A key figure in No Wave, Chance has been playing a combination of improvisational jazz-like music and punkin the New York music scene since the late 1970s, in such bands as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, James Chance and the Contortions, James White and the Blacks (as he appeared in the film Downtown 81), The Flaming Demonics, James Chance & the Sardonic Symphonics, James Chance and Terminal City, and James Chance and Les Contortions.
Chance differed from some of his no wave compatriots by possessing (and demanding from his band) a certain level of musical skill and talent. His music can be described as combining the freeform playing ofOrnette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens.
Born and raised in Milwaukee and Brookfield, Wisconsin, Chance attended Michigan State University, then the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee. There, Chance joined a band named Death, which performed covers of the Stooges and the Velvet Underground before moving toward original songs. At the end of 1975, Chance dropped out and moved to New York City after the dissolution of the band and the death of its singer. He quickly became active in both the free jazz and no wave punk rock scenes. His first band in New York in 1976 was an instrumental quartet with violin, drums and bass called Flaming Youth. After studying for a short time under David Murray, Chance formed The Contortions, who fused jazz improvisation and funky rhythms, with live shows often ending in violence when Chance would confront audience members. The Contortions reached a wider audience with their contribution to the Brian Eno-compiled No New York collection of No Wave acts.
Chance was noted for engaging in physical confrontations, from forcing the audience out of their seats and getting in fist fights, his New York City audience, including rock critic Robert Christgau. At first this was just an attempt to engage the passive New York audience, but this practice is reported to have somewhat diminished after audiences came to expect the physical confrontations.
Chance's stage and musical persona were finalized by romantic partner and agent Anya Phillips, who died of cancer in 1981. Frictions between Chance and band members eventually led to a breakup of the Contortions in the fall of 1979. The Contortions released one album, Buy in late 1979, and another album, Off White, under the pseudonym James White and the Blacks in 1980 (featuring Lydia Lunch under the pseudonym Stella Rico). Chance re-formed James White and the Blacks with a completely different lineup that appeared on the 1982 album Sax Maniac which was dedicated to Phillips. The group released one more album, Melt Yourself Down, a very limited Japanese release.
The first version of the Blacks was set up by Joseph Bowie. Shortly after, Defunkt emerged from the Blacks. In 1982 Chance toured with the re-formed James White and the Blacks with his brother David "Tremor" Siegfried and his band David and the Happenings from Carbondale, Illinois, playing Chicago, their hometown Milwaukee, and much of the Midwest.
In 1987, he contributed saxophone to The False Prophets' Implosion album.
In 2001, Chance reunited with original Contortions members Jody Harris (guitar), Pat Place (slide guitar) and Don Christensen (drums) for a few limited engagements. Original keyboard player Adele Bertei appeared briefly, but bass player George Scott III had died of an accidental drug overdose in 1980 and his slot was filled by Eric Sanko. The reunited group has played twice at the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival, and, in 2008, at the PS1 Warm Up series. Chance has also recorded with Blondie since coming out of his semi-retirement. Tiger Style records released the 4-CD box set retrospective Irresistible Impulse to critical acclaim in 2003.
In addition to limited engagements with the original Contortions, Chance has occasionally performed and recorded with the Chicago band Watchers. In Europe he performs with James Chance & Les Contortions, French musicians who have been his backing band since 2006. They played a 15 show Europe tour in April and May 2007 and were back in Europe in October 2007. In May 2012 they released the CD Incorrigible! on the French label LADTK, comprising seven Chance originals and two covers, all of them brand new recordings.
In 2009 Chance made occasional appearances playing keyboards in NYC with a trio, with the material restricted to close readings of jazz standards. In June 2012, Chance played in Portland, OR with local group Ancient Heat as his backing band. They played a number of songs from various points in his career, including a new cover of Gil Scott-Heron's "Home is Where The Hatred Is."
Chance appears on the video release James Chance - Chance of a Lifetime: Live in Chicago 2003 backed by the Chicago band Watchers.