Phyllis Weisbart Litoff

The Wellspring of Sweet Basil: Mel Litoff and Phyllis Weisbart Litoff

No less an authority on jazz music and culture than critic Stanley Crouch praised the husband-and-wife impresarios Mel Litoff and Phyllis Weisbart Litoff as “heroes of the arts.” Writing in the Village Voice in 1984, he called their Greenwich Village jazz spot, Sweet Basil, “the most consistently varied and interesting club of 1983” and said they made “it possible for listeners to hear the mastery of Doc Cheatham [and others] on one hand, then a sweep of talent … all the way over to David Murray and Don Pullen. The Village Jazz Festival that Sweet Basil spearheaded proved one of the most important events of the year. Their ‘Music is an Open Sky’ presentation of musicians associated with the purported avant-garde allows that group of writers and players an opportunity to find out how well their styles work in nightclubs as opposed to lofts.”

Before opening Sweet Basil, Phyllis, a native New Yorker and a classically trained vocalist, graduated from the High School of Music and Art and performed as a singer in clubs and in musical theater; she also taught voice and musicianship to commercial jingle singers in New York. After selling Sweet Basil in 1992, she and Mel became artistic directors of the Belleayre Music Festival in Highmount, New York, expanding a single concert into an annual summer series. Today, the Belleayre festival draws some of the best-known names in jazz, Broadway, classical, and pop music.

Mel had a completely different life prior to becoming a jazz club owner and a “hero of the arts”: he was assistant superintendent of schools in Leonia, New Jersey. He first met Stewart Kohl ’77 at the progressive alternative public high school where Stewart was a student, and where they became mentor and protégé. Mel visited Stewart in 1975 during his undergraduate days at Oberlin. Stewart was a frequent visitor to Sweet Basil and forged a lasting friendship with Phyllis as well.

Phyllis died of brain cancer in 2002. This past fall, Stewart phoned Mel and asked him to take a look at a press release. “He faxed it over and I started reading it. When I got to the part about dedicating a new jazz building at Oberlin to Phyllis, I fell apart. I was speechless.”

Thirty years after his first visit to Oberlin, Mel was back with Stewart and Donna Kohl for the announcement of their $5 million gift to facilitate construction of a new building for Oberlin’s jazz studies program. Reminiscing with Stewart earlier at his Shaker Heights home, the two found a letter of recommendation that Mel had written in support of Stewart’s application to Oberlin. “His addition to your student body will no doubt bring your school distinction.”

Words well chosen and prophetic, from one hero of the arts to another.

Editor's Note - Effective April 22, 2010: Since this article originally appeared, the Litoff Building has been renamed. Oberlin's new home for jazz studies, music history, and music theory is now the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building.