A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.
Summary: A study of the roots and contributing streams of jazz music, proposing that the reason jazz moves from miserable lament to inextinguishable joy is the Christian hope found in the gospel.
This book had me from the title. I recognized the allusion to one of the great jazz albums of all times, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. And I found myself intrigued by the idea of the connection between jazz and the Christian gospel. That connection did not seem readily apparent for many years, my associations being of performances in speakeasys and clubs. Then I had the chance to perform some of Duke Ellington’s Sacred Songs with a local choral group, learned about the spirituality of Coltrane in his later life, and listened to some of the sacred works of Dave Brubeck.
William Edgar’s book shows the connection going far deeper, and further back. Most know that jazz is one of the gifts that has come out of the Black community. Edgar, who is both a theologian and an accomplished jazz pianist, traces it all the way back to the Middle Passage experience and the centuries of slavery. He writes:
How could the music that grew out of the realities of the enslavement of Black people, forced migration, rape, husbands and wives being separated, and children being ripped from their families not reflect this suffering and pain? If, as I will argue, jazz is the story of deep misery that leads to inextinguishable joy, then we cannot ignore the sources of sorrow that are found at the root of this music, from spirituals to blues
to jazz. (Edgar, p. 27)
As noted, a theme running through the book is the idea of deep misery and lament that leads to inextinguishable joy. Edgar traces that misery to the deplorable conditions of slavery, but also notes the strange and miraculous reception of the Christian gospel despite the iniquities of Christian slave owners. The biblical narratives of physical and spiritual bondage and emancipation resonated deeply as did the movements from lament to praise in the Psalms.
All of this found expression in distinctive forms of music and dance drawing upon both African culture and the musical forms found in various parts of the South. Edgar traces several different streams arising, beginning with spirituals, then gospel, and finally the blues, all of which contribute to jazz. Edgar connects the “lining out” used to teach words with the “call and response” character of the spirituals, the use of spirituals as code on the Underground Railroad and the popularizing of spirituals by the Fisk Jubilee singers. Gospel is more complicated with roots both in nineteenth century revivalism in the white Southern church and a parallel movement of Black gospel music beginning in the 1920’s, one of the most significant figures of which was Thomas Andrew Dorsey, known for the song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Meanwhile the blues arose around the work songs and “sorrow songs” of the plantation experience. While the connection with biblical faith may not be immediately evident, Edgar notes the connections with the laments of scripture, even noting the similar uses of parallelism.
The third part of the book focuses on jazz itself. Edgar traces its immediate origins to ragtime, stride piano and the music of New Orleans, introducing us to some of the greats of early jazz from Art Tatum, Buddy Bolden and James Reese, Louis Armstrong, “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Duke Ellington. He discusses their music and their spirituality. From “Jelly Roll” Morton, we get the dictum, “Rejoice at the death and cry at the birth: New Orleans sticks close to the scriptures,” another example of the sorrow to joy theme. He goes on to discuss the “midlife of jazz” in bebop and cool, focusing on “Dizzy” Gillespie, Charlie Parker and the great Miles Davis. The two following chapters then draw more specific connections of jazz and the gospel or spirituality in the life of jazz musicians offering examples from the work of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Duke Ellington, jazz pianist Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, and others. Not all would be considered orthodox Christians by any means, but evidence of the hope of the gospel may be found in their work, according to Edgar.
The book concludes with Edgar’s seven joys of jazz: its bluesy ambiance, its strength to climb, the element of invention, the concept of “swing,” the solidarity of jazz musicians in which performances are conversations in music, the great art that arises from earthy roots, and finally the joy out of deep pain that Edgar attributes to the influence of the Christian message. I suspect some will want to contend this last, but Edgar’s cumulative case of history, contributing streams, and examples from some of the signature jazz greats offer a good explanation for the element of joy that distinguishes this music. I also found it interesting that Edgar contrasts the joy of this music with the “happy” feel of much White evangelical music. Jazz is rooted in both a more profound experience of pain and a more profound hope.
Edgar makes this argument without being polemical. I felt like I was in a jazz appreciation course, being invited to understand and appreciate and truly love the music Edgar loves. And he helps us cultivate that love as well. He includes a nine-page appendix of links to YouTube videos of performances by various artists organized by sub-genres and time periods. What a great way to introduce oneself to jazz in its various expressions and to explore for oneself the “supreme love” that Edgar believes is the source of the great joy in jazz.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.