James Chance, AKA James White, was one of the most colourful characters oon the downtown New York underground scene of the late seventies and early eighties.
James Chance was a classically trained pianist who had been inspired to take up the saxophone after hearing free jazz musicians such as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. He absconded from the music conservatory where he had been studying and headed straight for New York in order to play his saxophone in a punk band.
Music critic Robert Palmer has recounted his first sighting of James Chance at a sophisticated free jazz performance at a downtown loft: James Chance was in the band, but stuck out like a sore thumb. When he was eventually and begrudgingly allowed to take a solo his excessively visceral grunts and bleats, combined with his aggressive rock and roll posturing (he leaped over a row of musicians and slid along the floor on his knees!) caused a stir of severe disaproval among the free jazz 'establishment' figures!
Having been rejected by the (not so) free jazz scene, James Chance began hanging around the punk scene at clubs such as CBGBs and Max's Kansas City. He met kindred spirit Lydia Lunch and played in her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but soon quit to form his own group, The Contortions, which fused no wave rejectionism with James Brown-style funk.
No wave was the term given to the anti-music created by a group of bands that emerged in the mid to late seventies that sought to challenge, and disengage from, past styles of rock music. These (non) musicians did not infact entirely reject their influences, but did respond to them in a radically original way: no wave music was charactersed by dissonance; jerky, stumbling rhythms; short and unusual strong structures; choking or screamed vocals; and perhaps primarily by the snarly nihilism of many of the musicians - and this was especially true of the spitefully cynical James Chance who would frequently provoke - and even fight - his audiences!
Band members for the Contortions were initially recruited as much for their image as for their musical ability and the line up changed fairly often to cope with the ever-developing ideas of its leader.
The most famous James Chance song is 'Contort Yourself' which was recorded in both a raw no wave funk style and in a (slightly) more refined disco not disco style, and is featured on the first volume of our New York Noise series of compilations. Many of the musicians which passed through his groups are also featured in other bands which appear in these compilations.