Sweet Rhythm quietly ends run as Village jazz stage

The 7th Ave. home in the ’80s and early ’90s of Gil Evans’ last orchestra, David Murray’s octets, Abdullah Ibrahim’s bands, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy and other avant-gutsy acts closed last night (Oct. 24) without notice or fanfare. Sweet Rhythm nee Sweet Basil was one of the coolest spots to listen, drink and hang out in Greenwich Village, a wood-paneled room with fine sound, sightlines, bookings and bartender, but it never recovered from what its most recent owner described as a post-9/11 decline in street traffic, competition from nearby clubs offering lesser music at no cover charge, and disinterest among the young in jazz.

James Browne, who bought the club and building which houses it in April 2001, is a thorough music professional, a dj formerly on WBGO and currently on Sirius Satellite radio with at least 30 years of experience in NYC scenes, who tried to downplay his operation’s well-established identification with jazz alone but never truly diverged from it ’cause he loves blues, Afro-Caribbean sounds, soulful singers — all music with jazz connotations. Taking over Sweet Basil from a Japanese holding company which had bought a franchise established by the married couple Mel and Phyllis Litoff and booker Horst Leipolt, Browne forged connections with the New School Jazz program, giving student bands professional experience, however the kids didn’t return the favor by becoming regular attendees.

Situated in a stretch of Manhattan that includes the Village Vanguard, 55 Bar, Small’s, Fat Cat, Arthur’s Tavern and several other bars and restaurants offering music, Basil had been distinguished by the company it presented, which included Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, ensembles led by Art Farmer, Ron Carter, Regina Carter, Olu Dara, Don Pullen, Oliver Lake, Cecil Taylor and many others. Though Browne vowed to broaden the field, and his cross-genre concept has been successful for other downtown music clubs including City Winery and S.O.B.’s, somehow Sweet Rhythm didn’t catch on. 
I wandered into the joint last night, after hearing Canada Day, an excellent quintet led by percussionist Harris Eisenstadt at the Cornelia Street Cafe (only two blocks from Sweet Rhythm). In search of a little more music and one more drink, a friend and I looked into the windows at 55 Bar and saw it was too crowded, walked down the stairs at Fat Cat and thought we’d stand out as oldsters amid the crowd of 20-somethings, so turned the corner to check out Rhythm, which was a place both of us had frequented over the past 25 years.
A strand of small blue light bulbs strung across front windows was the only indication from a couple yards away that the place had anything happening — approaching the door, we thought it would be locked (it was 11 p.m., early in a nightlife district full of revelers, though it had been raining hard). A half-dozen people sat at the bar, and we were informed we would be the last to be served. There was one glass of white wine left in what we were told was the only bottle still in the house, one glass of seltzer, but plenty of Makers Mark which I drank on the rocks. We commiserated with the couple of other folks there, all of whom looked vaguely familiar, drank up and left, surprised and sad.
I just called the club tonight — Sunday — to try to verify that my Saturday night experience wasn’t a bad dream. The phone rings and rings, and then a voice comes on to say the number has been disconnected, no other information is available. Other jazz clubs remain in Greenwich Village, but one that had been one of the best is gone.

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  1. Mickey Horwitz says

    This is truly sad news. I spent a lot of hours at Sweet Basil in the 1980’s. Gil Evans Monday Night Orchestra was, IMO, one of the best small big bands to ever grace the stage of any NYC club. And I was in my 20’s then, ravenous for great jazz that could be found there, 7th Avenue South (the Brecker Bros. club), the Village Gate… and all those great haunts are gone now.
    We are much, much poorer for this loss.

  2. says

    I remember a memorable night there in the 90s–I was there to see Art Farmer (who sounded great in spite of being in the last years of his life)… as the band was finishing its last set, a big limo pulls up, and out hops this slick-dressed guy in a white silk suit and dreadlocks–Cecil Taylor! And Cecil settles in at the bar for an extended chat with someone (featuring his skeptical assessments of some famous jazz “stars.”). And Doc Cheatham’s Sunday gigs! And Billy Harper! And Mal Waldron! Sad…

  3. Valerie says

    last time i was there, Benny Golson was playing, so you know it was over a decade ago! after they discontinued nightly jazz, i lost interest, but i’m still very sorry to see the club close. (disclaimer: thought i should mention that i live 3,000 miles from the club!)

  4. says

    How sad. That place was my headquarters (there and the lamented Carlos I) when I went to the city for music. And, yes, I did see Murray’s Octet (my ex-wife was mesmerized by Craig Harris, as I recall), Gil’s band (on his birthday, after his passing, Anita leaned over to tell me so) and Abdullah Ibrahim. The place was as quiet as a church, and the great man played as if offering us a benediction. Doc Cheatham looking impossibly dapper on Sunday mornings . . . [sigh]. It was always my first stop when I went downtown, and often my last stop, too. Why leave home when everything you need is there? Now I guess I’ll call it Sweet Memories.

  5. Jerry Withrow says

    My first visit to NYC I somehow landed at Sweet Basil. Clueless kid that I was, I arrived early and sat down at a table near the piano. Two sets by Cecil Taylor later(baptism under fire, right) I left – in shock and awe – walking God knows how many blocks to my hotel.
    A few months ago, I had the unexpected pleasure to meet Mr. Taylor and thank him for that unforgettable experience. Wish now I could have thanked the club owners too.
    I loved this space. It will indeed be missed.

  6. says

    Sad to read this. Countless memories of fine performances (Basil & Rhythms) this west coast based fan was fortunate to enjoy. Re-introducing the Impulse! label there in 1986
    was a special night, but there were always special nights at that place. Just walking in there knowing you’d hear top notch artists and bump into God knows who…it was a great joint indeed! Horst and James presented so many fine performers and artists. Let’s hope there will be more even a little like it.

  7. al kaye says

    so many beautiful memories of sweet basil-al grey and buddy tate, a line down the block for art blakey and the jazz messengers!, sun ra arkestra in the halloween parade and then direct to the club for a night of standards and sun ra originals. sweet rhythm had many of the same people running the club such as cho the best jazz bartender ask the musicians. I was there when it reopened one year after 9/11 steve slagle and dave stryker 9/13/02. this brought hope to me that ny would recover from that terrible day. unfortunately I only saw the club packed when they had a memorial weekend for john hicks who had played so much wonderful music there over the years. bright moments!

  8. Bernard B. says

    So hard to believe it’s closed. Monday nights with Gil Evans,Benny Golson with Art Farmer are just some of the talent that graced their stage and my life. The songs have ended but the melodies linger on.

  9. says

    Saddened over this news but this one seemed like a long time coming. Sweet Basil was my main club when I was in college back in the ’80s (that and the late lamented Bradley’s). So many nights, so many memories of David Murray, Don Pullen, Abdullah Ibrahim, Fort Apache, McCoy Tyner and of course Art Blakey and Gil Evans. Anybody who thought that jazz was dead in the 1980s was not hanging out at Sweet Basil.