NYC No Wave Legend James Chance Passes Away at 71

James Chance, frontman of James Chance and the Contortions, has left this world at the age of 71 after a lengthy illness. according to his Facebook page. Born on April 20, 1953, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, James Siegfried, as he was first known, became a pioneering force in the No Wave movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Chance was known for his electrifying stage presence, blending the raw energy of punk with the free-spirited improvisation of jazz. His wild saxophone riffs and frenetic dance moves made him a standout figure in the underground scene. Before making his mark in New York City, he played in a Milwaukee band called Death. Moving to the Big Apple in 1976, he joined Flaming Youth and, with Lydia Lunch, co-founded Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.

In 1977, he formed James Chance and The Contortions. Chance’s bonkers avant-garde stylings became synonymous with a sound that defied categorization, merging dissonance with danceability. Notable members included guitarist Pat Place (Bush Tetras), Jody Harris (guitar), George Scott III (bass), Don Christensen (drums), Adele Bertei (keyboard/vocals), and Bradly Field (drums). Despite their brief initial run, they quickly became known for their eclectic mix of punk, jazz, and funk. The Contortions’ albums included 1979’s Buy under the name James White and the Blacks, and 1980’s Off White in 1980, featuring Lydia Lunch.

After disbanding in the early 1980s due to lineup changes and other projects, James Chance continued his improvisational jazz-punk-noise concoctions with bands like the Flaming Demonics, James Chance & the Sardonic Symphonics, James Chance and Terminal City, and James Chance and Les Contortions. Each of these groups was a delightful experiment in chaos, blending genres with the carefree audacity of a Zen master stirring up a raucous tea ceremony.

James Chance was the perfect embodiment of the No Wave era in Downtown New York  – a mainstay with the Max’s, Mudd and CBGB crowds and the ZE Records gang. His unique sax-driven funk was a wild fusion of James Brown’s rhythm, avant-garde jazz, and Iggy Pop’s raw intensity – with the talent level of your average middle schooler. This audacious blend reverberated through countless bands that followed, whether they knew it or not – a playful reminder that the charm of art often lies not in perfection, but in the boldness to groove to your own chaotic beat. His bizarre, manic take on Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough is, quite frankly, the stuff of legend.

Chance, in his dapper white tux, pushed boundaries (and occasionally audience members) and challenged norms with a truly off-kilter swagger. He collaborated with and left his fearlessly punk jazz funk brand on other notable artists and bands, including Tuxedomoon, Arto Lindsay, Blondie/Debbie Harry, Watchers, and Brian Eno. His partner Anya Phillips (co-founder of the famed Mudd Club) also played a huge role in his early career as his manager, stylist, and partner until her tragic death in 1981 from brain cancer. (Chance dedicated the album Sax Maniac to her in 1982.)

James Chance’s final years were, unfortunately, marred by health issues. A European tour was cut short thanks to a sudden health crisis. In October 2020, his longtime partner, Judy Taylor, passed away after battling a debilitating illness for years. The family didn’t disclose the cause of death, but his brother shared the news on social media today. It seems the universe had a few final curveballs for James, who, true to form, faced them with the same offbeat spirit he brought to his music.

James Chance left us today with a fiery trail of broken bottles, broken-down songs, and broken hearts. Godspeed, crazy sax man. New York City will never be the same.

Alice Teeple

Alice Teeple is a photographer, multidisciplinary artist, and writer. She is not in Tin Machine.

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