Frantic, Distorted, Defiant: When Punk Jazz Upended the Underground

In the 1970s, New York gave birth to a strange musical hybrid: punk jazz. Forty years later, Jim Farber gives it another listen.

JazzTimes revisits punk jazz 40 years after the subgenre's heyday.
James Chance performing at Max’s Kansas City in New York City on February 18, 1979.

It was a shotgun wedding heard ’round the world. Forty years ago, a game-changing album appeared that forced a volatile marriage between punk rock and free jazz, two genres that struck many at the time as worlds apart. The 1979 debut by James Chance and the Contortions, wryly titled Buy, advanced a whole movement in sound, melding the blunt-force trauma of a band like the Ramones with the surreal freedom of an artist like Ornette Coleman. To create an instant family, Chance gave his sonic couple a child via a third element—funky beats àla James Brown. The result? Punk jazz you could dance to.

Or at least contort to. Everything about the Contortions’ new sound was twisted, distorted, and frantic, from Chance’s insane-asylum vocals and saxophone blares to the belligerently atonal guitars. A parallel sense of mania informed all of the bands in the movement that followed Chance and crew, tipping off a covert connection between free jazz and punk. “Both sounds are far from the mainstream,” said Will Hermes, author of the book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, which analyzes the connections between the many different styles of music that emerged from the New York underground scene of the ’70s. “Punk and free jazz both startle and surprise.”

Though Buy may have cut the ribbon on the new amalgam in-studio, a host of other groups were creating their own variations live, including the Lounge Lizards, 8 Eyed Spy, and Material. They all trolled the ratty downtown New York clubs that sprang up as the ’70s collapsed into the ’80s, especially Tier 3 and the Mudd Club. Punk’s earlier wave, which had swelled at CBGB several years before, shadowed by a sister scene in London, was by then morphing into a panoply of postpunk mutations, including no wave, punk-funk, and hardcore.

Lydia Lunch in 1980
Lydia Lunch in 1980 (photo by: Ebet Roberts)

Punk jazz often got lumped in with its contemporaneous, more rock-oriented cousin, no wave—and no wonder. The Contortions’ first songs appeared on a Brian Eno-curated compilation that aimed to brand the trend with the title No New York. The same album featured a precursor band to punk-jazz avatars 8 Eyed Spy named Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Both groups were fronted by the queen of nihilistic mean, Lydia Lunch; the latter briefly featured James Chance.

Cross-pollinations like these arose naturally. “We were a fraternity of like-minded souls,” said Pat Irwin, a member of 8 Eyed Spy who also created the blowsy jazz arrangements for Lydia Lunch’s solo album, Queen of Siam. “There was a vibe in the air of experimentation. Lydia was the first one to really break with punk rock and establish a different vocabulary.”

“We all wanted to do something extreme,” added Chance.

The fact that punk jazz emerged from New York in 1979 was no coincidence. Like the city itself at that time, the sound was dark, broken, dirty, and hilarious. It was also multifaceted. While all of the bands had different styles, they bonded on a bent for the radical attack of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and—at the very pinnacle—Ornette Coleman. “Ornette is the true center of it all,” Hermes said.

While the New York of that era may have certified the style, antecedents snaked back at least 10 years earlier. In 1968, the Detroit-born band MC5 punctuated their proto-punk set with shrieks of free-jazz guitar from Wayne Kramer, who worshipped at the altar of Sun Ra. The next year, in California, Captain Beefheart brought strangulated guitars and dissonant horns to his album Trout Mask Replica, which presaged the angularity of later punk jazz. In the mid-’70s, precursors could be found as far as away as Australia in the swinging brass section of the punk band the Saints, whose dabblings in this area were later elaborated by Laughing Clowns, a band led by former Saint Ed Kuepper. Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave’s early act, the Birthday Party, also borrowed from the abrasion of artists like Ayler.

John Zorn (left) and Arto Lindsay at the Public Theater, New York, 1984. (photo by: Alan Nahigian)

In the early-to-mid-’70s, of course, New York was arguably the capital of the free jazz underground and inarguably the home of what was later dubbed the “loft jazz” movement, due to its centering around what was then a desolate SoHo. Eventually one scene bled into another, as loft-jazz artists like Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie, and Olu Dara ended up collaborating with the punk-jazz stars. “Punk and loft jazz were sharing the same little part of downtown but, at first, they hated each other,” Chance said. “When the jazz players saw that I was making money playing rock clubs, they all wanted to do it too. The hostility disappeared—in both directions.”

Soon, that polyglot attitude began to influence artists in other cities. In Los Angeles, for instance, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn injected splashes of punk jazz into his band, while Saccharine Trust located their own link between atonal music and anarchic punk. By 1987, there arose the pivotal New York club the Knitting Factory, which used the punk-jazz aesthetic as one of its organizing principles. It soon became a regular home for musicians like the Lounge Lizards’ John Lurie, Material’s Bill Laswell, and another significant possessor of the punk-jazz spirit, saxophonist/composer John Zorn (who’d been a major force on NYC’s downtown experimental scene for nearly a decade before rising to greater prominence in the mid-’80s).

Today, a similarly blithe disregard for the boundaries between punk’s velocity and jazz’s exploration thrives in bands like the Mars Volta, Gutbucket, and Mostly Other People Do the Killing. None of them could have existedwithout the pioneering efforts of four decades ago.“The albums from that early period are often overlooked,” Hermes observed. “But their influence is heard everywhere.”

Jim Farber

Jim Farber, who spent 25 years as the chief music critic of the New York Daily News, currently contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and many other outlets. He is an adjunct professor at NYU, as well as a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award, for pieces which appeared in the New York Daily News, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone: The ’70s.