James White a.k.a. James Chance by Tod Wizon

BOMB 37 Fall 1991
037 Fall 1991
James Chance 01 Bomb 037

James White. Photographer unknown.

Imagine a musical stew: James Brown, Monk, Ayler—you will begin to taste the recipe James White has been cooking up. In 15 years of recordings and performances, he has made some of the most intense, uncompromising music, all of which bear the stamp of a visionary American composer musician. He is at his best on the ferocious new ROIR cassette, Soul Exorcism : “This Is Not An Appetizer—Open Your Ears and Mind, But First, Let’s Dance.”

Tod Wizon Your music has an unbearable edge to it. It takes a few listenings before you hear that the music has the power to transport. But you have to get past the barrier of intensity before you get carried somewhere.

James White To me, it doesn’t matter how harsh or smooth the sound is. It’s the emotion that’s in it that counts. Most people today wouldn’t know what a real emotion was if it bit them. So how can they have any emotion in their music? Take jazz for instance, which is the most emotional music there is, or should be. There’s really a big difference if you listen to the old jazz musicians and the young jazz musicians today. The young ones listen to all the right people, but …

TW There’s no soul in them.

JW Yeah. It’s pathetic. They’re so posed. And the reason is they haven’t lived. They’re terrified to experience anything beyond what they’re allowed to experience. These are supposed to be artists. And artists are supposed to go deeper, and bring back something. I mean that musicians like Lester Young, Art Pepper, Bud Powell just play their asses off. They lived their asses off, whether they were doing drugs or whatever. People today are so afraid to take any risk in their lives. And the idea the young musicians have is so corny. They want to be like the old jazz musicians in the clubs in the ’40s and ’50s. But they don’t realize that that was a totally fucking wild scene. Did you read Art Pepper’s book? That scene was totally crazy. Those guys were nuts the way they lived. They took it out all the way. And these guys now are afraid to smoke a joint. I’m not saying that anybody should do anything but you have to do something to get some kind of experience before you can create anything worthwhile. You have to have something inside you to inform what you’re saying. Otherwise, you won’t have anything to say. It’s not just a matter of knowing the right licks.

TW You do see yourself as an artist?

JW Well, I don’t like the word, “artist” very much …

TW Let’s say it’s the triumph of vision over technique.

JW You have to have technique before you can do anything with vision.

TW But it’s the person driving the vehicle that takes you somewhere. We’re sitting here listening to Bud Powell. This guy is swinging. There is so much of himself in what he does. With others, it’s at arm’s length. Charlie Parker was the same way. Lester Young, when he was at the end of his life. The mistakes are as interesting as any other part of the music.

JW Bud Powell could play the corniest song and it’d be overwhelming. He couldn’t do it any other way.

TW How could you possibly, as a white boy, be sitting here talking about these things?

JW It’s not a matter of white and black. There are a lot of white jazz musicians who are just as great. A lot of white jazz musicians who are totally unknown.

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James White. © Jimmy DeSana, circa 1980.

TW There’s a way that you compose that has your stamp on it.

JW Well, my composing is different from most people’s because I don’t write from a chord structure. I write from pure melody. Each instrument is playing a melody. And they all build onto each other, to interlock together. I got that from James Brown.

TW Like Ellington or Tadd Dameron, you favor certain instruments. There are sounds you’re always dealing with, two scratchy guitars playing off each other. And then the alto sax playing on top of them. The horn charts in your songs are very simple. But there is a lot of breathing room for the musicians to blow. Between the guitars, you have guys blowing trombones and tenor saxes …

JW Even though the musicians are playing the same thing over and over again, they’re free to interpret it to a great degree. Not all musicians can play my music, even if they’re technically really good. Some have a feel for it. And some, absolutely don’t.

TW So you must have a hard time finding guys to play …

JW I used to have a hard time, around the early ’80s. Now I have a pretty easy time. Which is interesting, because even though I have such a terrible time with the business end of music, musicians now are always very happy to work with me. Around ’79, ’80, when I was starting to use black musicians, more professional jazz, funk-type musicians, I had a really hard time. I would have a different band every gig. Because some black people at that time, besides the music, had a hard time dealing with my attitude and image and everything. They just couldn’t handle the racial thing, a white person playing what I guess they considered “their” music and being too aggressive about it.

TW Funny, when I saw you last time at Rex, you had musicians that really could play …

JW Those guys have been with me for several years, all of them.

TW They give you the room to improvise. On the other hand, your earliest band, The Contortions, was in a constant state of innovation, because they were undisciplined.

JW I wouldn’t say they were undisciplined, my band has always been disciplined. The thing that made that band was the rhythm section, the bass, drums and lead guitar, were professional musicians. They could play. But on top of that, you had the organ and slide guitar. Both of them were girls who had never played a note in their lives before they joined my band. I totally taught them how to play. And that’s what really made that band. But it reached a point—there were a lot of personal things involved, too—where I just wanted to have more proficient musicians because some of that material was a little over their heads.

