From Deep Misery to Inextinguishable Joy
By Tim Nicholson

Dave Brubeck said that jazz stands for freedom. Bill Evans said it was a feeling. Miles Davis famously called it social music. And George Gershwin wrote that jazz is the voice of the American soul. 

In his latest book, “A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel” (IVP Academic, 2022), Westminster Seminary professor William Edgar will tell you that jazz is a journey from deep misery to inextinguishable joy. He will tell you that the weight of Christian theology and the movement of the gospel from misery to joy were crucial elements in the formation of jazz as an American art form.

Edgar is, himself, a jazz pianist and also a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I joined him for a brief conversation around his new book.

Tell me about the intersection of being a seminary professor and a jazz musician.

It’s a happy marriage of two seemingly different worlds that actually overlap quite a bit. In theology, aesthetics has a large place, and in jazz there is a theological component at work. The two have worked very nicely together.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

The gestation period for this book has been long. I’ve been a jazz musician and a thinker about jazz for 40 years. The audience is meant to include people who don’t know much about jazz, people who want more details about where jazz comes from, and skeptics of jazz who need to be converted. I don’t think anything quite like it exists. Steve Turner and Hans Rookmaaker have written some wonderful stuff on jazz, but some of that is dated. At the very least, my book is an update. 

You mention Rookmaaker a fair bit throughout your book. What can you tell me about his influence on this particular work?

In my early days as a Christian, I had two mentors: Francis Schaeffer, who led me to the Lord, and Hans Rookmaaker, who guided me through aesthetics and relating jazz to theology. I had always thought there was a relationship, but he made it clear how and why. Rookmaaker wrote a book in 1959, originally in Dutch, called “Jazz, Blues, and Spirituals: The Origins and Spirituality of Black Music in the United States” (P&R Publishing, Feb. 5, 2020).William Edgar

Rookmaaker would come to L’Abri, where I was living, and give lectures on the nature of jazz, the origins of jazz, and the difference between jazz and what he considered to be popular or bourgeois music. We became friends, visited often, and I even played in his living room. His book was originally published in Dutch and is dated in many ways, and there are some ways I’ve come to part company with him. Rookmaaker was a wonderful pioneer, and I’m grateful to him for opening up the field, but he would also be the first to want application and development of his views and even corrections when they are necessary.  

You mention that Rookmaaker’s favorite jazz musician was King Oliver and that you consider Duke Ellington to be America’s greatest composer. Who are a few of your other favorites?

Well, I go through phases where I listen to the same person for weeks on end and then move on to another phase. Duke Ellington is always there; Erroll Garner, the great pianist; Art Tatum, the greatest pianist of them all; and then so many soloists like Charlie Parker and Lester Young. One of my current favorites is a guy who’s still alive, and I’ve dedicated the book to him. The Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander, who combines jazz, imagination, island music, profundity, uplift, and he happens to be a Christian, so he’s celebrating God’s presence in the music. I have so many favorites, and tomorrow it will be somebody else.

You’re not shy about approaching racial tension and explaining  how the misery of American slavery provided fertile ground for spirituals to form, and later created space for gospel, blues, ragtime, and more. Does the history and message of jazz have redemptive lessons for us today? 

There are many lessons around race. All good jazz has a deep sensitivity to suffering and human misery. It is sometimes hidden and sometimes stated explicitly. The blues are a music about human suffering. Jazz is very artistic, but it’s also joyful. That highlights the fact that we can have both misery and joy. You can have beauty out of ashes, and jazz uniquely presents that. I don’t know other genres of music that do that in quite the same way. 

Jazz started as and still is a sort of popular music. It never began as elitist music in the concert halls. It came from the people, emerging out of the cotton fields and sometimes out of lowlife New Orleans and so on. The best jazz is connected with earthiness and is connected to people expressing their heartfelt cries through music. I suppose Beethoven does that, but by the time you get to Beethoven, it’s so sophisticated. So much jazz is unsophisticated in the sense that it’s not written down, and you generally don’t go to a school to learn it. There are schools of jazz, but most of them are pretty academic. It became an art form over the years because it just wouldn’t be ignored as an art form, even though it never left its popularity.

I mentioned Monty Alexander. He never went to school, and he can’t read music, but the stuff that he plays is right from the traditions of the best jazz, and it’s not modern in the sense of rebellious free-form jazz, but it’s modern in the sense that it has never quite been done that way before. That is the essence of jazz — making something that comes from the people and eventually into an art form without losing the rootedness of it. 

