Sunday, June 5, 2011

Serge Chaloff - 1923-1957: A Brief Remembrance by Rik van den Bergh and “The Reeds”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“[Blue Serge – Dial LP 1012] …gave a vivid idea of the extent to which … [Chaloff] had absorbed Bird’s [Charlie Parker’s] … modern conception, and adapted it to the baritone saxophone ….
By this time [1947], Serge’s style was fully developed. He could get around on the horn at any tempo, played changes with incredible agility both of mind and of fingers, and generally was equipped to astonish anyone who thought the baritone was too cumbersome to be worth developing to this point.”
- Leonard Feather, Jazz critic/writer

“… [Chaloff] was an agile improviser who could suddenly transform a sleepy sounding phrase with a single overblown note.
At least the classic Blue Serge [Capitol 94505 – 1956] is still around … and … shows that Chaloff still had plenty of good ideas about what could be done with a bebopper’s basic materials.”
- Richard Cook & Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Serge Chaloff showed the deepest allegiance to bop among the [Woody] Herman saxophonists [of the 2nd Herman Herd, 1947-49] and earned praise for his skill in adapting many of Charlie Parker’s innovations to the baritone. … his work with Herman, as well as his various recordings in smaller combos, reveal an expressive, technically accomplished instrumentalist.”
- Ted Gioia, Jazz writer and historian

As alto saxophonist Phil Woods observed: “A lot of people have died for this music.”

The “this music” that Phil’s referring to is the Bebop style of Jazz that came into vogue around the time when the Second World War was ending in 1945.

While their were many musicians who contributed to Bebop’s development, the movement became closely associated with alto saxophonist Charlie [“Bird”] Parker whose personal excesses were as great as his musical achievements.

In addition to being influenced by his music, sadly, many of Bird’s admirers became heroin addicts, too, and either died as a result or were sent away to federal prisons for long internments.

One of these youthful followers was Serge Chaloff who not only adapted Bird’s alto saxophone style to the baritone saxophone, but was almost the same age as Bird when he died from health problems that were no doubt worsened by his lengthy heroin addiction.

Thirty-three years of age is much too young for anyone to die.

In his insert notes to The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions [Mosaic MD4-147], Vladimir Simosko reflectively states:

“Unfortunately, ill health cut short a career already fallen into obscurity by the time of his death in 1957. Chaloff had provided the usual ingredients for fulfilling the stereotype "legendary tragic hero" role romantically assigned to several prominent jazzmen whose lives traced similar patterns across North American culture in the 20th Century — the "creative genius, frustrated by society, debauches to extremes and dies young" syndrome that was brought to the public's awareness by Bix Beiderbecke and carried to further extremes, with racist overtones, by Charlie Parker. However, as with many others also fitting that mold (some of whom didn't even debauch), Chaloff remained relatively obscure, his work recognized, treasured and collected primarily by knowledge­able jazz lovers.”

In the following excerpt from his piece in The Baltimore Sun entitled Fairy Tales and Hero Worship Richard Sudhalter places “the legendary tragic hero” view of Serge Chaloff in a different context. Perhaps as you read these thoughts, you might substitute “Serge” for “Bix.”

“One of my favorite sentences in the current literature on jazz was written by an old friend, British trumpeter-historian Digby Fairweather. It's about Bix Beiderbecke.
Bix, says Digby in Jazz: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 754 pages, $24.95), "was a man of enormous talent but meager character or self-discipline, and his creative despair, induced by technical inadequacy and lack of vision, made him take refuge in alcohol."

As a judgment it's a bit severe; but it works, stripping layers of exaggeration and wishful thinking from one of the most over-idealized musicians in our jazz century. Leon Beiderbecke, player of cornet and piano, dead at 28 in 1931, was a brilliant musician, an innovator, much admired; but he was also, as Fairweather reminds us, an autodidact, confined by his shortcomings. He wanted to play "serious" music, yet was a poor sight-reader and short on technique. Though he longed to compose, he knew little about harmonic theory, save what his ears told him.

And, rather than assess himself, redefine his goals, then actively seek the training needed to realize them, Beiderbecke drank himself into the nonjudgmental consolation of an early grave.

In viewing his subject this way, Fairweather is — among writers on jazz, at least — something of a contrarian. Even in our age of demystification, deconstruct ion, debunking, and disclosive debasement, too many jazz chroniclers still cling to a starry, fairy­tale approach not far from hero-worship. In its most extreme forms it idealizes, canonizes, seems most fascinated with, irresponsible and self-destructive behavior. …

I think Digby Fairweather had it just right: Bix Beiderbecke was prodigiously gifted, but betrayed those gifts through failure (or unwillingness) to realize that they conferred neither privilege nor license, but responsibility. His early death, as those of Young, Parker, Pepper, Powell, Baker, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Albert Ayler, and so many others, was not martyrdom. It was simple waste.”

