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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Sydney Morning Herald DECEMBER 29, 2015 - by Patrick Emery
JAMES CHANCE IS READY TO TAKE A PUNT ON HIS FIRST AUSTRALIAN TOUR
When he arrived in New York City in 1975, James Chance found a sharp divide between the city's jazz and punk scenes. "There was a huge hostility between the musicians - for jazz musicians, punk rock was beneath contempt," Chance says. "And a lot of the punk rockers thought the jazz scene was full of intellectual phoney musical masturbation."
Born James Siegfried in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Chance had his interest in rock'n'roll piqued by the British Invasion bands of the mid-1960s, but took up saxophone as a teenager and immersed himself in the music of jazz artists such as Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk and Cab Calloway. He dropped out of his jazz degree, though, to move to New York City, where he found an apartment on the lower-east side, a few blocks from the legendary CBGB punk rock club.
In New York, he fell in with the punk crowd, teaming up with Lydia Lunch in Teenage Jesus & The Jerks before forming his own band, James Chance & The Contortions.
Chance's fusion of jazz and punk aligned with New York's emerging experimental noise rock movement, known as No Wave. James Chance & The Contortions featured on the influential No New York compilation album recorded by Brian Eno in 1978.
But for Chance, the influence of punk was more about attitude than musical or artistic style. Frustrated with the sedentary behaviour of audiences at his shows, Chance would regularly jump into the crowd to berate them into action, occasionally provoking a stronger reaction than he'd bargained for. "One time at Max's Kansas City this girl bit my arm, right through my jacket and shirt, and left this terrible bruise," he says, laughing at the memory.
But as time passed and he felt his interaction with the crowd losing its spontaneity, Chance decided to look to the rhythm and blues performers he'd admired while growing up. "I started to think about playing music as an old-fashioned entertainer, like James Brown or Jackie Wilson or Cab Calloway, who were all-round entertainers," he says. "That's kind of what I was aspiring to be - to still have a violent edge to it, but I didn't want such close contact with the audience."
Encouraged by his charismatic manager and girlfriend, the late Anya Phillips, Chance began to embrace the funk and soul aesthetic of New York's disco scene. He re-invented himself as James White & The Blacks, releasing the disco-styled Off White in 1979, exploring the complexity of his own relationship to black music in tracks such as Almost Black.
With the New York punk scene in decline for much of the 1980s, Chance returned to his jazz roots before returning to his original stage name and touring Europe on a regular basis with his French backing band, Les Contortions.
Now, he's finally coming to Australia for the first time, supported by a local backing band featuring members of The Drones and Clairy Browne & The Bangin' Rockettes.
"I've worked a lot of places with local musicians and it's always worked out very well, so I'm not too worried about it," Chance says. "It keeps it fresh to have all these different people interpreting the music."