The Legend of Serge Chaloff and Woody Herman

The story of how Serge Chaloff left Woody Herman’s band is an oft told colloquial story in jazz history. The story is often given as a humorous example of how to stay employed, although perhaps not for long. What is often less told is the story of how Woody did finally fire Serge. I have heard the story, both parts, from many reputable sources so I’m fairly comfortable posting the story without too much worry that it was false. There is a written, published account of the story that seems to have more details than most tellings so I wanted to reproduce it here.

Steve Voce told this story:

“Woody wanted to break up the Second Herd when, fronting it on the bandstand one night, he turned around and found that half the horns had fallen asleep. Serge Chaloff used to sell drugs to the rest of the band from behind a blanket on the band bus.

Eventually, because he was the source of the disruption, Woody fired Serge. But, since he was not a harsh man, Woody told Serge he could stay with the band until they reached Boston (Serge’s home town) on their tour.

The night before they were due in Boston, the band played at Nuttings in Waltham, on the Charles River. The building they played in was on a pier sticking out above the river. At the intermission Serge asked Woody to come out on the balcony.

‘Look down in the river.’ Serge told Woody, ‘and tell me what you see.’

‘Nothing,’ said Woody, ‘except a lot of pieces of paper floating about.’

‘That’s the band’s baritone book,’ said Serge, who knew the book off by heart. ‘Now you can’t fire me.’

He was right. Woody had to keep Serge another year before he could get the baritone parts copied out so he could fire him.”

Steve continues the story later. This is after a year or so when Woody Herman was able to have all of the baritone parts for his band re-copied out, and therefore was able to fire Serge.

“The pissing incident happened one night when Woody and Serge were standing crushed up against each other in an extremely crowded bar, after a gig. Woody took this opportunity to get some payback by peeing on Serge’s leg. Since the bar was so crowded, Serge couldn’t move away, even after he realized what was happening.”

These stories can be found in Gene Lees’ biography of Herman, “The Leader of the Band.”

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