A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, by William Edgar. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022, xiii + 207 pages, $24.00, paper.

At its best, jazz music is a profoundly enriching experience for anyone willing to wade through its remarkable sound world. While there are numerous books to guide the reader into a better appreciation of this vibrant art form, there are none to the reviewer’s knowledge which seeks to bridge the connections between jazz and the gospel. Enter now this fascinating new book on that very subject by someone uniquely qualified in both fields as a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and a practitioner of jazz piano: Dr. William Edgar. At the very least, the author hopes that his book will inspire those unfamiliar with jazz to investigate its treasures. But whether the reader is initiated or not in the world of jazz, Edgar’s main purpose is to show that this music cannot be appreciated in its deepest sense without some understanding of the Christian message.

Perhaps for some readers, even those with a penchant for higher art forms, the topic might be approached with some skepticism. After all, what link (if any) could exist between the biblical story and the highly improvisational, harmonically complex, rhythmically swinging maelstrom that is jazz? Edgar would argue (to adapt the words of the apostle Paul), “Much in every way!” Not only is jazz a deeply meaningful style of music in its own right, but it also can help a Christian better appreciate the beauty of Christ’s gospel, insomuch that both the sadness and elation of jazz evoke themes sounded in the story of redemption.

To proffer this intriguing thesis, Edgar first helpfully defines for his reader the key characteristics of jazz, then lays out the groundwork for aesthetics. Counter to the notion that aesthetics must always set forth joy and imitate an idealized plane of beauty, Edgar argues, “An aesthetic quality is an artful way to understand a particular narrative” (12). Obviously, not all events and experiences in this fallen world are happy ones, but a good aesthetic will seek to portray in artistic form a variety of experiences, whether joyful or sorrowful, in a way that exhibits imagination and craftsmanship. Even if a jazz practitioner (or listener, for that matter) is not Christian, the powerful and varied themes of human experience conveyed in jazz are congruous with and indeed dependent upon the Christian worldview contained in the Scriptures. The author sets this notion forth even in the title of his book, A Supreme Love, really a pun on the landmark jazz recording by saxophonist John Coltrane, A Love Supreme—an album remarkable for its musical progression from sorrow to profound joy. With the awareness of both the history of jazz and these key elements, the thoughtful listener will be led to reflect on the Man of Sorrows as he endures the agony of the cross leading to the joy of the resurrection.

In the first main part of the book, the author provides the historical context in which jazz was both born and developed, beginning with the heart-wrenching diaspora of the slaves in Africa and the songs which expressed the sadness and misery they experienced, beginning with the spirituals, then developing into blues and jazz. Edgar reminds the reader that Africa figured conspicuously into biblical history, offering the examples of Israel in Egypt, the Queen of Sheba and her visit to Solomon, Jesus’s flight to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, and the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts, not to mention later church history. The author then offers a cogent, biblical critique of modern slavery as “man-stealing”—a practice severely forbidden in the Old Testament (see Exod. 21:16). The faulty justification for the horrific inhumanity of modern slavery, according to Edgar, is paternalism, which he describes as the “colonization of the soul”: i.e., subjugating the slave in both mind and body, thus denying his human dignity under the assumption that the slave both needs and profits from a slaveowner; in actuality, this was a way for the slaveowner to maintain privilege. It was this very dehumanization, however, which found expression in such “Psalm-like” laments as the well-known, moving spiritual “Nobody Knows,” a fitting example of the pained beauty which can emerge from bondage, very much like Psalm 137—a lament borne out of the forced captivity of the Jews, who were singing God’s song in a foreign land. Edgar notes that while much of today’s contemporary (mostly white) Christian music expresses “happiness,” this is to be distinguished from the “joy” in much black music, which has protested oppression and affirmed survival through the crucible of suffering. As Edgar states the contrast so well, “One has tried to come directly to the banquet table, and the other has travelled there through the valley of the shadow of death” (45).

At this point, the author takes up the question as to the degree in which the gospel has infiltrated jazz in a more self-conscious way. While many times the intentions of white people in leading slaves to Christ were morally suspect, the influence of Christianity on the slaves has nevertheless been well documented. In support of this, Edgar quotes the scholar Dena Epstein, who, after a comprehensive investigation into the subject, concluded, “One can hardly overstate the importance of conversion to Christianity in the acculturation of blacks in the new world” (48).[1] This is not to say that biblical themes have always been applied uniformly by the black community; for example, Martin Luther King Jr. focused on redemptive themes chiefly as the basis for social justice, while Malcom X stated that “the gospel had become so White as to make rejection of the church a necessity” (53). But in Edgar’s estimation, it was the story of the Son of God in His death and resurrection which was most responsible for drawing the black slaves to the gospel—a gospel which figured prominently in both the slave narratives and in Black music with its melancholic expressions of present misery coupled with the joyful hope of future freedom and ultimate rest in heaven.

In the second part of the book, Edgar covers the background genres of jazz, getting more deeply into the characteristics of jazz in its various forms. The author sees resilience as its key component, both in protesting oppression and offering “an alternative to a culture of White preeminence” (64). To the present reviewer (a drummer, no less!) one fascinating example the author provides of such protest is the use of spoons, washboards, and even the human body (“hambone” and eventually tap-dancing) to create rhythmic sounds after the “Black Codes” forbade the use of drums which had been part of the slaves’ former communal life in Africa. Humor also played an undeniable part in the protest, both in some of its lyrics and sounds (e.g., the “wah-wah” sound of a trumpet produced by a plunger or the quoting of other music sources during improvisation), but the author reminds the reader that this was to express joyfulness during suffering rather than to convey the trite notion of the “happy performer” (68).

