Deep Misery to Inextinguishable Joy

29 May 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, William Edgar.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.  Softcover, 207 pages.

It was Ross Porter’s fault.  Back in 1993, he started hosting a radio program on CBC called After Hours.  The program began at 10:00 PM, just as I’d get off work at the local service station.  I’d walk home, turn on the CBC and eat my supper listening to jazz.  That’s when I first learned to love this genre. 

Taste in music is subjective, I know.  But if you’re like me and appreciate jazz, you’ll love this new book by William Edgar.  Even if you don’t yet appreciate jazz and you’re musically curious and open-minded, this book could open up some new horizons.  A Supreme Love is not only a great introduction to the history and aesthetic of jazz, it also explores the connections between jazz and the Christian faith.

I doubt anyone is better suited to write a book like this than William Edgar.  He is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.  He’s also a jazz pianist and composer.  He’s lectured on African-American aesthetics and the history of jazz. 

A Supreme Love traces the background of jazz in the African-American experience.  In Part 1, Edgar skilfully summarizes the tragedy of slavery and how it led to the development of various musical themes and genres.  Part 2 explores the “background genres” of folk, spirituals, gospel, and blues.  Part 3 gets into the origins of jazz itself.  Edgar notes:  “The traditional view is that jazz was born in the red-light district (Storyville) and much of it in brothels.  Yet more recent research calls this account into question” (p.108).  Regardless of its origins, there’s no question that today jazz is as much “art music” as is classical.  Part 3 reveals how jazz divided into other sub-genres such as bebop and cool. 

There’s one linking thought through all these chapters and it’s how jazz “owes a great deal to a Christian worldview…” (p.2).  Edgar isn’t arguing that jazz is “Christian” music, but that you can’t appreciate it fully without understanding its Christian roots.  Like the salvation story embedded in the Christian worldview, “the jazz aesthetic moves from deep misery to inextinguishable joy” (p.19).  Edgar argues, and he makes a good case, that “There is something about the music itself that is profoundly connected to the truths about life and the truth found in the Christian message” (p.168).    

To get the maximum benefit from A Supreme Love, you’ll need to read it alongside YouTube on your TV or device.  One of its features is the mention in the footnotes of many musical pieces that can be found online.  This helped introduce me to some great works that I’ve never before encountered, including a beautiful mass by Dave Brubeck entitled To Hope.  Check it out:

The appendix provides even more listening suggestions.

Edgar is both a practitioner and aficionado and his enthusiasm is contagious.  There is one instance where I think his enthusiasm leads to possible overstatement.  In chapter 12, he states that jazz was possibly “an important contributor to the fall of communism in 1989.”  I’ve heard of pop music playing that role, but not jazz.  Unfortunately, there’s no footnote or other substantiation to support this claim.

Sadly, so much contemporary popular music is superficial, not to mention vapid, puerile, and obscene.  Jazz has always been a refreshingly different genre, and it still is today.  If you want to understand it from within a Christian worldview, read Edgar’s A Supreme Love.  And if you don’t appreciate jazz already, maybe he’ll put you on to it.

Originally published in Clarion 72.7 (May 19, 2023)