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Cho Suthammanont: Bartender

Sylvia Levine Leitch talks with Cho Suthammanont, a former bartender at Sweet Basil and Sweet Rhythm in New York City

Cho Suthammanont

Hardcore jazz fans and musicians who have spent serious time hanging out in New York jazz clubs know the people behind the scenes, who comprise an essential part of the jazz community, but who are neither musicians nor club owners. For more than twenty years, these unsung heroes have contributed to the ambience of the city’s legendary jazz rooms—and have served jazz—by communicating their own love and respect for the artists and the music as they perform their responsibilities—as bartender, waitress or doorman. It is time to document the stories of some of the people who helped us all feel at home. We dedicate this series to the memory of Gerry Houston, long-time waitress at the Village Vanguard, who died last year.

Cho Suthammanont was the bartender at Sweet Basil, the famous New York jazz club on Seventh Avenue South, over 30 years through several owners, and at the same room in its last incarnation as Sweet Rhythm.

Cho Suthammanont:

I loved jazz, even as a kid. I would listen to records my friend’s father had when I was growing up. When I came to New York-I’m originally from Thailand but a lot of my family came over and I was living in Maryland before I came here-I was 20 years old. I worked in a number of different places of different kinds (sometimes if I had a lot of bills to pay I’d work two places at once). Around 30 years ago, I asked a guy I knew, Bill Caricco, I’m pretty sure his name was, if I could pick up some shifts tending bar at his new place. He and a couple of partners, one in insurance, one who owned a record company and him, a CPA and a bartender, had bought Sweet Basil, which started out as a pharmacy, from Duane Tetford and Blaise,I don’t recall his last name. Duane was involved years later in opening Condon’s, but that’s another story. It wasn’t their first place; they also owned a room near FIT called Tomato. But at this new place, Bill was tending bar himself a lot of the time. He said, yes, sure, I could have some shifts. That was how I found my home.

Even during those early years, Sweet Basil was a serious venue and had a pretty low cover charge-five dollars, I believe-for the tables with no cover at the bar. That’s how you build a business, get people to start coming in. I remember Big Nick Nicholas played there, many older musicians. It was a very busy place. People were still going out then. They’d go to work, come home, change, then go out for dinner and some entertainment or go after work for a few drinks, then go home-maybe take a nap, and later come out again to hear some music. Things slowly changed. Now people just don’t do that as much. The first time I saw a guy with a suit and tie on with a brown paper bag, having his beer on the street, I said, “Uh oh, times are changing! This doesn’t look good for bartenders!”

When I started working at Sweet Basil, I waited tables first, and did that a couple days a week; later, I went behind the bar-that was more responsibility, not more money! The musicians didn’t get paid a lot in those days either. Some places didn’t even have a cover charge. Then record companies began supporting some groups in order to promote them and increase their record sales. They were testing the waters to see what the effect was; then it became more usual-to finance and advertise their artists at their gigs.

Great Music Was the Reward

You don’t feel like you’re working when there’s great music being played right in the same room with you. That was what made Sweet Basil my home: the music. And it wasn’t just me that felt that way. The people who sat at my bar, the people in the room, they were happy to be there. You don’t have to try to please them that much, the music does that-so the working situation was good! I had a good mix of people at the bar, local people, my regulars, tourists, and musicians. Ron Carter and Ben Riley used to hang out at my bar, to see their friends-maybe Tommy Flanagan or someone like that, other great, great musicians-eat something, drink something. And I love making a good drink. A customer used to say that people came to me to get a great martini or the best margarita. It’s so easy. But now, I hear it’s hard to find a good bar to have a well-made drink in!

The food at Sweet Basil was good, and never overly expensive. People would eat at the bar as well as at the tables. But when someone would order at the bar I would go into the kitchen sometimes, just to see how fresh the dish-mussels, for example, even burgers-that person ordered was, or how everything else looked. I sometimes told them straight out, “That’s not so good today. Why don’t you order something else?” I wanted my customers to be happy, to come back, order food and drinks and hear music again and again.

That lasted, with Bill and the others as owners, I think for a couple of years. Then around 1981 Mel Litoff and Phyllis Weisbart bought the place. By then I was working there five nights a week. I used to ask Mel, “Why’d you buy the place?” He told me, “You know, Cho, when I was trying to decide whether to buy it I would drive up and park outside and watch the business-how it was, people going in and coming out. I must have parked out front 200 times. And I saw that people always walked out of that club with a smile on their faces. That’s just the kind of place I wanted.” I asked him at the time if he liked music, jazz. Of course he did. He talked about the first band he wanted to have in there as the new owner. He wanted to open with Pharoah Sanders. He loved Pharoah. So did Allyson [Paul, the waitress also featured in this series]. Pharoah is Pharoah. You have to love that band.

