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.

Photo of Serge Chaloff in about 1950

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 next call went to the Stable, where Chaloff lined up trumpeter Herb Pomeroy and drummer Jimmy Zitano. Both played on Serge’s Fable of Mabel date for Storyville in September 1954. Also from the Stable’s working group came pianist Ray Santisi, part of Mussulli’s Kenton Presents date. Neither Zitano nor Santisi would remain with Chaloff after the record was finished. Zitano had no interest in touring, which was Chaloff’s plan. Santisi would step aside when Chaloff’s first call pianist, Dick Twardzik, returned from Bridgewater, where he, too, sought treatment for addiction.

Bassist Everett Evans, from Cambridge, filled the final spot. I know very little about him, even though he was quite active on the Boston scene in the mid-fifties, with Mussulli and others. But then he dropped out of sight.

Cover of Serge Chaloff LP Boston Blow-Up!

Boston Blow-Up!, Capitol T6510, 1955

The group went to New York on April 4-5 to record what became Boston Blow-Up! (Capitol LP T6510). Mussulli composed and arranged six of the ten tunes (including his thank-you to Martin, “Bob the Robin”). Pomeroy arranged three standards, including the two ballads for which the recording is best known, “What’s New” and “Body and Soul.” Jaki Byard contributed the final tune, “Diane’s Melody.”

Wrote Tracy in Down Beat: “Chaloff offers the best display of his talents ever to be put on wax. It swings, it has heart, it has maturity—it is the long-awaited coalescence of a great talent. And you get the feeling the rest of the men on the date felt it, too. They play like a unit that has worked together for years, as splendid solo spots come from Boots and Pomeroy, and the rhythm section moves.” Tracy awarded the album five stars.

Bill Coss, who wrote Metronome’s October 1955 review, was almost as enthusiastic, grading Boston Blow-Up! at B+. He praised Mussulli’s writing and Pomeroy’s playing, and thought Chaloff excellent throughout. Coss called Chaloff’s “Body and Soul” “an especially eloquent solo not to be missed.”

Chaloff’s group worked around New England that summer with Twardzik and former Basie drummer Gus Johnson replacing Santisi and Zitano. This group played at the Boston Arts Festival in June to critical acclaim. In August, Twardzik left to join Chet Baker’s group for a European tour. He died of an overdose in Paris. For Twardzik, Bridgewater State hadn’t been enough.

Chaloff opened a four-week engagement at the Five O’Clock Club in Boston on September 22. Along with Mussulli and Evans, he had Bob Freedman on piano, Paul Drummond on drums, and Washington D.C. trumpeter Joe Bovello. This Chaloff group played various spots in New England into November.

By early 1956, though, Chaloff and Mussulli were both part of the new big band Herb Pomeroy was rehearsing at the Stable. So were Santisi and Zitano. Chaloff continued to freelance with small groups as well, including Jay Migliori’s house band at Storyville. And he looked forward to getting back into the recording studio for Capitol.

The Masterpiece: Blue Serge

On March 2, 1956, a Friday, the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet was at Storyville. As was the club custom then, they played an after-school set for the members of the Teenage Jazz Club. That was the scene of one of those historic meetings that dot the history of jazz. Serge Chaloff sat in with Clifford and Max, accompanied by their pianist Richie Powell and bassist Everett Evans. It was, by all accounts, a remarkable encounter, and the only time Chaloff and Brown played together.

Perhaps Serge went straight to the airport from Storyville to catch the red-eye to Los Angeles, and a gig with saxophonist Sonny Stitt. It was a quintet date at Jazz City, with pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Lawrence Marable.

Cover of Serge Chaloff LP, Blue Serge

Blue Serge, Capitol T742, 1956

Immediately afterwards, on March 14-15, Serge went into the Capitol Studios with what was essentially a pickup band of Clark, Vinnegar, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. It was an unrehearsed blowing session, reworking standard tunes. Chaloff biographer Vladimir Simosko called the resulting album, Blue Serge (Capitol LP T742), a masterpiece, and “one of the great jazz albums of all time.” Perhaps it wasn’t that, but I certainly don’t begrudge Simosko his enthusiasm. It is a great jazz album, still. Noted Serge himself in the liner notes: “It has more freedom and spark than anything I’ve recorded before.”

Wrote Simosko, “The rapport of the group was as moving as the music, and the net effect was of every note being in place, flawlessly executed, as if even the slightest nuance was carefully chosen for maximum aesthetic impact. This is a level of achievement beyond the aspirations of all but the masters, and from an ensemble that was not even a working group, it takes on an aura of the miraculous. Such achievements are rare in any medium.”

Nat Hentoff reviewed Blue Serge in Down Beat (March 21, 1957) and opined, “Judging from his work here, Chaloff continues to be one of the key modern jazz baritone saxists when he is at his best. He has evident technical command of the instrument; he swings authoritatively; his conception is robust, and even while being softly tender on a ballad, he projects a large shouting emotional reservoir…The rhythm section is one of the best on recent records…It’s a thoroughly enjoyable achievement, and indicates again how important a force Serge can again be in jazz.”

On Blue Serge, the saxophonist was at his absolute best, and the future looked promising at last. But while still in L.A. in May, he was stricken with paralysis in his legs, and subsequent diagnoses back home identified the cancer that would kill him in July 1957. He battled his illness, though; he had his life back and he fought to keep it. Though weak, he was playing with the Pomeroy band at the Stable as late as May. But the battle proved to be too much, and he died in Boston on July 16. Serge Chaloff, the mid-century master of the baritone saxophone, was only 33 years old.