The twin peaks of baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff’s recorded output were the two albums he made for Capitol Records, Boston Blow-Up! in 1955, and Blue Serge in 1956. There would certainly have been more great records to come had not Chaloff died of cancer in 1957 at age 33. Blue Serge might have been the better record, but I’ve always liked Boston Blow-Up! because of its strong local connections.
A Boston Blow-Up
In March 1955, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff was back in action following a months-long hospital stay. “Serge, for years one of music’s more chaotic personalities, has made an about face of late and is again flying right. It is evident in his playing, which…has become a thing of real beauty.” So began Jack Tracy’s Down Beat review (Oct 5, 1955) of Boston Blow-Up!, Chaloff’s first album for Capitol Records.
Serge Chaloff, about 1950
“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge was a heroin addict who managed to play splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody Herman, and his own groups in spite of it. By 1954, though, he’d burned too many bridges and had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts.
Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955. Disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin was one of the first to help him get reestablished. He negotiated a contract with Capitol Records for an album in their “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Then Chaloff assembled his band. His first call went to alto saxophonist Boots Mussulli, with whom he had recorded the Serge and Boots album for Storyville in March 1954. Chaloff still had his bad boy reputation, and the presence of the steady Mussulli, who had recorded his own “Kenton Presents” LP in 1954, reassured the producers at Capitol.
The masterful trumpeter William Frank “Frankie” Newton (1906-1954) was well established in jazz circles long before he ever came to Boston. He’d worked with Cecil Scott, Charlie Johnson, and Teddy Hill. He was on Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot” session in 1933 (her last), and on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” session in 1939. Newton was one of the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, the first group to record on Blue Note Records. He was a founding member of John Kirby’s sextet, and a bandleader at Barney Josephson’s Cafe Society nightclub. Frankie Newton, in other words, got around. And when he got around to bringing a band to Boston, it was a sensation.
Newton’s residency at the Savoy Cafe, starting in January 1942, turned the local jazz scene on its ear. His professionalism set a standard for musicians on bandstands all over town, and his influence on young musicians was significant. One in particular, pianist George Wein, called Newton his musical mentor and never missed an opportunity to say so. And his band drew a crowd, at the Savoy, and the Vanity Fair and the Ken Club after that. It was an inspiring 18 months.
It was a fine band, too, with trombonist Vic Dickenson, Ike Quebec on tenor, and George Johnson on alto. Young Boston pianist Ernie Trotman anchored the rhythm section until he joined the navy. Nick Fenton on bass and Artie Herbert on drums rounded out the sextet.
When Mae Arnette was growing up in New York City, she dreamed of being a dancer, or maybe an opera singer. She’d have scoffed if someone had told her that one day, instead of singing Rigoletto at the Met, she’d sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Fenway Park in Boston. But that’s what happened, at a Yankees game no less, in September 1991. It was just one of the many venues where Arnette sang in her adopted city. She died in Boston July 30, 2023, at age 91.
Mae always wanted to be an entertainer, and with parental encouragement, she started early. At age six, she tap-danced in a Stars of Tomorrow talent show at Town Hall. At 12, she was tapping regularly as a member of a Harlem troupe, Mary Bruce’s Starbuds. Then somebody discovered she could sing, too, and at age 14 or 15 she sang professionally for the first time, at Murrain’s nightclub, uptown on Seventh Ave. At 16, she won an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theatre, singing Billy Eckstine’s “Prisoner of Love.”
Mae attended what was then called the Music & Art High School in Manhattan. She studied dance and classical music, and trained to be an opera singer—she was a big fan of tenor Lauritz Melchior. She sang with the renowned All City High School Chorus of New York at Carnegie Hall.
Mae Arnette was 20 when a phone call changed the direction of her life.
April 14, 1975 marked the opening of Sandy’s Jazz Revival, a new name for an establishment already over forty years old. What’s in a name? In this case, it signaled owner Sandy Berman’s renewed commitment to the classic jazz he loved. Sandy’s Jazz Revival, in suburban Beverly, remained a stalwart presence on the Boston jazz scene through 1983.
Sandy Berman in 1980. Photo by Nancy Shackleton for Essex County Newspapers
The Jazz Revival’s story began in 1932, when Samuel and Rose Berman opened the Spic ‘n Span Cafe on Rantoul St. They added a liquor license and a trio the next year to make it a dine-and-dance place. In 1939, the Bermans moved their operation to 54 Cabot Street, and by that time, they already had jazz on the menu. Sandy became club manager following his wartime army service. After his father’s death in 1954, he renamed the place Sandy’s Lounge, or Sandy’s Melody Lounge. (He started calling it the Melody Lounge after the well-known jazz club in nearby Lynn with that name closed.) Sandy brought in more jazz, and Rose came back to work, to serve as hostess for the next 25 years.
Sandy’s Lounge featured jazz into the early sixties, but by then college-age crowd was more interested in dancing than listening to jazz. Berman obligingly switched to recorded music to accommodate them. He might have called it Sandy’s Disco when that trend came along. I don’t know if Sandy went full discotheque, with go-go dancers and the like, but he continued to spin records through the 1960s. Then fashion changed again, and Berman went back to live music with the launch of Sandy’s Concert Club in 1970.
You can’t overstate drummer Alan Dawson’s importance in Boston. He was part of the bedrock on which the local jazz scene stands. Superb musician, influential teacher, exemplary mentor, master link in the Boston school of jazz drumming—Dawson was all these things. He was a near-constant presence from the late 1940s into the 1990s. He played with everybody, and we owe him much. It’s a great story, a Boston story.
Alan Dawson at the drums, late 1970s. Photo by Tyrone Hall.
George Alan Dawson was born in 1929 in Pennsylvania but his family moved to Boston when he was a boy. He grew up on Hammond Street in Roxbury. Always playing the drums, he got his first gig at age 14, with the band of Tasker Crosson, playing at the USO on Ruggles Street. Dawson recalled Crosson calling “Body and Soul,” although he had hoped to debut on a flag-waver. All through high school he played with older, established musicians, like Crosson, trumpeter Buster Daniels, and saxophonist Wilbur Pinckney. After graduation in 1947, Dawson began four years of instruction with Charles Alden, probably the best teacher in town at the time, who drilled him in fundamentals and taught him to read. Dawson began playing marimba in 1949 and later switched to vibes.
From his first days as a drummer, Dawson listened to Jo Jones. He liked Jones’s sound, his use of the cymbals, and his overall approach, which elevated the drums above “a crude banging type of instrument,” as he told Jazz Journal in 1971.