William Edgar’s new book, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, is itself a work of love. Edgar, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, describes himself as a “decent amateur” of jazz who has played, studied, and written about it not from any career aspirations but out of a lifelong attachment. He is an amateur in the truest sense of the word’s origin, the French amateur: “one who loves.” This affection spills out of the margins, inviting readers to dive into a subject presented with joyful attention to detail and collegial warmth.
The book is a friendly read, dotted with Edgar’s own asides (“In my opinion, this was the best of his albums” or “Personally, I don’t think this is quite true”) like a friend sharing opinions about a concert over a drink. But the love of jazz is far from Edgar’s sole motivation. He writes, “By knowing the historical roots of jazz and by being better listeners, I believe that we will hear something that is deeply embedded in jazz: a supreme love—the love of God.”
This affectionate approach does not preclude academic rigor. The book presents a comprehensive and deep account of both the historical and technical aspects of jazz, as evidenced by its extensive engagement with important works of jazz scholarship. Edgar proceeds chronologically, from jazz’s origin in African diaspora music to the development of its “background genres,” namely spirituals, gospel, and the blues. Readers will come away better informed about the history of jazz, including its central figures, internal debates, and present innovations.
Edgar’s own proficiency at jazz also shines through with his attention to what makes jazz musically distinctive, from the structure of 12-bar blues to the parallels in form between ragtime and sonatas to the performance techniques of Miles Davis. Indeed, so thorough is the book’s recounting of the history and ongoing development of jazz that, for certain stretches, readers might be tempted to imagine that its theological interests are an afterthought. Yet in the end, Edgar’s greatest passion is the gospel itself—how it lives, sometimes disguised or obscured, at the heart of jazz.
From misery to joy
The influence of the Christian story on jazz is perhaps most evident in its earliest stages, upon which Edgar focuses most heavily. The book’s first half covers the development of jazz before 1900, depicting a distinctly African American style of music that drew inspiration from the experience of slavery. This section highlights one of the book’s most striking aspects: its unflinching narration of the connections between the development of jazz and the history of slavery and racism in America.
Edgar makes it clear that the history of jazz is the history of the oppression of Black people in America, as well as the history of their persistent resilience, protest, and occasional triumph. Readers who bargained for a brief introduction to what they regard as elevator music will be disappointed.
Instead, we see a forthright account of the injustices visited upon slaves paired with insights on the use of music as a tool of paternalistic oppression by slave owners intent on convincing themselves that slaves were happy. But we also see how jazz was employed subversively: to give directions on the underground railroad, sing about freedom and inextinguishable hope, recall the drums of an almost-forgotten homeland, and sometimes stymie slave owners just for fun.
Edgar delves into the way members of the African diaspora used elements of their cultural heritage to create music all their own, birthing a tool of protest and a form of defiant joy. The language of this defiance drew on biblical themes, reflecting the shocking conversion of many slaves to Christianity. This is the context, Edgar argues, from which jazz derives its characteristic “movement from misery to joy,” which evokes the deep injustice African Americans experienced while joyfully asserting their humanity in a world that constantly denied it. He goes so far as to describe the blues themselves as a form of theodicy.
A Supreme Love emphasizes the theological dimensions of jazz, and Edgar is determined to see a connection between jazz and the gospel. There are many ways one might go about evaluating whether, or to what extent, this connection exists. Should we look to the biographical details of influential jazz figures? Examine how the form of jazz might lend itself to theological metaphors? Explore the lyrics of jazz music?
Edgar engages with each of these facets, offering a holistic account of how jazz might communicate or evoke gospel truths. He points out that many key jazz figures came from deeply religious backgrounds. Even among those whose connection with Christianity was somewhat fraught, he notes, there remained a stubborn spiritual impulse, a sense that music expressed, revealed, or opened something divine to them.
Likewise, Edgar offers close readings of many lyrics, indicating how frequently they engage biblical themes and how even those that concern ostensibly secular subjects suggest patterns of sympathy toward a Christian worldview or the wisdom of Scripture. His more sustained theological engagements with jazz rest on two central ideas: the coexistence of joy and sorrow in jazz as a parallel of Christian hope in a broken world, and a confidence in the goodness of creation that makes all our experiences, including jazz, fertile ground for encountering and worshiping God.
In the tragedy and triumph of African Americans, as expressed in jazz, Edgar sees an analog to the gospel. As he writes, “Both the sorrow and the joy found in jazz resonate with the deep pain and the incredible hope that stand at the heart of the Christian faith.” In this way, Edgar goes to great lengths to honor the experience and pain of African Americans.
There are, however, dangers in this approach. At one point Edgar describes the early developments of jazz music as a “bright spot in the midst of bondage.” Though Edgar would never intend to imply that the former justified the latter, statements like this jeopardize the book’s moral credibility; it is unacceptable to countenance any argument that could seem to justify slavery because it helped bring about a genre of music. Indeed, it is easy to see this inadvertently playing into the very tropes that Edgar rightly condemns of the slave as a happy, entertaining individual.
To his credit, Edgar observes that “a good deal of caution is called for” in drawing these connections. But it seems to me that the stakes of such comparisons are so high they are probably better left undrawn. Although jazz may be a good thing that came out of great evil, no one should entertain the possibility that it went any way toward redeeming the atrocities of slavery and segregation. It is a mistake the size of a needle, through which an entire camel could surely fit.
In my view, the stronger theological thread tying the book together is its natural theology of jazz. Traditionally, natural theology explores the ways in which the natural world itself might, through common grace, communicate something about God. At its best, Edgar’s book acts as a sustained natural theology of jazz, attending to how the hope of the gospel might be perceived through a particular musical form.
As Edgar argues, none of this requires that jazz mention God or explicitly evoke the hope of the gospel, because, as he puts it, “everything somehow belongs to God.” He even goes beyond theologian James H. Cone’s notion of blues as a “secular spiritual,” rejecting its implied separation between the sacred and the secular and insisting, in the psalmist’s words, that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1).
Giving jazz a chance
In this sense, jazz, like all creation, can reveal something of God’s love and character. However, it seems that Edgar goes even further, suggesting something essential in jazz—something in the way it evokes the “deep misery and inextinguishable joy” of life—draws us to a gospel that encompasses both the tragedy of the Cross and the improbable triumph of the Resurrection. When we pay attention, Edgar suggests, jazz shows us new dimensions and textures of this reality; and when the gospel shapes us, we see it clearly in jazz.
And Edgar does want us to pay attention to jazz. The goal of the book seems not merely to inform readers about the rich and varied history of jazz, to reflect on its theological implications, or to observe its continual evolution in the present day. Instead, Edgar invites us to consider enjoying jazz as a form of spiritual practice.
Consider the book’s closing lines: “Have I at least given it a chance? Growing to love jazz may take a lifetime. Yet it moves—and moves us—from deep misery to inextinguishable joy. There is no greater love. A supreme love!” For Edgar, paying attention to jazz, giving it a chance, means opening ourselves to an art form that carries within itself the gospel of hope. To attend to it is to draw close to the origin of that hope: love. He hopes we will love jazz too.
And with such a warm and knowledgeable guide, readers will feel compelled to explore the riches of jazz—if not for the first time, then at least with a fresh perspective and renewed enthusiasm. I know I certainly have.
Joy Marie Clarkson holds a doctorate from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She is the author of Aggressively Happy: A Realist’s Guide to Believing in the Goodness of Life.
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224 pp., 22.8
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