Serge Chaloff

Baritone saxophonist-extraordinaire Serge Chaloff was born into a musical family on Nov. 24, 1923: His father, Julius, was a pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his mother, Margaret Stedman Chaloff (aka Madame Chaloff), taught piano at New England Conservatory. She also taught young Serge to play piano, starting at around age 6. But by his early teen years, he had switched from piano to clarinet, and later to baritone sax, on which he became one of the first bari jazz stars. A number of jazz scholars have labeled him the first bop baritonist, due to his taking stylistic cues from his two heroes, swing reedman Harry Carney and bop altoist Charlie Parker. Chaloff went pro in the 1940s, being featured in the big bands of Georgie Auld and Jimmy Dorsey, but found fame when he joined the Woody Herman Orchestra and became part of Herman’s “Second Herd.” It was Chaloff, along with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Stewart, on the popular recording of Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers.”

Unfortunately, though his playing was superb, Chaloff got caught up in heroin addiction, which closed a lot of doors for him. Settled in New York, he left Herman, worked for a while with Count Basie, and then Bud Powell. In 1952, he moved back to Boston to make a recording with Danvers pianist Dick Twardzik (who died at 24 of a heroin overdose) that was, alas, never released. While in Boston, Chaloff finally kicked his own heroin habit, found regular work at the local clubs Jazzorama and Storyville, and led two still-famous recording sessions: “Fable for Mabel” and “Boston Blow-Up!” He soon moved to L.A. where he made his finest recording, “Blue Serge,” with Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar, and Philly Joe Jones, but was diagnosed with spinal cancer, and died in 1957 at the age of 33. Chaloff’s music and story live on in the (out-of-print, hard-to-find) The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions on Mosaic, in Vladimir Simosko’s book Serge Chaloff: A Musical Biography.
(by Ed Symkus)

Published on March 2, 2013

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