Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Chaloff, Serge

The bebop upheaval which swept through jazz in the 1940s empowered baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff to expand the expressive powers of an instrument whose bulk and deep voice often tempt audiences to perceive it as cumbersome. With his lustrous tone, elastic attack and fluid invention, Chaloff did a great deal to dispel this misconception before his death from cancer at age thirty-three.

 Serge Chaloff

Serge Chaloff was born November 24, 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts. Both of his parents were prominent musicians and music teachers. His father Julius was a pianist and composer who played with the Boston Symphony. Julius’ wife Margaret taught piano, both privately and at such local institutions as the New England Conservatory of Music, the Schillinger House and then the Berklee School of Music and Boston University. As “Madame Chaloff,” she became legendary for her stellar roster of students, which included Leonard Bernstein, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Kuhn, Herbie Hancock and a similarly talented but ill-starred bandmate of Serge’s, Dick Twardzik.

Serge learned piano from both his parents between the ages of six and twelve, and also took clarinet lessons with Manuel Valerio of the Boston Symphony. At age twelvehe began teaching himself the baritone saxophone. By the early 1940s, he was playing tenor saxophone professionally with a Boston-area big band led by Tommy Reynolds, but he committed himself to the baritone soon afterwards.

Both Harry Carney and Jack Washington, who played baritone sax with the Count Basie band in the 1930s were early influences on Chaloff as he worked as a sideman in various bands, including those led by Jimmy Dorsey, Shep Fields and Boyd Raeburn, whose orchestra was among those experimenting with carrying jazz instrumentation beyond swing’s conventions.

While touring with Dorsey’s band in Los Angeles in September, 1946, Chaloff made his first recording as a small-combo leader - “Blue Serge,” an extended variation on “Cherokee” - for Ross Russell’s Dial Records. Already, Chaloff was demonstrating what he had learned from Charlie Parker and the bebop revolution, which at the time was only a few years old.

Chaloff would continue honing his modernist chops with the Georgie Auld Sextet, whose ranks included such notable bop role-players as Red Rodney, Curley Russell and Teddy Reig. Chaloff was gigging with the Auld ensemble on New York’s fabled 52nd Street when he got the call to join Woody Herman’s new orchestra, which was forming in Los Angeles.

This group became known as Herman’s “Second Herd”, whose ranks included Rodney, Shorty Rogers, Oscar Pettiford, Gene Ammons, Stan Getz, Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Shelly Manne. Chaloff’s legend began in earnest as one the original “Four Brothers” on the Herd’s 1947 recording of Giuffre’s hard-driving composition of the same name, featuring an all-sax frontline of Getz, Sims, Chaloff and Herbie Steward, playing in the cool, agile, free-swinging style of Lester Young.

Chaloff’s fame, mostly a result the Herd’s radio broadcasts and live performances, increased during his two-year stint with Herman. So did his addiction to heroin, which led to frequent clashes with his boss and others over Chaloff’s erratic, sometimes abusive behavior during this period.

Despite his personal excesses, Chaloff was playing with greater energy and imagination with Herman and in small group sessions with such Herd members as Rodney, Cohn, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and arranger-pianist Ralph Burns. He was winning polls in music magazines as top baritone saxophonist and, in early 1950, led a quintet that included trombonist Earl Swope and pianist Bud Powell.

Chaloff’s recorded output trailed off between 1951 and 1954. He spent most of those years back home in Boston, forming various small groups throughout New England and on tour through the Midwest, frequently accompanied by Dick Twardzik.

Chaloff returned to the recording scene in early 1954 with George Wein’s Boston-based Storyville label. His work reached a new peak later that year with “The Fable of Mabel,” a suite composed by Twardzik and dominated by dramatic shifts in tone and tempo. Chaloff’s command of his instrument, especially in his fluent, assertive expressions of mood and color, is almost as stunning as the audacity of Twardzik’s concept.

Chaloff kicked his drug habit for good by the end of 1954 and, with other Boston-bred musicians such as saxophonist Boots Mussulli and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, led a Stan Kenton-produced recording session in April, 1955 released as “Boston Blow-Up.” He continued to tour and jam throughout the country with different combos and bands, returning to the West Coast in 1956 where he recorded what many believe to be his masterwork, “Blue Serge,” which doesn’t include that “Cherokee” variation recorded under that name a decade before.

An elegiac mood permeates this session, which includes among its many gems, rapturous, probing renditions of “Stairway to the Stars” and, especially, “Thanks for the Memory,” whose melodic invention places it at or very near the finest ballad performances of the decade.

It was sometime during this L.A. stay that Chaloff was diagnosed with spinal cancer. Though debilitated by terminal illness and forced to work from a wheelchair or crutches, Chaloff continued to play, recording a Four Brothers reunion date with Cohn, Sims and Steward a few months before he died in Boston on July 16, 1957.

Due to his tragically short career, Chaloff's playing has achieved a kind of cult status, perpetually rediscovered by curious generations of aficionados newly intrigued – and then captivated -- by the sounds of this all-but-forgotten bop trailblazer.

Select Discography

The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions (Mosaic)

Blue Serge (Capitol)

The Fable of Mabel (1201 Records)

We the People Bop: Serge Chaloff Memorial (Cool & Blue)

Boston Blow Up! (Blue Note)

Suggested Reading

Gitler, Ira, Jazz Masters of the ‘40s (Da Capo)

Gitler, Ira, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition of Jazz in the 1940s (Oxford)

Contributor: Gene Seymour