Rise and Swing: Jazz brunch on the South Side

Senegalese musician Morikeba Kouyate sits in the sunny front window of Hyde Park’s Chant restaurant, his twenty-one-stringed kora resting in his lap. He is taking a breather in between songs, which layer his high, strong voice over complex fingerwork on the gourd-and-stretched-skin instrument. In the expansive dining room, a few diners circle around the buffet table, where fresh fruit, French toast, and omelets-to-order are offered alongside Thai-style chicken and bottomless mimosas. It is the mid-afternoon, and the brunch rush has passed; Morikeba no longer has to compete with the clinking of silverware. Jazz and blues has, of course, a long and illustrious history on the South Side, and Chant’s musical brunches are well-attended, with outdoor tables crowding the sidewalk in warmer weather. But what do brunches with accompaniment say about Chicago’s jazz tradition today?

The origin of the jazz brunch is hard to pinpoint, but it most likely began in New Orleans as entertainment for wealthy tourists. Restaurant brunches almost always tend towards the American and French standards of omelets, pancakes, and eggs Benedict, and the musical entertainment is almost as uniformly jazz or gospel, never Baroque or rock ‘n’ roll brunch. It’s a meal in keeping with the culturally mixed and commercial culture of New Orleans. The central problem, then, is that because brunch is by nature a complacent experience, must it domesticate the jazz that is paired with it? What does that mean when the jazz brunch comes to a city with such a long and strong jazz tradition?

In Chant’s case, the restaurant invites a diverse mix of musicians to provide entertainment at the Sunday brunch. In addition to Morikeba, Chant has featured blues singer Gloria Shannon, jazz vocalist Maggie Brown, and many others beyond the norm of the standard jazz quartet. As an Asian-inspired fusion restaurant, says Chant catering manager Angelique Connor, “we’re interested in combining cultures.” That means accompanying the fried, lobster-stuffed wontons with traditional West African storytelling and songs. As for having a musical brunch at all, Chant’s upscale appeal makes it a natural fit for an experience not offered by many other restaurants on the South Side. And Hyde Park, as Connor points out, “has a very rich history in music.”

In Woodlawn, Backstory Café has a weekly jazz brunch with a buffet and made-to-order menu. In its cozy one-room space, it’s a more intimate affair than at Chant. Though the menu changes weekly, jazz trio Recovery are returning guests; members Ben Brown, Jeff Kimmel, and Brian Sulpizio play experimental music throughout the city. Backstory’s jazz brunch is an enjoyable experience, a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. But to enjoy jazz as an active experience, the café’s weekly avant garde jazz night is a better bet.

W.C. Handy’s Bistro in South Shore is a “health and entertainment bar” that promises a jazz brunch on Sunday, though they were closed when the Chicago Weekly visited. The restaurant claims to be the “Only One of it’s [sic] Kind in the Mid-West,” and it may be the only of its kind in Chicago: serving meat-filled and vegetarian dishes alike, offerings include salmon croquettes with grits and eggs or vegetarian corned beef with yams. Live music on Sunday afternoons recall the mission of the original W.C. Handy, often called the Father of the Blues, who is credited with bringing blues to the mainstream in the teens and twenties. As jazz has become ubiquitous background music, it may take such a mission to make it a focus once again.