James Chance, No Wave Icon and Saxophonist of the Contortions, Dies at 71

James Chance, the confrontational, controversial saxophonist and singer of the Contortions and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, who helped start the No Wave movement of the late 1970s in New York City, died Tuesday in New York, his Facebook page confirmed. He was 71.

“His death was announced by his brother David Siegfried of Chicago, who did not specify a cause of death but noted that the musician’s health had been in decline for several years,” the statement said.

“His final live performance is believed to have taken place in March 2019 in Utrecht, The Netherlands,” according to the statement.

While not an accomplished musician or singer, Chance epitomized the “No Wave”-era Downtown New York of the late 1970s and early 1980s with a sound and swagger that combined jazz, punk and funk. With his chiseled features, white tux and intensely confrontational stage presence — he would literally start fights with audience members, one of whom, according to legend, was veteran music critic Robert Christgau — for a time Chance was a leading light of that scene, which existed on the fringe of the more-popular CBGB-spawned new wave coterie that included Blondie, Talking Heads, the Ramones and others.

Born James Siegfried in Milwaukee, Chance was also known as James White in his group James White and the Blacks.

He also played his improvisational jazz-punk-noise in bands such as the Flaming Demonics, James Chance & the Sardonic Symphonics, James Chance and Terminal City and James Chance and Les Contortions.

After playing in a band named Death in Milwaukee, Chance moved to New York City and joined the band Flaming Youth in 1976. With his roommate, the equally noise-friendly Lydia Lunch, he started Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. He formed the Contortions in 1977, and they appeared on the “No New York” compilation album assembled by Brian Eno (with no small assistance from singer-scenester Adele Bertei).

The Contortions’ albums included 1979’s “Buy” and “Off White,” under the name James White and the Blacks, in 1980, featuring Lydia Lunch. The band’s sax-driven funk was like a combination of James Brown, Ornette Colemand and Iggy Pop — Chance was nowhere near as talented as those artists, but that wasn’t the point — echoes of which could be heard in countless bands that followed, whether they were aware of the influence or not.

Yet Chance’s often-unhinged behavior — one second-hand tale had him stabbing himself in the chest with a broken bottle when a club owner refused to pay him — made for unstable lineups: The 1982 James White and the Blacks album “Sax Maniac” had a completely different lineup.

On the liner notes for a re-issue of “Buy,” Marc Masters wrote, “Led by the brash yelps and free-sax squawks of Chance, Contortions spit out fiercely rhythmic tunes charged by the wiry guitar lines of Jody Harris and the dizzying slide guitar of Pat Place… Opener ‘Designed to Kill’ shoots sparks of sound in all directions, while ‘Contort Yourself’ is a nihilistic dance number wherein Chance instructs listeners to twist into knots, physically and mentally. ‘It’s better than pleasure, it hurts more than pain,’ he snarls, later imploring, ‘You better try being stupid instead of smart.'”

Chance also played on Debbie Harry’s “Rockbird” album in 1986 and on Blondie’s “No Exit.”

He reunited with some original Contortions members in 2001, and they played the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival twice, and toured and gigged fairly regularly over the following years. Chance also performed with the Chicago band Watchers. He released his first music video in 20 years in 2016 with a re-recorded version of “Melt Yourself Down.”

He is survived by his mother Jean Siegfried; brother and fellow performer David Siegfried and his wife Donna Seaman; and sisters Jill Siegfried and Mary (Randy) Koehler. His longtime partner Judy Taylor died in in 2020.

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