The staff loved the music too. And there in Sweet Basil you’d get to hang out with the musicians, to get to know them. We all had our favorite bands and when the new schedule would come out, the new lineup for the next month or two, we’d be checking out who was going to be there and make sure we were working for the music we wanted to hear. It would get so crowded in the club that no one could move. People would be lined up around the block a lot of times, waiting for the room to turn over so they could get in. On my own day off, if I wanted to hear the band and it was too crowded, I’d come in the back way and head downstairs behind the bar. I’d listen on the stairs.

I could remember who had what drinks, standing three, sometimes five, deep at the bar, without a computer, and I knew who owed me what, even when they shifted seats or moved around. It’s not hard. You just remember the faces and what they drink. It was very fast moving, most nights, and the music still made it not even seem like work. In a jazz club, you don’t make a lot of money, but you can make decent money and have fun at the same time.

Regulars Got a Break

My regulars at the bar would get a break. Sure. It’s like an initiation period. If someone comes in every week-and, of course, musicians who performed there, anytime they came in-then you don’t want to charge them a cover or you give them a little something extra. You want to have a vibe in a place and that brings more people in. You have to have your regulars. They’d come in to see me and each other as well as hear the music. You remember, Sweet Basil had a big glass front area, it was on street level, and people looking in could tell that this was a bar with a good feeling. Or they’d see the long lines outside and think, “Hey, that must be great music. I’ll come back here.”

Musicians would have their routines. It got so I’d think, “Oh, it’s November, so it’s time for so-and-so to come in for a week or two.” Art Farmer, Tommy Flanagan, Pharoah, John Hicks, Hannibal Peterson-he was great-different people had different times they would come in. Gil Evans was there every Monday. He did those live albums at Sweet Basil in 1984. Doc Cheatham did weekend brunches. My wife Julie-I met her at Sweet Basil-and I used to fly to San Francisco in October every year, and go hear Cedar Walton, is another example. That’s when he played San Francisco, in October. You could count on it.

On my days off I would still go out and hear the music if there was someone I wanted to hear at a different club. I remember one strange night-the World Saxophone Quartet was a band I liked. They’d played at Sweet Basil. They somehow got booked into a place that didn’t usually have jazz, the Buffalo Roadhouse had moved to midtown, and that’s where they played, I think. It was a country bar and they had never heard that kind of music there. Well, the waitresses didn’t like it, the people didn’t really like it, everyone was so miserable, it made the band miserable. There was a lot of tension and they played like that-four different soloists, not like a band at all. And at the end of the set, they all went to different corners of the room. It was bad. I really appreciated Sweet Basil after that experience.

The musicians liked it too. Some of my favorite times were at the end of the night. The customers would have all left and the musicians would be relaxing at the bar before they packed up. They’d talk, tell stories, joke around, everyone was so happy. The last time I talked to Eddie Locke we were reminiscing about those days. “Cho,” he said, “we used to have fun, didn’t we?” Yes, we did!

I loved to hang out with Hicks, Harold, Kirk Lightsey, Don Pullen, Kenny Barron, Buster Riley, Clifford Jordan, I liked to hear them talk. They would feed off each other, so you would hear stories that you had never heard or imagined, about their own experiences and about things they had heard that had been passed down to them from years ago. I was just born too late, I’d think, when they reminisced about the fun they had. One story Ben Riley told. He was just a young drummer working with Monk, he recalled. And he wanted to play more-maybe a solo. So he said, “Monk, I need some more time.” So Monk made it sound like he was going to accommodate him. “Ok,” he said. “The next one is yours. ” But he called for a ballad! That’s a story you wouldn’t hear normally.

Everybody told stories. I’d listen to Sonny Fortune and Gary Bartz talking about Monk or Miles or about their gigs on the road. It was enough to fill 10 books what I heard. But no one else heard it but me lots of times. That was a unique experience. There is really nothing like it. You know, it’s a hard life that these great musicians lead, but you don’t see them having a hard life, they’re having a ball. They are so special, special human beings. After the music they relax, they talk about things and joke around.

The music is serious for them, though, they take it seriously-and they really care for each other, they feed off each other’s ideas. I remember one particular night at Bradley’s, when Chico Freeman was playing. He and George Coleman talked and hung out at the bar after the gig. Then the next night, George played with him. George kept feeding him chords, they fed off each other; it was great, exciting, music. All the musicians are just more intelligent than average people, so in their conversations, they’re flying. So much depth. It’s wonderful. You don’t get to witness that anymore. Now the artists are on their cell phones in the breaks, looking for their next gigs.

When Mel and Phyllis owned the place, they did a lot of good bookings; Horst Liepolt, of course, managed for them for several years. The music was great. I worked for them five nights, Oliva worked two shifts, he replaced Edward Ellington who was there quite a while. Edward replaced my brother Chi. I tried to make sure everything was taken care of, managed what I could manage in my area, because when things run smoothly, it is easier for me and for everyone-and more fun!

