A Review of
A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
In San Francisco, you can visit the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. With jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as its patron saint, the church features services that mix sermons with jam sessions, and the album A Love Supreme features highly in spiritual formation. Even putting aside theological questions, the story is unique, and certainly jazz and Christianity have not always had such a formal connection. In his new book A Supreme Love, William Edgar argues that jazz is, in fact, deeply intertwined with the gospel (though probably not in a Coltrane-as-saint sort of way). He explores the history of the music and the impact of Christianity on it as he shares his love for it. In the process, he hopes to help readers and listeners understand the music better, see its connections to the gospel, and ultimately “hear…the love of God” (15).
Much of Edgar’s work hinges on the concept of “resonance.” He doesn’t argue that jazz simply is influenced by the gospel or that jazz tells the gospel story or anything so simple. Instead, he writes about “the deep resonance between the good news of Jesus Christ…and the movement from sorrow to joy found in jazz” (179). In his view, “jazz is best understood in light of the gospel. 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” (2). With this framework, Edgar follows broad thoughts in finding connections between his two passions.
Those broad looks let Edgar argue that “the music cannot properly be understood without some familiarity of the Christian message” (15). Convincing readers of that point could be a difficult task to undertake. Jazz, after all, has its associations with secular behavior, with speakeasies and drug use. You’re far more likely, of course, to hear Hillsong than Andrew Hill during a typical Sunday morning service. Much of Edgar’s work, then, serves to show the historical, cultural, and religious ties between the gospel and jazz music. Showing the music’s roots in Christianity helps give the music more context.
There’s a valuable but more implicit point in Edgar’s work, too. The secular and the sacred shouldn’t be so separated. Edgar has written more directly on general culture before (in Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture) and does recover that ground here, but readers can take away the idea that they are free to bring their faith into their “non-religious” activities. Listening to jazz music (or, I’d contend, other forms of popular music) doesn’t need to be cordoned off as a secular activity. Understanding its history with the gospel may help listeners feel comfortable in allowing it to resonate with their own faith.
That history, as Edgar shows, begins with slavery and the African diaspora. The most compelling point of connection between jazz and the gospel through A Supreme Love remains the movement from “deep misery to inextinguishable joy,” and few human activities have caused as deep a misery as the slave trade (20). The first third of the book covers the era of slavery, looking at the inhumanity of the time as well as the Black music and theology that developed in the antebellum United States. Edgar covers a number of cultural elements that would play a role in the rise of jazz.
He follows that section with several chapters on background genres, particularly focusing on spirituals, gospels, and the blues. This section reveals the book’s strengths and weaknesses and highlights its target audience. For a book on jazz and the gospel, it takes an unusually long time to get to the specifics of jazz and the gospel. True the background work carries true relevance, but it feels like both an important primer and an overlong introduction. The effect, for both better and worse, is to pinpoint the target audience: those readers with enough interest in jazz to want to learn about its history and spiritual background but without so much experience with the genre that this material feels unnecessary. A Supreme Love might struggle to help aficionados connect their faith to their music by taking too long to get to the meat of the work.
And that meat provides a good meal. Edgar tackles jazz proper through a series of key figures. The fact that they vary in their faith shows how the music itself has a tie with the gospel. His brief overviews of each artist provide welcome insight into the musician’s lives and work, and his recommended listening could be its own highly enjoyable syllabus.
As informational and engaging as this section of the book is, it does make a particular delineation of jazz. Edgar shows most interest in traditional, canonical versions of the music. Pointing listeners to Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige and “Come Sunday” makes complete sense and shouldn’t be skipped. Edgar struggles to see (or is maybe space-limited in the attempt to see) the gospel in jazz music that doesn’t fit his main paradigm. He’s uncomfortable with free jazz, and a simple slip points to his disregard of the style when he gives Ornette Coleman’s fourth album the wrong title (calling Change of the Century by the name Giant Steps, one of Coltrane’s albums). Usually a slip like this isn’t worth pointing out, but it shows how Edgar’s argument finds less secure footing in more experimental and, often, more modern jazz work. It would be interesting to see how the art of players like Jason Moran or Robert Glasper fit into this conversation. More challenging, Edgar could take on some less traditional acts that still fit under a broad jazz grouping to see if the music’s Christian roots still show (or if something about the experimentation moved them out of the category altogether).
Edgar also could do more to show how jazz and gospel resonate, beyond simply history and the movement from misery to joy. Straightforward recordings of religious tunes are obvious and Edgar does a fair job of tackling “secular” pieces, as well, but he doesn’t address what makes them work. Melody? Chord progression? His knowledge of jazz allows him to clearly explain formal elements of the music, so it would be exciting to see him go deeper. Some of this work – maybe for a different book – could explore more intricate connections. Edgar mentions Charles Gayle, for example, but doesn’t explore the manner in which his profound religious views explicitly drive the sort of music he creates. Readers may want to follow up with a more academic text like Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion by Jason C. Bivins.
To be fair, those sorts of issues may be beyond the scope of Edgar’s current work. A Supreme Love is best understood as a targeted work that introduces readers to key ideas and shares Edgar’s own joy in both jazz music and the gospel of Christ. It’s a smart, informed book, and if it comes with a self-imposed circumscription, that may be more a feature of its focus than anything else. With clarity and efficiency, Edgar provides a solid introduction to an engaging topic.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.