Gospel Jazz Brunch
Afternoon of Sunday 8th February 2015
We drive from the church in Flushing to Harlem, where the brunch is to be held. I love the yellow cabs, the big yellow school buses on school days, the blaring sirens of the New York Police Department as they streak by, just like the movies. I like the women, teetering on high heels in this deadly snow and ice, I see the homeless on the street corners, a pile of rags, and my heart bleeds. Shop fronts I have seen in TV shows, adverts for things I never heard of, everybody hurrying somewhere, multi tasking as they speak on their mobiles. I see one man with a selfie stick, posing with a movie star grin, absolutely unselfconsciously amongst all that humanity, in a grey cashmere overcoat outside a fancy shop.
The brunch is in the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. level in the New York State Office Building on 125th Street in Harlem. Bill Clinton had an office here long enough to establish Hilary before she ran for New York State Senator. We have to be issued with a Temporary Visitor Pass. Oh dear, says Bev, Sandra do you have your passport with you? No, I don't. She goes to the Security officer, who is screening our bags like they do at the airport, and people are passing through electronic check points, and says, "We may have a problem here ...." - before she can say another word, he looks up at me and says with a big grin, "Are you the lady from Australia?", and ushers me straight through! Some kind soul, probably Deborah, Bev's daughter, has set that up. Amazing. I guess I am the only white person here, that may have been a clue, but am impressed with this level of courtesy.
We head into the lift - sorry elevator - and I am already stripping off clothes. The restaurant is called Melbas, an off shoot of its original restaurant elsewhere in New York - Melba died a couple of years ago, the very famous, and distinguished Queen of Black American Soul Food, and one of her relatives now runs this. It appears to be in what was a large office space, with a pop up kitchen behind a slide across door, and nothing else which marks it as a restaurant - no flowers, lamps, artwork, just several large round tables to seat perhaps ten at a table. At one end is a trestle table with a few bottles of wine and a man waiting for his first customer, and at the other end are a group still setting up a drum kit, an electronic key board, and some microphones. I am told the musicians play as a group, and are from The First Corinthian Baptist Church. After this morning, I cannot wait for more gospel jazz music. Yessirreeee, bring it on!
It looks temporary, not very promising at all, but the food sure smells good. A pretty woman introduces herself as "Rain, your hostess for this afternoon. I do hope you enjoy your time with us." Well, I certainly intend to, I say, and she smiles.
And I do. It is soooo much more than originally meets the eye.
The room fills slowly. I am again so impressed at how beautifully everyone is dressed, almost without exception the men are wearing suits and polished shoes, and the women in high heels in a glorious array of colours, many with large hats. I feel way underdressed here, and understand Bev's comment to me this morning "Is that what you are wearing?" I am fascinated by the accents, the warmth of the greetings, by the men high fiving and grasping each others upper arms in a sign of brotherhood and the women, as they do in every country, leaning their heads into each other to better hear, complimenting each other on their outfits. The tables are set with linen cloths and glasses, and a waiter places big jugs of iced water on the table, returning soon after with more jugs of Coke and Sprite, which seem to be standard. At one point in the afternoon, I ask Yvonne to fill my glass again with water please, and she mixes the water with the Sprite. I take a sip and pull a face, not realising she has seen me, and let it stand. But she has been watching me, and immediately apologises and pours me another glass of water. Always blessed, I have the best of hosts - then without asking, Dickie arrives at the table with a glass of white wine for me, and a red for him. God Bless you Dickie, I say. He smiles, he knows I am hanging out for that glass of wine!
People are heading towards the large silver bain maries, over which a solemn faced tall white man presides, with two assistants refilling as required.
People are starting to queue up for food, and we join them. Oh my, the food! The chef/food lover in me has to tell you what we ate:
Pork chops smothered in and onions in gravy
Cod fishcakes, shaped like croquettes
Honey and cloves on spiral baked ham
Sweet baked potatoes
Deep fried chicken
Fried baby whiting
Grits (like a porridge)
Green beans and chopped potatoes
I try a little of most things, and manage to fit it all on one plate without spilling anything. Despite a detectable sweetness to many of the dishes and some unexpected colours, its delicious. I am doing several things I like best, eating good food, in the company of wonderful people, the band has started to play some seriously groovy music, drinking a wine, and I am warm. What more could I want? Gerald, that's what, and I feel a pang for my beloved. I cannot stop smiling however, watching people eating and talking and enjoying themselves, and despite my expanded belly, decide to test the few things I hadn't managed to fit onto my plate. More taste bud exclamations, and I sit back content. Later in the afternoon our orders are taken for dessert - a choice of three cakes: Chocolate, Berry, or Coconut. I choose Coconut, and a slab the size of a chicken arrives, covered with toasted coconut shreds, but its dry, and after a mouthful, I do not eat it and my stomach sighs in gratitude.
