More than a decade after his death, Gerry Mulligan is still considered the greatest baritone saxophonist in the history of jazz. But before he rose to fame he was preceded by another talented instrumentalist, one who starred in the bop era but had his career slowed by drug addiction and cut short by a fatal illness.
Serge Chaloff was raised in a rich musical environment, with a father who was a pianist for the Boston Symphony and a mother who taught at the Boston Conservatory. Serge himself began as a pianist, then branched off into wind instruments, finally settling on baritone sax as his primary instrument.
Chaloff first rose to prominence as a young musician in the years immediately following World War II, a era in which jazz was moving in new directions. Part of that was the bebop revolution, and Chaloff’s breakout appearances with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra marked that legend’s first bow to the new music. Chaloff soon moved on to become a vital part of Woody Herman’s group and over the next few years also teamed up in the recording studio with pros like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and others.
Unfortunately Chaloff also began to lose himself in the fast lane, becoming addicted to heroin and struggling to maintain career momentum through erratic performances and missed sessions. During the early 1950s he continued to work as much as possible but also lost a lot of opportunities before friends and fans helped him recover. Tragically, he worked his way back from the brink only to fall ill from spinal cancer, and died in 1957 at just age 33.