As noted previously, fortunately for those Jazz fans who appreciate Serge’s music, Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna gathered all of the recordings that he made in his all-too-brief lifetime and reissued these as The Complete Serge Chaloff Sessions [Mosaic MD4-147]. This limited edition set has long since been out-of-print.

There the matter rested until a group of Dutch Jazz musicians under the leadership of baritone saxophonist Rik van den Bergh entered a recording studio in Holland in June, 2007 and re-created a number of Serge’s compositions on Reserge: A Tribute to the Great Baritone Saxophonist Serge Chaloff which is still available on the Maxanter label [MAX 75373].

Detailed background information about why and how this a recording came about is included in these excerpts from Jaap Ludeke’s insert notes:

Just because your parents are successful musicians does not always mean that you will be as talented. But barito­ne-sax player/composer Serge Chaloff did succeed, to some extent. His father Julius, of Russian descent, was a composer and played piano with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His mother Margaret Stedman Chaloff had British parents. She taught piano at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. Among her pupils were at various times: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Dick Twardzik, George Shearing and Herbie Hancock. When I spoke to Toshiko Akiyoshi about this period she told me: "Serge was very helpful to me, in my early days in Boston. I think he was a bit skeptical, at first, until he heard me play and noticed my bebop sensibility. I have fond memories of him, and of our performing together at the Newport Festival in 1956."

When little Serge was between the ages of six and twelve years old his mother taught him the piano. After that, he immediately picked up the baritone saxophone. Harry Carney was his favorite, but he could not chase after him for lessons while Carney toured throughout the USA. So Serge took his education into his own hands. In the late forties, things were looking good for Chaloff: he was a member of the famous 'Four Brothers' sax section of the Woody Herman Band (1947-1949]. Unfortunately, the percentage of drug addicts in that band was high and Chaloff became one of them. In the same period he fell in love with Charlie Parker's innovative bebop style. Both as a leader and a sideman, Chaloff made several interesting recordings for jazz labels like Savoy, Storyville and Capitol. Blue Serge on the latter label is generally thought to be his best record.

Like Chaloff, Gerry Mulligan was a fan of Carney, and from about 1953 on Mulligan started winning all the polls instead of Chaloff. It was similar to the relationship of Zoot Sims and Stan Getz: Zoot complained that people always talked about Getz. In 1954 Serge kicked his drug habit, but two years later his bad health led to paralysis of his legs. A tumor did the rest. I am happy to report that Dutch baritone player Rik van den Bergh and his group The Reeds have come up with the idea to bring Serge Chaloff's challenging music back to life. And that exactly fifty years after Serge died.

- Jaap Ludeke [is a contributor to Down Beat and He has a radio program called Ludeke Straight Ahead at the Dutch Concertzender/Radio 6].”


The Serge Chaloff  project has resulted in a great new band: The Reeds. This band is no less than a dream team: five of the finest Dutch saxophone players in one section, playing with one of the most swinging rhythm sections in Holland. They are all members of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and/or The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra, and they are not only great section players but also top soloists.

•  Rik van den Bergh (baritone saxophone] is one of the few Dutch saxophonists exclusively focusing on the baritone. For a number of years he was active with his baritone/Hammond-organ quartet Swingmatism. At the moment he is a member of The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra and of the Young Sinatra’s.
•  Marco Kegel (alto saxophone) is lead alto in The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. In 2003 he recorded the CD Jonquil with Lee Konitz and the Gustav Klimt String Quartet.
•  Jan Smit (alto saxophone] is a member of the Young Sinatra’s and a sought-after reed player in Holland.
•  Simon Rigter (tenor saxophone] is in The Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra. He teaches at the conservatories of Rotterdam and Zwolle and plays in quite a number of bands. He recorded and played with greats like Curtis Fuller, Slide Hampton and George Coleman.
•  Sjoerd Dijkhuizen (tenor saxophone] plays in many different groups. He is a member of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw and leads his own quartet with his brother Gijs on drums.
•  Erik Doelman (piano] has his own quartet with the rhythm section of The Reeds and Simon Rigter on tenor. In 2006 he recorded the CD The Erik Doelman 7tet Plays Cole Porter.
•  Frans van Geest (bass) played with about every major jazz artist in the world. He is the backbone and founder of The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw.
•  Gijs Dijkhuizen (drums) is in great demand in the Dutch jazz scene. Together with Frans van Geest he is a member of the Peter Beets Trio.

Here’s a video tribute to Serge which has as its soundtrack an original composition from the Rik van den Berg Reserge tribute CD which was written by tenor saxophonist Simon Rigter entitled Brothers. The solo order is Sjoerd Dijkhuizen, Jan Smit, Rik van den Bergh, Marco Kegel and Simon.