Even a dutiful biography can preserve memorable moments from the life of its subject. No one will mistake Vladimir Simosko for a prose stylist. His Serge Chaloff: A Musical Biography and Discography (Scarecrow Press, 1998) is a plodding recitation of recording dates and sidemen that gives little sense of Chaloff’s brilliance as a baritone saxophonist. Chaloff (1923-1957) joined the Four Brothers saxophone section in Woody Herman’s Second Herd in 1947, along with Herbie Steward, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims – the lineup on Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers.”
Chaloff was the sort of heroin addict who proselytized for his drug of choice. He kicked his habit in 1954 and was diagnosed with cancer of the spine. Simosko reports Chaloff was seated in a wheelchair during his final gigs and recording sessions, and he recounts an interview with the musician’s brother, Richard Chaloff:
“Serge had a lot of support during his illness from Mother and his wife, Susie. Mother bought him a kinkajou monkey to keep him company when he was bedridden, and kept encouraging him to fight the disease.”
In May 1957, Chaloff and a pickup rhythm section performed at The Stable, a club in Boston. Simosko quotes Charlie “The Whale” Johnson, a musician’s manager:
“I remember pushing Serge’s wheelchair into The Stable for his last appearances there. He was in bad shape but could still really play, standing leaning against a pillar. However, he didn’t have much stamina. He couldn’t actually finish the gig. I also had to get pot and booze for him. He was imbibing these steadily, even in the hospital at the end.”
On July 15, 1957, Chaloff was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital. His brother recalls:
“He still had the kinkajou monkey Mother got him to keep him company. And he had his horn. I was told they wheeled him into a vacant operating room so he could practice, and that was his last gig, his last public performance, solo baritone sax alone in an operating theater. Nurses, doctors, and even patients were standing outside and listening.”
Such a grotesque yet moving scene – the dying Chaloff, his monkey (not on his back) and his horn. He died the following day, July 16, four months short of his thirty-fourth birthday.