TW That band was absolutely too hot to last.

JW I hate to dwell on that band because everyone blamed me the band’s break up. There was a big backlash, against me personally. Some of the musicians in that band said things about me that were mostly lies and were totally malicious …

TW Now your edge is more subdued. There’s more melancholy. You’re doing Chet Baker songs, Little Willie John …

JW That’s just one part of it. But I still do James White and the Blacks, the funk thing, too. It’s just that I refuse to knock myself out, trying to get gigs. Unless everything is right, I’m not going to do it. See, I don’t have a manager. I don’t have anyone to help me business-wise. Until someone comes along and says, “I believe in your music enough to go out and work for you”—I’m not about to do that kind of thing myself. It’s not possible for an artist to do that for himself and get respect.

TW Why do you play alto? Have you played other horns?

JW I’ve played a little tenor, and soprano sax. But alto, I’m of very small stature, and it’s an easier horn for me to play. I’ve always been drawn to the alto, but almost all my influences are tenor players …

TW You play a little piano, too.

JW Piano was my first instrument. I started playing piano when I was seven years old. I started fooling around with jazz piano when I was in high school. And I didn’t pick up sax until I was about twenty.

TW What did you listen to when you grew up?

JW Music on the Top 40 radio. Which was great at that time: James Brown, Motown, Rolling Stones, Animals, all that stuff, Yardbirds … And then I got into jazz when I was about 17 or 18. The first jazz record that I ever heard of, that I really liked, was Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” And then I started to listen to people like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler … Ayler was my first influence on saxophone, the first song I ever learned on sax was “Ghosts” by Ayler.

TW I hear Cecil Taylor in there.

JW Yeah, when I was about 18, I played the piano a lot like Cecil Taylor. This was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I come from, I was going to this music conservatory there that had a jazz department. But it was a very square jazz department and I almost got thrown out of the school for playing that way.

When I first came to New York, in the beginning of ’76, my ambition was strictly to become a famous jazz musician. That’s all I wanted to do. And I thought I could do it. But after being here for a couple of years, and going around to different clubs, trying to sit in and all, I realized that there was no way I could make it as a jazz musician because people in that scene could not deal with me. The other musicians were into such a square thing. I scared them to death. I mean, I actually got into physical fights a couple of times with jazz musicians who disapproved of my playing and my white attitude.

TW How do you see your relationship to the musicians you work with?

JW The only way for a band to be, the way I have to deal with it is, I am the boss. It’s not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship. A benign dictatorship. I’m talking about as far as who’s going to be in control of the music. It seems like a lot of people in the music business think of me as some kind of wild man or something. Some maniac who gets up on the stage and goes berserk. They don’t realize when I’m on the stage, I’m in total control of what’s happening all the time, everything that the musicians play. When you establish a certain image, people take it so seriously. From the audience, I don’t expect anything else. But people in the business should be able to see the difference between, you know, someone’s persona and them as a person.

TW No, I understand that. It’s unusually honest and frank. Sometimes your music is so violent and the lyrics so hateful, that it scares people. At the same time, there’s a real catharsis in your music. It has a quality that is transcendent. It takes you out of yourself. You just get out of the way and let it go.

JW The closest thing that I would have to a religious experience is when I’m on stage. Especially with James White and the Blacks, with the dancing …

TW You don’t really prefer the ridiculous to the sublime, in the end, do you? You prefer the sublime.

JW I pass on that question. I think it’s two sides of the same thing. Most lead singers in rock bands, when they’re on stage, just stand there, dance around a little bit. When I’m on stage, I’m dancing all the time, playing my sax, singing. And it’s a lot of work. Halfway through the set, I’m completely exhausted. I have to go on from there and get even wilder—into another dimension.

TW Is there anything in rock that you like at all?

JW Currently? No. Nothing. I don’t pay attention to it anyway. We’re talking about white rock, not R&B. There’s tons of people who have great records, great singles, you know. But as far as people that had a real body of work … There are a few artists who are really great, like the Doors, Hendrix, Stooges, Velvet Underground. But everyone knows who they are. And every asshole in the world is influenced by them. It’s ruined. Most rock artists rip each other off. One other reason why I don’t listen to current rock or even jazz is that I don’t want to be influenced by anything like that. I want my music to come directly from the source.

TW The whole thing is relaxing into this mediocrity. Everything is canned drums.

JW A friend of mine, a sax player, told me that he’s been doing some rap sessions, where they take a sax and sample it. I told him, “Yeah, well, I heard a rap song the other day that reminded me of my stuff a little bit.” And he said, “It’s a total accident. These guys don’t know anything about music. They just take a sample and end up having one sample in one key and one in another. But they don’t know it because they don’t know what they’re doing. It might come out, sounding kind of weird, but it’s not on purpose.” The engineer does all the work.