I knew that bar really well. There are things customers never think about that a bartender has to be concerned with. One of them is the stairs going down into the store room from the floor behind the bar. If a bartender has it closed sometimes and open sometimes he has a much bigger chance of falling than if he leaves it open all the time and learns to watch out for it. That’s what I did and I never fell. And do you remember the way all our drink glasses hung upside down all the way around the bar? You know why they did it that way? It was to camouflage an illegal air conditioner. The law at the time said that we could only have one air conditioner for the size place that Sweet Basil was. But we really needed two because of the volume of people and the kitchen. So, I think it was Bill, put in that extra one at the end by the phone booth and hung the glasses around it.

There was no problem with the owner of the building about that because a term of our lease was that the club owner had to look after the whole building, pay the heat and hot water, the electricity, utilities. (Years ago it was pretty usual for a business to sign a 25-year lease like that.) So the air conditioners and being sure that the wiring could support them were Bill’s responsibility anyway. Business leases aren’t like that now. Every landlord wants the option of renegotiating if a business is successful after five years. They want all your money! It’s hard to run a jazz club or any business now.

But in the days of Sweet Basil, there were a lot of clubs in the Village: the Cookery, Sweet Basil, Bradley’s, Zinno, the Knickerbocker, the Blue Note, Visiones, The Angry Squire, 55 Grand-a lot. And we talked to each other, we would share information sometimes, not just with the jazz clubs but with other bars in the area, like Chumley’s. For example, if there was a guy in the bar that was causing trouble or had too much to drink or tried to not pay his bill, we’d throw him out or just get him to leave and then we’d call around and say, “Watch out for this guy. Don’t let him in.” Steve (Epstein, the doorman and floor manager for a number of years with Cho, also featured in this series) was good with those people. He knows how to talk to problem people. He doesn’t take them personally.

Mel didn’t like to put much money into the place. For a long time there wasn’t even a place for the band to sit between sets or before the show. Finally, when a tiny room in the back that a watchmaker had been using opened up (the watchmaker left), the musicians got that room. It was so small though-occasionally I’d let a musician sit down in the basement just to relax, but once a bass player took a nap down there and everyone forgot he was there. We locked him in when we left! He woke up, started moving around in the club, people saw him and called the police! That was a scene. On another occasion, a pretty well-known tenor saxophone player wanted-I guess as part of his contract-a place for his band to hang out; that dressing room was too small! So there was an apartment right over the club, it used to belong to the local paper The Villager, and they’d moved. Mel gave the band that apartment for the week. Well, they partied in there, had people up, it got pretty wild.

New Owners

Eventually, around 1992, Mel sold the place to a group of Japanese investors. My brother managed Sweet Basil for them for awhile. He’s a really hard worker, and took care of all the paperwork as well as things in the room. I think he worked harder than me! We still sold out shows-and if the next set wasn’t going to be full, we’d invite people to stay around and hear some more music. No one wants an empty room-the other customers, the musicians, the staff. So it’s good for everybody to give people one more set of music. James Browne became the manager; he was very knowledgeable-he had been a DJ at WBGO for a long time and the music continued to be great.

After being around the musicians for so many years, I felt pretty close to some of them and sometimes we would even go out to an after-hours place after the club closed to unwind. If an artist was sick, I might go to see him too; when Clifford Jordan was dying with lung cancer I went to visit him, you know. And of course I went-still go-to some funerals and memorials as they passed.

What happened in the next years was not good. September 11th was really bad for New York business and for the clubs. No one went out after that. Sweet Basil closed and a new group was going to reopen right away. But the economy got worse and deals fell through. I worked at the US Open while I was waiting for the club to reopen. That was a lot of fun, very intense, busy, but great. Still, Sweet Basil was my home and I waited for it to reopen.

James Browne, who booked the club for the Japanese investors after my brother left, bought the building with his business partner and renamed it Sweet Rhythm. Of course I came back to work behind the bar. I wanted the place to work, to succeed, but when a room is closed for so long-it had been more than a year-people move on. They have a different hang, different habits. Our customers didn’t come back.

Although I don’t know everything that happened, maybe there was not a good business sense going. You have to have the money to build your business. You have to bring people in with something-promotion, start everyone talking, advertise a lot at first. Instead, we relied too much on the location and people’s memories, I think. And the kitchen never reopened. I tried to keep my end, the bar, going. But it just got worse and worse. Now there is an upscale soul-food restaurant in the building.

I was at Sweet Basil (and Sweet Rhythm) most of my working life. In some ways, I was very lucky to have been in that place, to have experienced everything that went on there, to have heard so many great artists night after night and to have had a good job that long. But now, it’s hard to move on and it’s hard when everyone identifies you with a particular place. Last year, I didn’t really look for a full-time job. I had an older dog that needed a lot of attention and I was able to spend time with her at the end of her life while my wife was at work. We had had some good times together. She kept me healthy while I was working at the bar, going for long walks in the park and in the neighborhood. But now I’m ready to start something new. Originally Published