In late 1950 Chaloff met Dick Twardzik (one of his mother’s students) when the 19-year old pianist sat in at the Red Fox Café in Lynn, Massachusetts. They were to remain very close until the end. “Musically [Dick] had one of the most discriminating and imaginative minds that I have ever encountered,” Chaloff said later.
For a couple of months early in 1951 Chaloff led the house band in Boston’s Hi-Hat with Nat Pierce, Jack Lawlor and occasionally Alan Dawson. In the summer that year he and Twardzik secured a residency in a club on the shore of Cape Cod. The pianist wrote home to his parents from a cottage they were renting: “Serge is reading Kafka and we listen to Bird, Ernest Bloch, Alban Berg and Bela Bartok.” This idyllic booking was followed by a tour of the New England circuit taking in Detroit, Chicago and East St. Louis along the way which lasted until early 1952.
In January 1951 Chaloff had been one of the performers appearing on another Metronome poll-winners session, which was to be his last studio date until 1954. After 10 years on the road he decided to remain close to home in Boston where his family lived. Gigi Gryce had studied with Madame Chaloff and Serge often visited the apartment Gryce shared with Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard. Informal sessions were held there with Charlie Mariano, Alan Dawson and Joe Gordon, together with visiting stars from New York such as Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims.
When he returned to Boston he carried on working at the Hi-Hat and other local venues like Primo’s and the Melody Lounge. Unfortunately he had problems with the local police who impounded the van his mother bought him during an investigation into narcotics charges. Leaving town, he toured as a single, working with local rhythm sections for most of 1953. Around this time he had an affair with Kay Starr. It must have been pretty serious because she bought him a diamond-studded wristwatch which she had engraved with his first name.
His comeback as a recording artist began in 1954 during a residency at George Wein’s Boston Storyville club where he fronted the backup band. Bob Martin was a disc jockey there, hosting broadcasts from the club, and after a live interview with Serge he became his agent. “I was trying to help the guy – help him keep his records straight and keep things together.” Wein, who had been yet another of Madame Chaloff’s students, was so impressed with Serge’s performances opposite Chet Baker’s quartet that he recorded him on his Storyville label. Six titles were released including Easy Street, which was the first of several sublime ballad readings he was to record in the twilight of his career. Boots Mussulli, who was teaching locally after years on the road playing alto with Kenton, sight-read Chaloff’s arrangements with ease.
While playing at the Jazz Workshop Chaloff began giving private lessons. One of his students was Steve Adamson, a 17-year-old beginner who was interviewed for the IAJRC in 2006. He admitted that telephoning Chaloff was like someone who had just bought a violin asking for lessons from Jascha Heifetz. “Serge was a very likeable guy (but) as a heroin addict he could be moody.” Occasionally the teacher would borrow his student’s horn and when it was not returned, Steve would ask Serge’s mother to get it back from the pawn shop. The lessons were five dollars an hour, which was what Steve’s parents had paid for his bar-mitzvah lessons. Adamson remembered that Serge had to make use of Boston’s subway system because he did not have his own transport.
A famous encounter occurred around this time when Chaloff worked at the New Storyville club opposite the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet. The second part of the booking featured just trumpet and baritone with Max and the rhythm section although Nick Catalano does not mention this in his definitive Clifford Brown biography.
For a more personal glimpse of Challoff, the Mosaic booklet The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions has several photos of him at his brother’s wedding reception in August 1954, playing tenor and also dancing with his mother.
The following month he recorded Twardzik’s Fable Of Mabel using a borrowed horn because his own gold-plated baritone was in the pawn shop. Herb Pomeroy, who was on the date, said “[He] was not in the best of shape but his heart and soul went into it. He was a glorious player.” Mabel was a satirical three-part composition. It had tempo changes, free blowing by Charlie Mariano and the obscure Varty Haroutunian and a passionate Chaloff statement together with the composer’s own unique time feel and Bartok-inspired chord voicings.
That date was a prelude to Serge entering a local sanatorium where he finally managed to overcome his heroin habit after “nine years of living hell.” His re-emergence on the scene four months later was not always welcomed by his peers because of his former role in dealing drugs. There were constant rumours too of the part he played in his friend Sonny Berman’s death from an overdose in 1947. One critic called him “one of the most chaotic personalities in music.”
In April 1955 his sextet with Mussulli and Pomeroy recorded 12 titles for Capitol. It was a fairly run-of-the-mill blowing session that produced two memorable and highly emotional ballad performances – What’s New and his speciality Body And Soul. In October that year his good friend Dick Twardzik died in Paris from a drug overdose while on tour with Chet Baker. Peter Littman (another addict) was Baker’s drummer. Serge blamed him for the pianist’s death and when Littman returned to Boston Chaloff hit him in a crowded Jazz Workshop leaving him on the floor.
His next recording, in March 1956, occurred after a booking with Sonny Stitt at Hollywood’s Jazz City. Blue Serge, with its tip-top rhythm section (Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones), is his masterpiece, featuring classic standards like All The Things You Are, How About You and A Handful Of Stars. He takes a fresh and highly original look at Bob Hope’s old theme song Thanks For The Memory, avoiding the tongue-in-cheek whimsy usually associated with it. His Ben Webster like vibrato creates something far more profound and deeply moving.
A few months later he was diagnosed with cancer but after treatment he continued playing using crutches or a wheelchair. His last album was Four Brothers Together Again on 11 February 1957 with Herbie Steward, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Although sick he played with his usual fire and intensity but on some ensemble passages Charlie O’Kane had to take over on baritone. Serge Chaloff died five months later, on 16 July 1957, in Boston.
In compiling this appreciation I would like to acknowledge the valuable help received from Bob Weir and the Jazz Institute in Darmstadt, Germany.
Serge Chaloff: Boston 1950 (Uptown 27.38)
Serge Chaloff: Boss Baritone (Proper Box 158)
The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions (Mosaic MD4-147)
Woody Herman: Complete Capitol Recordings (Mosaic MD6-196)
Serge Chaloff: A Musical Biography & Discography by Vladimir Simosko
Bouncin’ With Bartok: The Incomplete Works of Richard Twardzik by Jack Chambers
Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life Of Gigi Gryce by Noal Cohen & Michael Fitzgerald
Woody Herman: Chronicles Of The Herds by William D. Clancy
See part one of this article