Serge Chaloff: the bebop lowdown /1

    Tracing the career of the Boston-born saxophonist who became known as the 'white Charlie Parker' for his mastery of the bebop idiom - on the baritone instrument. Part one

    Serge Chaloff in New York around September 1957. Photo by William P. Gottlieb

    During the 1940s Serge Chaloff, along with Leo Parker and Cecil Payne, showed how successfully the baritone saxophone could adapt to the intricacies of the new music. He was born on 24 November 1923 in Boston and both his parents were distinguished musicians and educators. His father Julius had played piano with the Boston Symphony and his mother the legendary Madame Chaloff taught at the New England Conservatory. Over the years her students included Leonard Bernstein, George Shearing, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Steve Kuhn and Chick Corea.

    Band road trips could be brutal and Chaloff once remembered 60 consecutive one-night stands with Raeburn often with 500 miles between bookings. It was around this time he was given a shot of heroin and ‘began walking on clouds.’

    Serge studied the piano from the age of six and had clarinet lessons with Manuel Valerio of the Boston Symphony. Inspired by Harry Carney and Jack Washington he took up the baritone at the age of 12, teaching himself. “Who could teach me?” he asked in a Leonard Feather interview. “I couldn’t chase Carney all around the country.”

    During the second world war, with so many musicians away in the service, there were plenty of opportunities to play with big bands. Serge served time with Shep Fields, Ina Ray Hutton, Boyd Raeburn, Georgie Auld and Jimmy Dorsey. Although he did not record any solos with these bands he is in the sax section on a 1944 Raeburn date that introduced Bernie Miller’s Bobby Socks (which became better known as Bernie’s Tune).

    Band road trips could be brutal and Chaloff once remembered 60 consecutive one-night stands with Raeburn often with 500 miles between bookings. It was around this time he was given a shot of heroin and “began walking on clouds.” By the mid-40s he was working with Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, George Handy, Oscar Pettiford and Earl Swope. He was becoming acknowledged as “the white Charlie Parker” – quite an accolade for a baritone saxophone player.

    On 21 September 1946 he recorded Blue Serge, a contrafact of Cherokee. Ray Noble’s tricky bridge modulations had become a right-of-passage for the boppers, just as Giant Steps was for a later generation. He shows how well he had adapted the new language to what was then an unwieldy solo horn. By early 1947 he was sharing an apartment on New York’s 56th Street with Red Rodney and the dilettante of the tenor, Allen Eager. “Serge was a groovy guy to be around,” Eager said years later. “The three of us were all pretty much in the same zone as far as musical leanings go.” This is confirmed by a 1947 January session under Rodney’s leadership where two jazz standards were introduced: Gerry Mulligan’s Elevation which became a minor hit for Elliot Lawrence and Al Cohn’s The Goof And I which Chaloff made his own when he was with Woody Herman.

    1947 was the year Allen and Serge often played sessions at Milton Greene’s photography studio on Lexington Avenue. Greene later became Marilyn Monroe’s manager and Buddy Rich, a regular attendee, once told him “Bring the women and we’ll bring the music.” In 2003 Uptown Records released previously unissued material recorded there in April which includes Eager, Chaloff, Jimmy Johnson and Rich performing The Goof And I, Lullaby In Rhythm and Fine And Dandy. That same month he was at the Three Deuces with Georgie Auld’s sextet along with Red Rodney, Tiny Kahn and Lou Levy. “Wonderful band”, he said later, “but we didn’t make a nickel.” He was also booked into Smalls Paradise in Harlem for a ‘Battle Of The Baritone Sax’ with Leo Parker, another performer who died far too young.

    Later that year he joined Woody Herman’s nonpareil Second Herd, an event that prompted Gene Lees to say in his Leader Of The Band ‘Hiring him must be accounted one of Woody’s worst errors’

    Later that year he joined Woody Herman’s nonpareil Second Herd, an event that prompted Gene Lees to say in his Leader Of The Band “Hiring him must be accounted one of Woody’s worst errors. Serge was a serious heroin addict and like so many of his kind, a dedicated proselytizer for the drug. He would hook a number of the Second Herd bandsmen.” Apparently half the band, including the entire saxophone section, were on heroin. Amphetamines were also in use, prompting Woody to say “Everybody was on practically everything except roller-skates… I’ve chased ‘connections’ out of clubs from coast to coast”. Just to compound his problems there were four alcoholics in the ranks too.

    The music, though, was superb and Serge put his highly individual stamp on several of the band’s classic recordings, including Keen And Peachy, The Goof And I, Four Brothers, Northwest Passage, Godchild, That’s Right, Lemon Drop and Keeper Of The Flame. His fluent invention, control of dynamics and formidable technique revealed a soloist of uncommon originality. Woody certainly agreed because he told William D. Clancy in Chronicles Of The Herds “Serge was probably the freshest, newest-sounding baritone that had come along in years.”

    Apart from Harry Carney with Duke Ellington no other baritone player at that time was featured as extensively as Chaloff was with Herman. The story of how the leader tried to fire him because of his outrageous drug-fuelled behaviour is one of the great jazz anecdotes. One night in Boston having been warned of his impending dismissal Serge called Herman to a window overlooking the Charles River. He pointed to numerous papers floating on the water and said “That’s the baritone book. You can’t fire me because I’m the only one that knows it by heart.”

    He remained with the Second Herd until Herman disbanded in December 1949, the year Downbeat readers voted it the number one big band. It was a musical but financial failure. The leader lost approximately $180,000, equivalent to about $2 million today. Although Woody had problems with Chaloff, this is what Zoot Sims once said about his fellow section man: “When Serge was cleaned up he could be a delight to be around – a lot of fun. He could get pretty raunchy when he was strung out but he could also be very charming.” Someone else who was active on the New York scene at the time was Brew Moore. He had his own personal demons, prompting Serge’s mother to warn him to keep away because she thought Brew was a bad influence.

    As a result of his high-profile work with Woody Herman Chaloff won Downbeat’s baritone poll from 1949 to 1951 together with similar Metronome awards from 1949 to 1953. In January 1950 he was on a Metronome All-Stars date with Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Kai Winding. They performed two titles, one of which was No Figs, a typically cerebral Lennie Tristano original based on Indiana with a particularly intimate Chaloff contribution. Lee Konitz, who was also on the date, told Andy Hamilton that he thought Serge “messed it up”, although to these tin ears he sounds just fine.

    He did a week at Boston’s Hi-Hat early in 1950 with Count Basie’s octet which included Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco and Charlie Rouse. He formed a group with Earl Swope, Bud Powell, Joe Shulman and Don Lamond for a Birdland date in February 1950 on a bill that also featured Lester Young and Erroll Garner. Barry Ulanov in Metronome said “Serge Chaloff waved his big baritone horn at Birdland last month and inaugurated what will be a very interesting career as a leader.” He then moved back to Boston for two weeks with a local rhythm section performing repertoire associated with the Second Herd. In 1994 Uptown Records released this material together with Celebrity Club dates on Rhode Island which featured a revolving cast of players like Sonny Truitt, Milt Gold, Nat Pierce and Joe Shulman. The enthusiastic audience reactions confirm that he generated a powerful air of excitement whenever he performed. The CD also includes a three-minute Chaloff interview.

    Part two of this article follows shortly