“Great Encounters” are book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons. This edition tells the story of an evening in Washington D.C., starring Woody Herman and Serge Chaloff
Excerpted from Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s,” by Gene Lees
The heroin fashion was in full grim flower. And that band [Herman’s 1947 band] was extremely strung out. It was also a cocky and smart-assed band. Gerry Mulligan remembers it well. “I wrote a piece for that band,” he said, and described the collective attitude. Some of its members looked smug when Woody soloed, because his style was rooted in an older tradition and he wasn’t a hip bebopper as they were. And they all waited their turns to solo. They played clever solos, too. “But Woody’s,” Gerry said, “was the only solo that had anything to do with the piece.”
Eventually, Woody – who somehow combined the deepest naivete with a shrewd perception of people – began to be aware of what was wrong with his collection of sleeping beauties. And he found that Serge Chaloff was the band’s druggist, as well as its number one junkie. Serge would hang a blanket in front of the back seats of the bus and behind it would dispense his stuff to colleagues. This led to an incident in Washington, D.C. “Can I tell that story too, now?” I asked Woddy.
“Sure, why not?” he said, and laughed at the memory. But the funniest part of it is Joe Venuti’s reaction.” And he retold the story.
The band not only looked bad, it sounded bad. And Woody, furious at what had happened to it, had a row right on the bandstand with “Mr. Chaloff,” as he called him, emphasis on the first syllable.
“He was getting farther and farther out there,” Woody said. “And the farther out he got the more he was sounding like a fagalah. He kept saying, ‘Hey, Woody, baby, I’m straight, man, I’m clean.’ And I shouted, ‘Just play your goddamn part and shut up!”
“I was so depressed after that gig. There was this after-hours joint in Washington called the Turf and Grid. It was owned by a couple of guys with connections, book-makers. Numbers guys. Everybody used to go there. That night President Truman had a party at the White House, and afterwards all his guests went over to the Turf and Grid. They were seven deep at the bar, and I had to fight my way through to get a drink, man. All I wanted was to have a drink and forget it. And finally I get a couple of drinks, and it’s hot in there, and I’m sweating, and somebody’s got their hands on me, and I hear, ‘Hey, Woody, baby, whadya wanna talk to me like that for? I’m straight, baby, I’m straight.’ And it’s Mr. Chaloff. And then I remember an old Joe Venuti bit. We were jammed in there, packed in, and…I peed down Serge’s leg.
“You know, man, when you do that to someone, it takes a while before it sinks in what’s happened to him. And when Serge realized, he let out a howl like a banshee. He pushed out through the crowd and went into a telephone booth. And I’m banging on the door and trying to get at him, and one of the owners comes up and says, ‘Hey, Woody, you know, we love you, and we love the band, but we can’t have you doing things like that in here.’ And he asked me to please cool it.
“Well, not long after that, I was back here on the coast, working at some club at the beach. Joe Venuti was playing just down the street, and I was walking on the beach with him after the gig one night, and I told him I had a confession to make, I’d stolen one of his bits. Well Joe just about went into shock. He was horrified. He said, ‘Woody, you can’t do things like that! I can do things like that, but you can’t! You’re a gentleman. It’s all right for me, but not you!”
Excerpted from Meet Me at Jim and Andy’s,
by Gene Lees