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Destination: New York

Gospel on the Menu

Weekend brunch with church-bred song satisfies body and soul

April 05, 1998|LESLIE GOURSE | Gourse is the author of 22 books on jazz music and musicians, the most recent being "Straight, No Chaser: the Life and Genius of Thelonious Monk" (Schirmer Books)

NEW YORK — Sunday in Harlem. The pianist warms up with a forceful touch on the keys. Then, with a pleasant smile, the Rev. Andrea Vereen takes the mike and swings into the morning's songs. First up, "This Little Light of Mine." Her contralto is strong, with a warm vibrato, as well suited to rousing Pentecostal interpretations as to the softer style of "Amazing Grace" and Billie Holiday's jazzy "God Bless the Child."

In between songs, she calls out in praise and prayer: "I know everything's gonna be all right! Woooo! Oh! Woooo! Oh! Somebody put their hands together for me now!" And she lights into "Gonna Be All Right"--"Just say . . . all right . . . wheeee! Be all right! Thank you, Jesus!"

When she winds up with the anthem, "Amen," we all know we have been told, as the expression goes in the gospel world.

But this isn't a church service, though many of us feel joyously moved. It is Sunday brunch at Copeland's, a restaurant in Harlem, where for $15.95 the customer is fed body and soul--a Bloody Mary included.

The gospel brunch was born 13 years ago when a midtown Manhattan restaurant, Lola's, hired singers from Pentecostal and Baptist churches in Queens and Brooklyn to entertain at Sunday brunch. It was such a hit that Lola's had to expand the brunch to accommodate three seatings.

A few years later, the gospel brunch surfaced in Harlem, where it has become an entertaining postscript to serious Sunday morning churchgoing.

While people of all races and faiths enjoy gospel brunches, European and Japanese fans of American music, especially jazz, seem to predominate among the tourists. For New Yorkers, the music definitely provides a respite from the intense pace of life on weekdays. The catchy hymns and spirituals give people a chance to let their hair down and dance, pray, cry and laugh all at the same time.

Word of mouth helped spread Lola's reputation. "Be sure to go to Lola's on Sundays," tourists returning home have told their friends setting out for vacations in New York.

Lately, the shine on New York's image as a cleaner, safer tourist destination than before has given Harlem a similar boost.


Bus tours of historic Harlem have been popular for a long time, taking tourists to such sites as Duke Ellington's home on Sugar Hill, Alexander Hamilton's house and the Jumel Mansion, where George Washington briefly had a headquarters. A high point, especially for African American tourists, is the First Abyssinian Baptist Church and its world-famous choir.

(Abyssinian Baptist is not on the Sunday bus tours of Harlem churches; tourist groups posed a crowding problem. Also, some churches want to avoid the interruption of large groups coming and going for just the music portions of worship services that can last for several hours.)

When the restaurants began offering Sunday gospel brunches, several bus tours added them to their itineraries.

"Sunday in Harlem is very hot with the tourists," says Larcelia Kebe, who founded Harlem Your Way, which has been offering bus and walking tours since 1982. "It's great for the churches," Kebe says. "And those customers who feel they haven't had enough of church" seek out the gospel brunches afterward.

However, white New Yorkers seldom go on these tours unless they are playing host to someone from out of town, says Peggy Taylor, a multilingual African American who is a guide for Harlem Spirituals tours.

Gospel's new trendiness seems to reflect a growing interest in African American culture, although jazz fans around the world have always made Harlem a must stop on U.S. visits. Europeans were the first to take jazz seriously as an art form. The gospel brunches and Harlem church tours show that religious music is both father and mother of jazz, blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll.

Gospel music--the highly charged, creative, exalting, often physical expression of faith in song--developed in African American churches. For a long time most of them rejected the embellishments of their Pentecostal brethren's music, with its liberal use of drums, tambourines and other instruments. Blues singers adapted gospel music, giving it secular lyrics. The blues tonality and song form, with its call and response traditions taken from the churches, became a basis for jazz.

It all comes full circle in the repertoire of gospel brunch singers such as Andrea Vereen, who moves easily from "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" to "When the Saints Come Marching In." The music expresses her talent as a professional performer as well as her religious commitment; raised in her father's Episcopal church in Brooklyn, she has her own Pentecostal mission church in Queens.

The one odd note in a gospel brunch is hearing church music where liquor is served. The queen of gospel song, Mahalia Jackson, surely would have objected; she never sang in nightclubs. But drinkers aren't the backbone of the gospel brunch business; the allure is the music, and the opportunity to join hands with strangers to celebrate it.

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