eric Sanko. The reunited group has played several shows in 2008.

In addition to limited engagements with the original Contortions, Chance has performed and recorded with the Chicago band Watchers every now and then. In 2009 he made occasional appearances playing keyboards in NYC with a trio, with the material restricted to close readings of jazz standards. In Europe, he has performed with James Chance & Les Contortions, French musicians who have been his backing band since 2006.

Unfortunately, Chance had to cut short his tour plans in 2022 due to a sudden health crisis. The family had hopes that James would recover, however there was scarce employment for musicians during this time of the pandemic.

Recently, Chance was in very bad health, he had to go to hospital because he was not able to walk anymore. What was more, his partner Judy Taylor died, which left him on his own. At seats a little help was his brother David. Now Chance has lost the fight against the illness, which - albeit a relief since he doesn’t have to suffer anymore - is a bis loss for the music world.

Watch James Chance & The Contortions “I Can’t Stand Myself“ and feel the man’s magic: 


Anonymous said...

A hero. Contort yourself.

Ferruccio said...

Very very sad news. This guy was playing no-wave hardcore jazz in white tuxedo in 1979: immense. I saw him live in 2011 and it still was termonuclear sweat, so long J.