William Edgar is a professor of apologetics (Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia) and an accomplished jazz pianist, an unusual combination of interests and abilities, which made me very curious to read his new book, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel. In it, Edgar works to make a case for a strong connection between jazz and the hope offered by Jesus Christ.
The book divides into an introduction and three main parts, with each part including several short chapters. In the introduction, Edgar states that jazz “owes a great deal to a Christian worldview, which is deeply embedded in its origins and ongoing history” and that “jazz is best understood in light of the gospel.” Part I, “Historical Context,” talks about how jazz “emerged from the milieu of slavery and Jim Crow America.” Part II, “Background Genres,” discusses how diverse musical forms arising from the Black American experience during and after slavery—including “field hollers, work songs, spirituals, gospel, blues, and ragtime”—led to jazz. In Part III, “Jazz Music,” Edgar further defines jazz as a genre and works to show how particular features of jazz—such as its recognition of deep sorrow and suffering (as epitomized in the blues), its protest, and its search for freedom (tied to improvisation), resilience, and joy—connect it with the gospel.
In individual short chapters on these “feeder” genres to jazz, Edgar makes more specific connections, names many example songs and discusses lyrics that connect to his argument, and summarizes the influences of those genres on jazz. For example, “But if the spirituals tended to reflect misery and suffering, gospel music tended to emphasize the reality of joy, both of which were essential elements to jazz” (85). And “at the deepest level, the blues are a theodicy, raising the question of God’s goodness in the face of pervasive evil. And that is perhaps their greatest contribution to jazz” (91).
Edgar’s keynote argument, appearing throughout the book, is that the “jazz narrative” and the Christian message track compatibly in “a movement from deep misery to inextinguishable joy” (13). Essentially, he argues that music was an important coping mechanism, consolation, and source of meaning and joy for the Black community in the face of slavery and Jim Crow America, whether that music took the form of spirituals, gospel, the blues, ragtime, or, in due time, jazz. Edgar explains that “music was never entirely absent from enslaved Africans, not because Black people are more naturally musical than others, but because human beings are inherently musical, and music was one of the few outlets for an enslaved people” (44).
It is my perception that the Adventist Church as an organization has never embraced jazz, although certainly many individual Adventists have been enthusiastic about it. I remember pastor William Loveless playing saxophone with a Loma Linda University Church big band. And Professor Edgar himself says very complimentary things about Take 6, a heavily jazz-influenced acapella group that originated at Oakwood College (now Oakwood University), and references their YouTube recording of “If We Ever Needed the Lord Before” (88). By Googling “Adventists and jazz,” you can find several resources from a variety of viewpoints that discuss the music and its relation to Adventism. For my own part, having played upright bass in a jazz quartet for over 20 years, I would remind the reader that “jazz” is not one thing but many. There are different eras and styles of jazz (ragtime, big-band, bebop, West-Coast jazz, cool jazz, smooth jazz, modal jazz, straight ahead jazz, bossa nova, ballads, free jazz), so like with many other broad labels, it is a mistake to make blanket statements about something so varied. I like some kinds of jazz and not others. If you listen to enough of it, you will most likely find performers and styles that you appreciate and that add value to your life. And as a musician, there is a complexity and interest to studying and playing jazz that can last (more than) a lifetime. There are few things more enjoyable than listening to your bandmates lay down a good solo.
Although Edgar’s book is relatively short, with 180 content pages, it will take you a while to get through if you’re always pausing, like I was, to check out his citations of copious musical examples, whether the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom”; or pianist Hank Jones and bassist Charlie Haden’s album of spirituals and gospel, Steal Away, which I have owned for 20 years (check out their medley of “Abide With Me/Just As I Am Without One Plea/What A Friend We Have in Jesus,”); or perhaps the most moving example I looked at, Nina Simone’s recording of Billy Taylor’s spiritual “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” which showcases gospel with jazz flourishes.
Edgar combines the roles of musicologist, pianist, and theologian in a way that proves illuminating and provocative for both an understanding of jazz and the gospel. Of course, the gospel can be understood without jazz, but Edgar’s contention is that jazz cannot be properly understood and appreciated without seeing how the gospel influenced its origins and development and its message: “If jazz aesthetics is the product of deep misery followed by inextinguishable joy, then a principal generator for this aesthetic was the Christian message” (72). Of course, there are thousands of “messages” that can be derived from the corpus of jazz, but I think Edgar makes an excellent point about a major meaning that can be drawn from the music. Edgar quotes Terrence Richburg as saying, “The improvisational element of both Jazz and Gospel render them the most precise conduits for rendering the kind of spontaneous praise to God referenced in Psalm 150. There is also a breaking down of language barriers which allows Christian Jazz artists and musicians like no other messengers sent by God to reach those in that community who have not yet come to a point of belief in Christ” (150–151). Edgar does, I believe, make his case that there is a substantial connection between the gospel and jazz, and that it is illuminating to study the two in relation to each other.
For those interested in a complimentary source to Edgar’s book, there is a YouTube video from 2009 where he gives a lecture on an earlier version of this topic, interspersed with his impressive piano playing, as well as a video from 2022 with him discussing this book.
Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University. He has played upright bass in a jazz quartet, Cardinal Number, since the early 2000s.
Book cover courtesy of InterVarsity Press.
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