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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.”

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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.