Particularly moving to the heart of Christian readers will be Edgar’s chapter dealing with the advent of spirituals, giving poignant accounts of the “hush houses” or cabins in which the slaves would meet secretly to hear the preacher expound God’s Word. It is from these hush houses that some of the most mournful and affecting utterances of music were born. The author gives numerous wonderful examples, but, to whet the appetite, this reviewer will provide one example given in the book: from the spiritual “On Time God,” the following magnificent line appears, “God don’t come when you want him to, but he’ll be there right on time” (80). A separate genre to the spiritual is that of gospel music; whereas the former is more traditional and focused on the theme of misery, gospel music is a later development with more of the emphasis on joy, generally having a livelier and more “up-beat” character. Throughout this section, Edgar provides numerous examples which the reader can further investigate on his own. Yet another background genre covered in the book is blues, with its emphasis on faithlessness, abandonment, and loss. While hope is not always explicitly stated, the author nevertheless argues for the presence of hope “in the fact that one can sing at all” (91). While some would argue that blues music is entirely secular, having reference only to the sadness of severed bonds outside of church, the author would agree with Pierre Courthial, “There is no proper sacred-secular distinction, because everything is sacred” (97).[2] That is to say, even though blues music does not always directly reference the Christian worldview, it makes no sense apart from it, especially in the shared emphasis of both the permeating presence of sin in the world and the desire to rise above it. The author draws parallels between the blues and the “laments” in the biblical Wisdom literature; following Ruth Naomi Floyd, he even suggests that Jesus’s cry from Gethsemane that the cup of suffering might pass from Him “could be considered a blues prayer!” (99).[3]

The third and final section moves on from the background genres which shaped jazz to jazz itself. The author begins his evaluation of jazz history proper with ragtime, traces its development in New Orleans, moves on to its first legends (e.g., Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington), noting the Christian faith of several of them. The book then moves on to the phases of jazz (what the author terms its “midlife”), including both swing music (e.g., Benny Goodman and Glen Miller) and bebop (e.g., Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie). Although bebop, with its more complex harmonic structure and rhythms, was considered controversial at first, it still maintained a basic continuity with the song forms and “bluesy” elements of older jazz styles, while demanding a high degree of technical virtuosity in its improvisers. Attention is then given to the pioneering work of Miles Davis with his cool jazz / hard bop innovations, taking his leave from the diatonic (which is any stepwise sequence of the seven “natural” pitches—i.e., the white keys on a piano) and venturing into modal music. Unlike the older styles, with modal jazz there is no longer a need for the chords to resolve themselves. Eventually, Miles would experiment with electric music, fusing together elements of rock with jazz.

Upon giving this short but helpful survey of jazz, Edgar returns to his argument that jazz is best understood as reflecting in musical form the gospel of Christ. While obviously a jazz composer / performer might not be self-conscious of such a connection, examples are provided in the book of those who were more deliberate in accentuating the gospel in their music. He then highlights John Coltrane, that most preeminent figure in jazz, as one who achieved a spirituality unparalleled in jazz music. Although Coltrane himself seems to have been universalistic, Edgar favorably quotes the assessment of Salim Washington, “Coltrane’s music was ultimately a meditation upon the joy and beauty that is possible in human life through knowledge and understanding of reality and devotion to goodness” (157).[4] The bottom line for Edgar is that regardless of the particular style of jazz, there exists a powerful metaphor for the misery of the human plight, the cry for deliverance, and the joy at “the end of the road” (170); thus jazz, when appreciated, will resonate in those who desire to worship the living God in Jesus Christ.

In the very last chapter, the author surveys what he calls the “seven joys of jazz” (172): its bluesy ambiance, its strength, its invention (improvisation), its swing, its sense of conversation, its rural folk roots, and the influence of the Christian message, particularly in what the author calls its “resonance” between Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection with “the movement from sorrow to joy found in jazz” (172). The book ends with a helpful appendix of YouTube links providing an opportunity for the reader to listen to the various facets of jazz referenced in the book.

Dr. Edgar’s fascinating work fills in a significant gap in the literature dealing with jazz. For those looking to expand their cultural horizons in general, this volume will prove to be a stimulating read. For jazz aficionados who are also Christians, their sense of a sacred-secular dichotomy will be challenged, fostering the hearing of this music in a more meaningful, even “devotional,” way than before. Finally, this book could provide an excellent gospel contact with jazz fans who do not know the Lord. Its excellent explanations of aesthetics, coupled with its intelligent historical analysis of the black experience in America, transcend the topic of jazz and would be of great benefit to any reader. Highly recommended!


[1] In Dena J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 100.

[2] Pierre Courthial, emeritus dean of the Reformed Seminary in Aix-en-Provence, France, in personal conversation with William Edgar.

[3] See Ruth Naomi Floyd, “Blues,” in It Was Good: Art to the Glory of God, ed. Ned Bustard (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo, 2013), 191–98.

[4] Salim Washington, “Meditations on Coltrane’s Legacies,” Institute for Studies in American Music Newsletter. Vol. 31, no. 2, (Spring 2002).

Stephen Michaud is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and serves as the pastor of Pleasant Mountain Presbyterian Church in Bridgeton, Maine. He has also performed professionally for many years as a jazz fusion drummer. Ordained Servant Online, March, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: March 2023


Also in this issue


The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Communicating in the Electronic World with a Christian Voice, Chapter 2

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4A

Ambiguities in Book of Discipline 9.1, Standing Revisited

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 3: The Importance of the Devotional Life

What Do We Do with Modern Art? A Review Article


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