James Chance, a.k.a. James White and long before that as James Siegfried of Milwaukee, WI, is 55 today.
Happy birthday, James.
James is a legend in New York — where he moved in 1976 after dropping out of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music — and beyond. Just not in Milwaukee. He came back to town five years ago and played a gig at what used to be the Onopa Brewery in Riverwest. I hadn't seen him play for nearly ten years, so I was pretty excited about it, and asked a bunch of my musician friends if they were going. None of them had ever heard of him, and declined the invitation. Their loss!
At the Onopa, they hadn't heard of him either. When James showed up for the gig carrying his alto saxophone, the doorman asked him to pay the cover charge. "Dude, that's the headliner," I told him.
Two people who did know James were his parents. They were at the show and considering James's act, it was pretty cool to find a couple of 70-ish folks grooving to James's edgy funk-punk-free jazz stylings and slightly menacing stage persona. I talked to them afterwards and they were positively beaming, and told me how proud they were of James. They should be; James has put on some of the best live shows ever.
And as usual, James had a wicked band. He's always hooked up with some great musicians. For example, two of James's albums recorded as James White and the Blacks, Off White and Sax Maniac, feature trombonist Joe Bowie, the younger brother of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Joe Bowie has performed with Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, and a host of other avant-jazz geniuses, as well as being the founder of Defunkt.
I used to go catch James playing in Toronto whenever he came there. One of the best shows I've ever seen was James's gig at the Bamboo Club on Queen St. in the late 80s. What a band. Everybody was screaming for encores but James came back out to say they'd already played all the songs they knew. Another time I saw James in around 1983. About a week later I saw Ornette Coleman, and Ornette was with the same guitarist as James had had in his ensemble.
Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to see James's first band, the Contortions, whose live shows featured the bandleader getting into fights with audience members including, apparently, the Village Voice's music critic Robert Christgau. Even so, Christgau gave Off White a B minus and Buy the Contortions a B plus, despite calling James an "ambitious neurotic" beset by "obnoxious afflictions."
(Lou Reed has some amusing advice for Robert Christgau and his sophomoric ratings system on Take No Prisoners.)
Marquette University has a special collection of CDs by Milwaukee and Milwaukee-related artists, so I did a search the other day to see if James Siegfried was in there. Nope. Shocked and appalled, I called the library and spoke to somebody there, told her a bit about James, hooked her up with his Wikipedia entry and suggested that the collection should at least acquire Off White and Sax Maniac.
Then a friendly library archivist named Bruce Cole called me back to talk about James Chance. Bruce, a drummer, said he remembered James Siegfried from before he moved to New York. And he vowed that pretty soon James Chance will be represented in the Marquette collection, and more than deservedly so, I say.
Here's a clip of James speaking to a French journalist in a bar a couple of years ago, about his musical influences and what he's been up to recently:
James Chance interview (6:34)
And here's a home video of an early Contortions performance, from 30 years ago:
I Can't Stand Myself (4:17)
Finally, the title track from 1982's Sax Maniac. Crank it up for James's 55th birthday and check out the bass player, Colin Wade:
There are a few more tracks from Off White at this MySpace page, including the dance floor classic Contort Yourself, Almost Black, and the strangely disturbing "duet" with Lydia Lunch, Stained Sheets.
Many happy returns, James. Thanks for all the great music and entertainment and come back home to play a gig soon. I'll try to drag a few more people out to the show this time. Physically, if necessary.