Reviewed by: George C. Hammond
A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, by William Edgar. IVP, 2022. Paperback, 224 pages, $22.80 (Amazon). Reviewed by OP pastor George C. Hammond.
Although jazz will probably never regain the popularity it enjoyed in the early twentieth century, the fame of Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, Postmodern Jukebox, and the collaborative projects of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are witness to a resurgence in the interest of jazz. Recent books such as Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography by Janna Tulla Steed and Getting the Blues by Ligonier’s Stephen J. Nichols indicate that there is a connection between this music and Christian spirituality.
Riffing on the title of an iconic John Coltrane album released in 1965, Edgar’s book is the most recent in the genre of books on jazz and spirituality, although he himself is no newcomer to the topic. With an undergraduate degree in music from Harvard University, after graduating from Westminster Theological Seminary, Edgar spent time in France pursuing more theological education while working as a gigging jazz musician. While Edgar has always had an interest in the history of jazz and Christian spirituality, born as it was out of the Black experience in America, that history has never been of more interest to the dominant culture than it is today.
Believing that it is impossible to really understand the music apart from the context in which it developed, Edgar spends the first of the three parts of the book tracing the history of the cruelty of chattel slavery, the short-lived promise of emancipation, and the disappointment of Jim Crow. He speaks about the conversion of slaves (sometimes in defiance of the Black Code laws) who were able to see the beauty and hope of the gospel even through the ugly distortions of the slavers who often justified their sin in Jesus’s name.
Part two traces the musical developments that led to jazz through spirituals, gospel, and the blues, along with the feeders of work songs, marches, minstrelsy, and European music to arrive finally at the jazz that was birthed in New Orleans in the early twentieth century, and which quickly “went viral,” not only around the United States but also around the world.
Part three deals with jazz proper in its birth and evolution. Edgar does not try to draw a straight line from the Christian faith to jazz (and says one can’t be drawn) but argues that the ever-present themes of deep sorrow and suffering leading to a deep and abiding joy that characterize jazz cannot be understood apart from the message of the gospel, which gave hope to a people who saw themselves as living in bondage in Egypt. Although some of the early jazz musicians were confessing Christians, not all were; yet “there is a far deeper connection of jazz and the Spirit than can be traced to individuals. There is something about the music itself that is profoundly connected to the truths about life and the truth found in the Christian message” (168).
Thirty-six years ago, Edgar wrestled with “How Does Music Mean?” (Taking Note of Music, Third Way Books, 1986). He reasoned there that music is not linguistic and that it draws its meaning from its context. Within its context, however, music has profound meaning. In the book being reviewed, he argues that the meaning of jazz cannot be known apart from its context, and its context is incompletely understood apart from the influence of the Christian faith, which recognizes the evil of oppression but does so with a defiant joy.
This book will have limited interest. The book is more history than theology, and the spiritual connections will not be well grasped by those who do not have a knowledge of and love for the music. But for those who do, and especially for those who have read Steed and Nichols, this book is a must read.
Click here for a second review of this book by Stephen M. Michaud.
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