The Jazz Brunch: This is What Appropriation Sounds Like

Photo by: Katrine Thielke from Copenhagen, Denmark, sveas brunch

Garage Restaurant & Café in Greenwich Village offers a weekend “Jazz Brunch.” It features good entertainment, good food, and a good chance to experience cultural appropriation and the emergence of two sources of leisure historically defined by class.

The exotic meal of brunch and the striking sounds of jazz emerged around the same time: the tumultuous twenties. Poor black artists living in Harlem were cooking up some new beats as upper class whites in Britain were inventing new food combinations that could qualify as either breakfast or lunch.

Fletcher Henderson’s jazz orchestra of 1923 helped to popularize the sound. Henderson was born in a middle class family, attended Atlanta University and then Columbia where he received a master’s degree in chemistry. Despite his impressive education, he could not find work while living in New York City because he was black. So, he turned to music. Jazz was not just entertainment for him; it was a necessary livelihood because he did not have access to other professions.

Author: Gordon Parks Source: Image taken from Copyprint: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-11)

Author: Gordon Parks
Source: Image taken from
Copyprint: Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. (8-11)

He encountered many other black artists who not only turned to jazz because of their passion, but because of their unequal opportunity to explore other options. For example, Henderson worked with renowned jazz musician Ethel Waters. Waters was raised in poverty by a teenage mother and absent father. She married an abusive man at age 13 but soon left him. With no family and no education, she worked as a maid until she was discovered at the age of 17, singing at a nightclub. Later in her career, Ethel worked at the same club as Bessie Smith, who was known as “the Empress of the Blues.” Smith similarly grew up in poverty. She had lost both of her parents by age nine so she and her siblings had to provide for themselves at a very young age. In order to earn money, Bessie sang on the streets. While Henderson, Waters, and Smith all found success, their initial drive to create music stemmed from desperation. They did not get to enjoy jazz as merely a form of entertainment like their more affluent white audiences.

Harlem became so well known for its incredible music and wild nightlife that it began to entice wealthy white patrons who were eager to participate in the excitement. Trendy jazz clubs started to pop up that featured black entertainers and strictly white audiences. These crowds took advantage of a form of entertainment that blacks invented. Both whites and blacks participated in the enjoyment of jazz, but only the entertainers had faced the hardship, discrimination, and desperation that led them to those jazz clubs.

Whites had a different impulse to venture to this non-imperialized neighborhood: disillusionment with their average lives and intrigue of an exotic art form. The most egregious club that opened in order to entice white clientele was called “Cotton Club.” The stage resembled the landscape of a plantation. The backdrop painting included a veranda, white columns, slave cabins, and oak trees. A PBS historical essay on jazz called it, “the Classic Black Nightclub-the ideal for racist America- Black entertainers, white underworld bosses, and white upper-class audiences seeking exotica.” Clubs like this revealed the glaring hypocrisy of the racist white mindset; whites would use black performers for their own entertainment, but would not allow blacks to eat with them, sleep with them, or use the same bathroom. Even after jazz singer Billie Holiday became successful, she had to enter and leave through the kitchen or through freight elevators because she was not allowed to sit with the white performers. Such white performers, like June Christie, appropriated the silky, smooth, cool vocals and instrumentals of jazz culture without facing discrimination and marginalization.

A performer like Christie, after a long show, might want to sleep in the next day. An affluent audience member, after drinking away his paycheck, might have trouble waking up for breakfast. Hungover and bleary-eyed, they might stumble into a restaurant past breakfast time, but before lunchtime, for a new kind of meal that materialized around the same time as the Jazz Movement.

This leisurely, indulgent practice is called brunch. It began in England as an alternative to a heavy, post church, Sunday dinner. One no longer had to get up early to prepare for Sunday dinner if they were to enjoy an easier, lighter, later brunch instead. While the inventors of this new mealtime may have only considered convenience, one can now reflect on the element of social status and the attitude towards work and leisure involved with enjoying brunch.

Eating a meal at mid-morning that lasts for hours suggests that one does not have anywhere to be; that one does not have to work. It also suggests having enough money to pay for an elaborate meal that usually involves alcohol. The accruement of funds without the acquisition of a job is a reflection of high class. Brunch says a lot about socio-economic status.

Brunch is a bourgeois form of leisure. Jazz is both a bourgeois and a lower class form of leisure. But the upper class gets to enjoy things because they have the money, and they have nothing else to do. The lower classes must enjoy things as a release from the jobs they must perform. According to the PBS historical essay, Duke Ellington, the talented musician on Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, “extracted vitality, emotional strength and universal truths from life in this ghetto (the Cotton Club)…and his own oppression.” Henderson used jazz as a source of strength in a world in which he felt powerless. For black jazz performers living in the racist beginnings of the twentieth century, both work and leisure were necessities.

The idea of a “Jazz Brunch” is unjust because it takes a style of music born out of oppression and uses it to adorn a meal invented by those who once oppressed these musicians. It gives a bohemian soundtrack to a popular meal. It is cultural appropriation played at its highest note. It is the striking of improper chords such as this that adds to the cacophonous clatter of much of inauthentic, twenty-first century culture.


PBS Essay Mentioned:


Katrine Thielke from Copenhagen, Denmark, sveas brunch,

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