The band is outstanding, a male singer and four female singers, all dressed totally differently and of all different shapes and sizes, each in front of a mike in a long row. A drummer, a keyboard, and that's it. The sound they produce makes my spine tingle. It's hypnotic, repetitive,sensual and reverent all at once - and the audience now that they are finished eating, are expected to sing along in the appropriate spots, like a giant back up group, and everybody here is belting out the familiar words with gusto, lots standing up, swaying and clapping. Oh, I am SO into this! If I lived in New York I would want to come here every single Sunday. The male singer is welcoming people, asking questions like "Anybody here from Harlem? The Bronx? Flushing?" and people are yelling out "Yes!" and he yells back "Welcome Brother!" and "Thanks for coming Sister!" I am about to yell myself when someone at our table beats me to it and pointing a finger at me, shouts "Australia!" Well, the guy momentarily stops dead, he is so surprised - "Aaaaaaaaarstraaaaaaaaalya?" he quizzes, "Really?" My table of friends assures him, yes really. "Man, that's a looooooooooooong way! Welcome, and thank you for coming here today Sister!" My heart expands with this generous acceptance. People are beaming at me and waving, neighbouring tables are coming to shake my hand, two women ask if they can hug me and of course we do. Nobody can believe I have come all this way for such a short time, and love the story of coming for Bev's birthday as a surprise, heads shaking in mock devastation that I am leaving tomorrow - "TOMORROW?" to head back to Australia. The singer keeps shaking his head in wonder, and pointing at me and grinning for the rest of the afternoon. A large cake is brought out to one woman celebrating a birthday, and the audience sing Happy Birthday to ya, Happeee Birthday to ya ..... "Any others?" he asks, and our table points to Bev, and shout "SEVENTY FIVE!" and add "MARRIED 56 YEARS!" His face splits in a smile, white teeth flashing, he looks genuinely delighted to be a part of this. He calls Bev and Dickie out and we all sing a song of celebration, and in then in an act of generosity, he sings something soft, Dickie takes Bev in his arms, and glides her around the floor, his adoring eyes never leaving her face, I notice his big hand gripping her back very firmly, she is uncertain of dancing in these high heels, and he knows. I catch a glimpse of their youth, but oh, they look so very beautiful to me here and now. Deborah says later 'Only MY parents would dance around the floor to a gospel song!!" Oh, I love it and my heart is so full - I am so happy yet want to cry at the same time.
Now the music gets in full swing, these people know each other well and have sung together often, their harmonies are heavenly, their get down and dirty is very get down and dirty, their reverence for Jesus so joyful, their eyes close, their emotions catch in their voice as they sing songs of love and praise for Him, as members of the audience join in with exclamations like "I love Jesus!", "God is Good!", "Amen!", and "Praise Him!" The women take turns to sing solo, each voice entirely different to the next, and each voice would smash any voice I ever heard on The X Factor. I have goose bumps, my eyes leak, my breath quickens. (No, it's not the wine, I only had ONE glass ....) How can these women sing this way and not be world famous? How? Because there are 250,000,000 people in the United States of America, that is why. I am in the presence of such incredible talent and feel so blessed.
The afternoon passes much too quickly, and suddenly its 4.30 pm and they announce their last song. I want to stay here all night long. But, there is another event scheduled at 5.30, and the musicians end with a long and rousing rendition of a song I still cannot get out of my head three weeks later, as I write this - "Sing Allelujah to Our God, Sing Allelujah to our God, Sing Allelujah to our God" - over and over, but in different pitches and notes. People are rocking and waving their hands in the air, totally self expressed and present in the moment. There is so much love in this room and I feel so privileged to be a part of it, I am so grateful to my friends for bringing me here.
Its freezing outside and very slippery, I think it has snowed some more, but our two gallant men ensure we are guided safely to our vehicle in the car park. The drive from Harlem to Flushing is full of commentary amongst the women and some competitive male talk amongst the men. My eyes are drooping. I shall have to go home tomorrow to get some sleep.
Another perfect day in New York with my American Family.
I spend the evening packing my suitcase, which in an unusual turn of events, is not nearly full. I came with it full of gifts which I have dispensed, and the only thing I have bought really, is my gorgeous black down Calvin Klein jacket. I am sorry to be leaving these beautiful people, and have really enjoyed a Once In A Lifetime Trip to celebrate Bev, but I am longing for my husband, my doggy, my bed, and the sunshine.
See you tomorrow Qantas.
NB Bev tells me two weeks later that Tony Smith, a saxophonist and jazz musician and all round Music Man, Nath and Yvonne's son, played at Melba's last week, and may become a regular.