Serge Chaloff: baritone saxophonist

Serge Chaloff: born Nov. 24, 1923 in Boston; died July 16, 1957 in Boston

  • Born to parents involved in music education, Chaloff studied piano but at age 12 switched to the baritone sax. His greatest influences were Harry Carney and Jack Washington, stalwarts of the Ellington and Basie bands.
  • Became a big-band journeyman, working with Tommy Reynolds, Ina Rae Hutton, Shep Fields and Tommy Dorsey among others.
  • Joined Georgie Auld’s group, which played on New York’s 52d Street, where Chaloff became exposed to and tremendously influenced by Charlie Parker.
  • Joined Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1947 and became one of the renowned “Four Brothers.” It was a time when heroin became rampant in the modern jazz world, and Chaloff fell victim to that addiction.
  • Chaloff was voted best baritone saxophonist by the readers of Down Beat magazine three times, and by the readers of Metronome magazine five times.
  • Chaloff returned to Boston in 1950 and eventually kicked his habit. He played with the Herb Pomeroy big band in 1956, and recorded a pair of small-group gems for Capitol, Boston Blow-Up and Blue Serge.
Serge Chaloff

Serge Chaloff (Photo by John Miner)

Eric Nisenson on Serge Chaloff

In the mid 1950s, Serge Chaloff left the Boston area for Los Angeles, hoping to give his career a kick-start. This was at a time when “West Coast Jazz” was at its height and perhaps Chaloff thought he could fit into that scene. Sadly, he developed a tumor on his spine and suffered through several operations which left him partially paralyzed. However, despite being in a wheel chair, he continued to play, and it was in this period in 1956 that he recorded his greatest album, one that would be considered one of the finest jazz records of the 1950s, Blue Serge. It is an absolutely indispensable album.

Unfortunately, the cancer spread and on July 16, 1957, Chaloff passed away. He was not quite 34 years old. The accomplishments he left behind should never be forgotten. More than any other baritone saxophonist, he adapted the concepts of bebop to his horn. And even more importantly, he created some thrilling and beautiful music.