James Chance, no wave and punk-funk pioneer, dies at 71
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James Chance, no wave and punk-funk pioneer, dies at 71
Chance was born James Siegfried on April 20, 1953, in Milwaukee.

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK, NY.- James Chance, a singer, saxophonist and composer who melded punk, funk and free jazz into bristling dance music as the leader of the Contortions, died Tuesday in New York. He was 71.

His brother, David Siegfried, said Chance had been in declining health for years and succumbed to complications of gastrointestinal disease at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in upper Manhattan.

During the late 1970s explosion of punk culture in New York City, the Contortions were at the forefront of a style called no wave — music that set out to be as confrontational and radical in sound and performance as punk’s fashion and attitude were visually.

Contortions songs like “I Can’t Stand Myself” and “Throw Me Away” filled the rhythmic structures of James Brown’s funk with angular, dissonant riffs, to be topped by Chance’s yelping, blurting, screaming vocals and his trilling, squawking alto saxophone. He was a live wire onstage, with his own twitchy versions of moves adapted from Brown, Mick Jagger and his punk contemporaries.

Although the Contortions often performed in suits and ties, their music and stage presence were proudly abrasive. In the band’s early days, Chance was so determined to get a reaction from arty, detached spectators that he would jump into the audience and slap or kiss someone. Audience members often fought back.

“I got a big kick out of provoking people, I don’t deny that,” Chance said in a 2003 interview with Pitchfork.

Adele Bertei, who played keyboards in the Contortions, said: “It was a kind of musical brutalism. We really wanted to destroy ideas of art as elitist — and of punk as musically revolutionary, when it really was just about a three-chord progression.”

Chance, she added, “was so singular in his musical vision, in his presence, in his will to smash all conformity into pieces, that he will never be forgotten by anyone who experienced his music live. It was kind of insane, but kind of brilliant, the physicality of it.”

Chance was born James Siegfried on April 20, 1953, in Milwaukee. His father, Donald Siegfried, was the business manager for a Wisconsin school district. His mother, Jean, taught elementary school; she survives him, along with his brother, David, and his sisters Jill Siegfried and Mary (Randy) Koehler.

James Siegfried studied classical piano with nuns in his elementary school when he was 7 years old; it bored him. But when he was 11, a jazz teacher taught him to play standards and stride piano. During the late 1960s, he soaked up the era’s rock. He briefly attended Michigan State University, then returned to Milwaukee and studied jazz at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, where he picked up the alto saxophone and started playing free jazz.

Late in 1975, he moved to New York City, drawn by reporting in The Village Voice about the punk-rock incubator CBGB and the loft jazz scene. He frequented both.

“I went to jazz sessions at places like the Tin Palace, which was a half a block from CBGB’s,” he told Glenn O’Brien in 2011. “But there was no overlap. Nobody who went to the Tin Palace would ever go to CBGB’s, or vice versa.”

He took lessons from a loft jazz master, tenor saxophonist David Murray, and started a jazz group, Flaming Youth. But he disliked the studious jazz audience.

“He wanted people to be dancing,” said Sylvia Reed, a lifelong friend who was briefly Chance’s manager. “He wanted to pull people off the floor.”

He also soon realized that “I wasn’t going to make it in the jazz scene,” Chance said in 2011. “Too many guys could play sax better than me.” He met Lydia Lunch, a pioneering no wave performer, at CBGB; shared his Lower East Side apartment with her; and played with her band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, for much of 1977. He started the Contortions after Lunch decided her band didn’t need a saxophone.

By then, he was performing as James Chance. “He wanted a stage name that sounded like it could be a real name, not a silly punk name like Rotten,” David Siegfried said. “He was also really into film noir, and it fit with that.”

Siegfried added, “Behind that combative stage persona, James was reclusive, shy and softhearted.”

A loose movement of boundary-defying musicians and visual artists coalesced as no wave with a series of five concerts at the Soho gallery Artists Space in May 1978. The series was attended by Brian Eno, a producer who chose the Contortions and three other bands — Mars, DNA and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks — to share a compilation album that would endure as a document of a pivotal artistic moment: “No New York.”

Chance found a catalyst in Anya Phillips, a fashion designer and photojournalist who became his girlfriend and manager, promoting the band and honing his theatricality as a frontman. The Contortions regularly filled New York City clubs — mostly Max’s Kansas City, which had an ongoing rivalry with CBGB.

“He was a chameleon,” Deborah Harry of Blondie, an occasional guest singer with Chance, said. “He could lure you in with being so cute and so jerky, with the whole downtown thing. But then he would do things that were really very advanced musically.”

The band got a recording contract with Ze Records and in 1979 released the album “Buy,” which captured crisp studio versions of Chance’s songs. More raucous live recordings would be released after the early Contortions broke up.

Noisy as it seemed, the music was tautly constructed, as Chance explained to Pitchfork. “Instead of chord changes, I wrote a part for each instrument, starting from the bass and building it up from there. Interlocking rhythmic melodies. It’s very structured,” he said. “Songs are actually all written out in charts.”

Michael Zilkha, the owner of Ze Records, prompted Chance to make a “disco record,” leaving it to Chance to decide what that meant. Chance was well aware of racial tensions between the largely white New York punk scene and Black-rooted jazz and disco; the Contortions made a point of playing cover versions of R&B songs in their sets. Chance exposed and challenged the racial divide, naming his disco project James White and the Blacks and titling the album “Off White,” also released in 1979. Its songs included “White Savages,” “Almost Black,” “White Devil” and “Bleached Black.”

Recorded by the Contortions band and guests including Lunch, most of the songs moved only slightly closer to mainstream pop and dance music. But the group did rework a jagged Contortions song, “Contort Yourself,” with a disco beat and approved an extended remix.

The Contortions broke up in 1979 because of conflicts over money and personalities. Chance had also developed a heroin addiction that would affect him for the rest of his life. Former Contortions members went on to start bands including Bush Tetras, the Raybeats and 8 Eyed Spy.

Chance formed a new lineup of James White and the Blacks, featuring Black sidemen from trombonist Joseph Bowie’s band Defunkt. It released the album “Sax Maniac” in 1982; a different lineup released the album “Melt Yourself Down” in 1986.

By the end of the 1980s, Chance had grown disillusioned with the music business, and his addiction had also deepened. But in 2001, he reconciled with surviving 1970s Contortions band members and returned to performing with them and other musicians. A French band that had been hurriedly convened for a festival performance stayed together to perform and tour with him; they were billed as James Chance and Les Contortions and they released the full album “Incorrigible!” in 2012.

Reed said that Chance had also recorded a trove of solo piano music that may eventually be released.

Chance gave his last live performances in 2019. In 2018, younger admirers of his punk funk brought him to a nationwide audience when Scottish band Franz Ferdinand added him as a surprise guest on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

Chance played a jabbing, dissonant, squealing alto sax solo, delivering it with a signature James Brown move: a drop to his knees.

In liner notes to a 2010 compilation, “Twist Your Soul,” Chance wrote, “Our music was much more than a mere art statement or a vehicle to realize mass-produced fantasies of celebrity — we lived it. Fame, fortune and the future were irrelevant. We may have been self-absorbed, but we were bent on pushing our music and our lives to the furthest limit we could conceive of.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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