William Edgar, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel

William Edgar, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, IVP Academic

It was a balmy summer’s evening on the South of France and my two young daughters, both clarinettists in their school jazz band, were excited to go with us to hear the legendary Herbie Hancock play in the chic resort of Juan-les-Pins. It was outdoors, the constructed amphitheatre right beside the Mediterranean and the sun was beginning to set. Perfect. Well, not quite. Herbie Hancock came on to rapturous applause, then proceeded to sit with his back to the audience and, without speaking at any stage, played the most inaccessible jazz you could imagine. C’mon Herbie, we begged, just play one or two of your hits. Nothing doing, and one by one, two by two, the audience drifted away. I think we stayed to the end, but I found it, well…excruciating.

Now I can swing with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong with the best of them, think Ella Fitzgerald is quite wonderful and appreciate Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis. And maybe… a little Thelonious Monk. But once we get to the bleeding edge of jazz, this barbarian is left a little cold and puzzled.

So when William Edgar talks about jazz being an expression of joy or finding in it the love of God or says that Christian faith is the “rhythm that plays in the music of jazz”, my experience of some expressions of jazz make that take on things a little hard to appreciate.

Anyone who reads a few of the posts on this site, or indeed, my own book, The Gospel According to the Blues, will quickly realize that I’m all for making connections between faith and music. While there may be legitimate connections to be made – in the lyrics or perhaps the function of the music, or the context in which it arose – it’s a mistake, in my view, to try to bless the music in some way or see it as an explicit expression of the gospel. In the case of the blues, I have always tried to recognize the dark side of the music, the artists, the environment – the misogynistic lyrics, the violence of the juke joint, the drugs and alcohol – alongside the many positive aspects of the music and its role in black communities and in the wider world.

I was, then, a little surprised to find such a wholly positive evaluation of jazz by the author. The title of the book, A Supreme Love, reflects that of the 1965 album by American saxophonist, John Coltrane (A Love Supreme), considered generally to be his masterpiece and expressing a deep spirituality. For Edgar, a theological college professor, accomplished jazz musician and jazz aficionado, the title expresses his own affection for the genre.

Also rather surprising is the fact that it is not until more than a hundred pages in that Edgar begins to discuss jazz in earnest. That leaves only him about seventy pages to explain what jazz is, its history, and to properly address his thesis, that jazz might be thought of as reflecting the gospel.

Before that Edgar wants us to understand the roots of jazz, both in its musical antecedents and the social situation which gave rise to it. Fair enough. So the first part of the book consists of chapters that give a short history of slavery in the United States, musical responses by slaves, the spirituals, the blues and gospel music.

The historical context is, of course, important and Edgar concisely summarizes the suffering and oppression of the African American community in which the blues and jazz grew up. The music is impossible to understand without such an understanding. In addition, the music’s antecedents are important to note – jazz is an urban music that assimilated a number of genres not least ragtime, which Edgar highlights in his chapter on how jazz came into being.

Once Edgar turns his attention to jazz per se at this point in the book, he outlines the emergence of the music, pointing out the importance of the cultural melting pot that was New Orleans and highlighting a number of early artists, like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Although Edgar notes that Bolden, often credited as the first jazz bandleader, was part of a “shouting congregation” church, and it seems that Bolden drew inspiration from religious music, it should be noted his trombonist said that “he used to go to that church, but not for religion…he went there to get ideas on music.” His trademark song was Funky Butt, the lyrics of which were obscene and at times provoked riots. Edgar is content to mention in broad terms the church involvement.

Accounts of Bolden’s performances (sadly we have no recordings) portray him as a great showman and crowd-pleaser. At this stage in jazz’s development, anyway, Edgar is right is asserting the joy and delight of the music, which it undoubtedly was to those who first heard it.

As he takes us through the broad progression of jazz through the decades, Edgar tracks the various expressions of spirituality or faith in various jazz musicians, noting in particular John Coltrane who credited God for his transformation from alcohol and drugs and whose music “pursue[d] a true spirituality.” He notes very briefly the social commentary and protest that have been a feature of jazz at various times.

That this is discussed so little surprised me, given, as Ted Gioia notes “how much social protest, disruption, and irreverence got embedded into these entertaining songs.” And also, given the justice theme right throughout the scriptures and in the gospel. Discussing the ways in which both jazz and the gospel address issues of justice and oppression would, I think, have been a more fruitful line of enquiry. There is plenty in the history to see; Benny Goodman’s promotion of desegregation; Goodman, Artie Shaw and other white bandleaders hiring African Americans long before America viewed that as acceptable; Louis Armstrong’s criticism of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to enforce school integration; the way in which Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers with her voice and at times commented directly on racism. And so on.

It is telling with regard to the idea of this-worldly justice that Edgar takes time to note his disagreement with James Cone, theologian and advocate of Black theology, whose ideas about freedom he thinks are “insufficiently spiritual.”

Edgar writes in an easy-to-read, engaging style and overall gives a brief overview of the roots of jazz and its history. His own love of the genre shines through and for those new to jazz it is a good primer. He helpfully provides a list of recordings associated with each chapter so you can dip your toe in the various streams of the genre. And overall, he provides an intriguing look at the way in which we might encounter elements of Christian faith through the medium of jazz.