Apr 4-5, 1955: Serge Chaloff’s Boston Blow-Up
It was welcome news indeed for lovers of the big sound of the baritone sax: Serge Chaloff was back. “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!, the recording made by the Serge Chaloff Sextet on April 4-5, 1955.
“Chaotic”…others used harsher words to describe Chaloff. Serge had been a junkie since the mid-forties, and although he played splendid saxophone with Georgie Auld, Woody’s Second Herd, and his own groups in early-fifties Boston, by 1954 he had no room left to run. He voluntarily entered the rehab program at Bridgewater (Mass.) State Hospital to put an end to his years of addiction.
Chaloff emerged from Bridgewater in early 1955, and one of the first to help Chaloff reestablish himself was the disk jockey Bob “The Robin” Martin, who negotiated a recording contract with Capitol Records as part of the “Stan Kenton Presents” series. Later in the year Martin arranged Chaloff’s guest appearance on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.
Saxophonist Boots Mussulli joined Serge to help organize the recording group. Chaloff still had his bad boy reputation, and the presence of the steady and reliable Mussulli, who had recorded his own “Kenton Presents” LP in 1954, was a great relief to Capitol.
With Mussulli on alto were three musicians from Boston’s modern jazz hothouse, the Stable—trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, pianist Ray Santisi, and drummer Jimmy Zitano. (This unit had recorded an LP of its own in March, Jazz in a Stable, on Transition.) Bassist Everett Evans completed the group. Chaloff rehearsed the band relentlessly, and in April they went to New York to record. The result was Boston Blow-Up! (Capitol LP T-6510). Mussulli composed and arranged five of the nine tunes (including one for Martin, “Bob the Robin”), and 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, his lovely “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 record 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 wanted to take the group on the road, but Santisi and Zitano chose to remain at the Stable. They were replaced by Dick Twardzik and Gus Johnson, best known for his time with Count Basie. This group played at the Boston Arts Festival in June to critical acclaim. In August, Twardzik joined Chet Baker’s group. He died, of an overdose, two months later.
Chaloff opened at the Five O’Clock Club in Boston that September with a revamped lineup. Bob Freedman and Ray Drummond joined on piano and drums. Pomeroy left to start his teaching career at Berklee and rejoin the group at the Stable, and was replaced by Washington D.C. trumpeter Joe Bovello. This Chaloff group played various spots in New England into November.
Boston’s jazz scene in late 1955 was cooking as it never had before, and Mussulli and Chaloff both returned to the Hub to be a part of it, joining the big band that Pomeroy was rehearsing at the Stable.
In March 1956 Chaloff recorded his second LP for Capitol, the masterful Blue Serge. The baritone saxophonist was absolutely at his best. And then he was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him sixteen months later.
“No one ever has questioned his proficiency on the baritone sax,” wrote Jack Tracy. Here, on “What’s New” from Boston Blow-Up!, that unquestionable proficiency is readily apparent.