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James White and friend. © 1989 Sandra Koponen.

TW Your music isn’t just funk. It’s really blues-based.

JW Everything I do has a blues base, that’s true.

TW I like the fact that you have one foot in funk and one foot in the avant-garde.

JW I was the only musician in New York at that time, that made both the jazz scene and CBGB’s, Max’s scene, the only one who actually played in both scenes. Some other musicians listened to a lot of jazz, but I was the only one who actually went to jazz clubs. I was the first one to put those elements together. It really pisses me off that I don’t get the credit and respect for what I’ve done. I feel that’s only correct. You asked me yesterday why I haven’t made a record for seven years. One of the reasons is that my experiences in the music business have made me so disgusted and disillusioned that I just refuse to deal with it. I just will not be treated the way certain people have treated me. I refuse to even take the chance that someone will treat me like that. So I won’t even talk to somebody in the music business, unless I know them, and know what their attitude will be toward me. The thing that really disillusioned me—it wasn’t that I expected people to be wonderful—but I didn’t realize how much people were motivated by pure envy and maliciousness, to the point where they’re willing to hurt their own interests in order to fuck someone over. I just refuse to be put in a position where I can be treated in that way. I’d rather not even work at all.

TW Well, I’d rather see you work.

JW I’d love to work. I’m not saying I don’t want to work.

TW There’s got to be a way get around it. A tactical way to compromise. But, it is a fucking war.

JW I’m totally convinced my music can sell. It can be commercial to a certain degree without watering it down, taking away the intensity. I have an image that is very saleable. I am probably the most intense entertainer in the world right now. In fact, I challenge anyone to get up on the stage with me, anyone in the world: Prince, James Brown, anybody, black or white, I’ll blow them off the stage. But I don’t need to do it that badly. See, a lot of people in the rock bands are addicted to applause, as much as they are to their art, so called, or to the money. The real thing they get off on is being adored by the masses. I’ve never been motivated by that. I don’t get off on it.

TW You said earlier, there had to be something fucked-up in your life for you to be an artist, some kind of motivating factor that gives you fuel.

JW What I’m saying is to be an artist who has something worth saying, you have to have some kind of intense experience in your life. Some kind of pain, really. To me, the thing that makes music or anything intense is the pain. (laughter) Without pain, it’s bland. At one time, I was trying to get pure pain. Now, I don’t want that. I want pain with other things mixed in.

TW Ecstasy. I mean, you need the high points of every kind of emotion, ecstasy, pain …

JW But it’s the hurt. I’m not talking so much about physical pain. I’m talking about emotional pain …

TW Abandonment.

JW All the people who really move me, when I find out about their lives, there’s a lot of sadness there. But a lot of people are afraid of pain. See, what I was trying to say in some of those lyrics, people thought were so negative, like the critics …

TW You were getting at a certain emotion that is very uncomfortable for them. Your music, you have to admit, has a very confrontational manner, you grapple with it … You grapple with it, and only then, do you get the rewards. Listening to your music is not a passive experience.

JW That’s the reason I used to physically attack people in the audience, because I was trying to take them out of their passive attitude. They were determined to be passive no matter how intense you made the music. I was driven, in desperation, to attack them. But in songs like, “I Don’t Want to Be Happy,” I wasn’t just trying to be purely negative. What I was trying to say was, don’t accept the definitions that society imposes on you. I don’t want to be happy the way you define it.

TW That’s some song. Someone said to me, a little while ago, “You can’t create from hatred. You can’t create from negativity. You have to create from love.”

JW Bullshit.

TW A total fallacy. It has to be from both, to the extreme of both.

JW What I’d say is, there is a certain joy just in the act of creation, which is always there just by its very nature. But certainly, when I started with the Contortions, the main thing that was driving me was hatred. This hating the world so much and wanting to show them what I thought of them and make them like it. That is a really strong driving force.

TW I hate to say it, but I get joy from “I Don’t Want To Be Happy.” Something deep in me, clicks. That emotion brings me to a new plane of realization in my life; new planes of experience of listening. Sometimes you feel your aloneness is assuaged by hearing something like that. In a perverse way, it’s very comforting.

JW Another thing I’m saying in that song, is that I don’t need other people’s approval in order for me to be satisfied with myself. I don’t need the audience to like me, as long as they react.

Tod Wizon is a painter and musician living and working in Brooklyn. His work is currently showing at Bruno Bischofberger Gallery in Zurich.

Royal Trux by Tod Wizon
Royal Trux 1

Originally published in

BOMB 37, Fall 1991

Featuring interviews with Nan Goldin, Elizabeth LeCompte, Robert Duvall, P.M. Dawn, Jane Wilson, Louis Edwards, Craig Coleman, James Chance, Hal Hartley, and Constance Congdon.

Read the issue
037 Fall 1991