You mentioned Beethoven, and that made me consider sonata-allegro form from the classical era, which thematically traces a sort of home-away-home pattern. If we see echoes of this misery to joy even in classical music, how does jazz trace a similar redemptive journey?

So much great music is home-away-home. And by the time you go back home, the new home is a much richer place. So it’s a journey that takes you from where you’ve been to where you ought to go. That doesn’t make jazz unique. What makes jazz unique is that the medium is mostly improvisation. It’s not entirely spontaneous, but it comes from the heart, on the stage, and in the moment. Whereas Beethoven’s music is written down. It was concert music in a contained form.

The best jazz is connected with earthiness and is connected to people expressing their heartfelt cries through music.

Jazz is much more open-ended than that. And in that way, I think it is more in line with the human experience. Like much good music, it’s a journey, but unlike all music, it is highly improvised with conventions that are unique to jazz. The best jazz is collective improvisation, where each musician is in conversation with the others. You don’t always know where each is going, but the best musicians know how to converse and complement each other.

I can hear you outlining some of the personal, relational elements within jazz improvisation. Are there also unique redemptive elements found in the improvisational character of jazz?

Theologically, I’m from a Kuyperian tradition that says “God created,” and the world was full of possibilities that were not yet realized. It was essentially virgin territory that required human beings to cultivate. Sadly, the Fall colored that in a negative direction, but it didn’t eliminate the cultivation element. Jazz, like good music from any style, is a cultivation of material that is there to be improvised and there to be cultivated. As long as you keep the creator/creature distinction firm, I think that human creativity does reflect God’s own creativity in some ways. 

What about the use of jazz in church?

I think the style itself can work anywhere, and particularly in church, but I don’t think much of it qualifies as worship music. My take is that jazz should be a style that helps worship like any style does. There are no sacred definitions that ought to be kept aloof. So in my little band of yesteryear, we did a lot of what we called gospel jazz. The lead composer in our group is a vocalist named Ruth Naomi Floyd, and she writes both older spirituals with new jazz accompaniment and new music that is not related to spirituals directly. We have used some of that in church quite a lot.

I spent some time studying music in Hungary, and the only American music I came across in that time were American spirituals. What about the use of spirituals in church?

Spirituals, not in spite of but because of being connected to slavery and human suffering and yet generating hope out of that, are an amazingly powerful art form. They are simple, and they riff on biblical themes that we don’t always think about. 

Spirituals are a favorite music all over Europe. In France, where we used to live, it was gospel music. Some of it was spirituals, but a lot of it was an Aretha Franklin sort of gospel music. If you brought a gospel choir to a small town in France, you would always get a big audience. What is it about that? It’s got authenticity. It’s got a kind of realism that some popular music doesn’t have. As long as it’s authentic.

Even at the very beginning when spirituals left the work fields and began to be spread around the world, something was lost. The Fisk Jubilee Singers coming out of Fisk University were a marvelous initiative. They sang all over the world including for Queen Victoria, and she was deeply moved. Well, it’s good stuff, but it’s written down, and it’s not as spontaneous as some of the spirituals. Now, an exception — or is it just a different mode — might be Aretha Franklin when she went back to the church under her dad’s ministry. She sang spirituals and gospel in a completely authentic way. “Don’t Weep, Mary” is so moving you can’t stand it. She just has the spirit that’s there. Mahalia Jackson as well, who was a good friend of Duke Ellington. There was a great authenticity that came out of the fields, and it wasn’t lost in those performances. 

The jazz artist Jon Batiste recently won five Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. What do you think about Batiste’s music?

I like him a lot. He’s got that combination of professionalism and spontaneity that I think should carry forth in the jazz tradition. I used to be fairly pessimistic about the future of jazz, but then I listen to these guys like Jon Batiste or the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and it’s the real thing. They have really caught on the spirit of the thing. I think there’s a real future as long as we don’t try to put it in a can. I’m a little wary of jazz departments at universities, even though I’m grateful for them. It’s so easy to put jazz in a can and just say, “Here’s the way to do it,” but then you lose the spontaneity. 

I first saw Batiste perform at the Newport Jazz Festival. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a jazz performance with so much joy. I’m trying to take that and put it into my generation, a group that doesn’t have enough joy. Can jazz help us today as it traces that movement from misery to joy?

Batiste is a real apostle, and he gives some hope because he’s not that old. You said it, and it’s the theme of my book, “from deep misery to inextinguishable joy.” You can’t take a shortcut to the joy, because it becomes happiness instead. You also can’t dwell in the sin without becoming morbid. Jazz is that journey that goes from one place to the other. 

You mention quite a few historical events throughout your book. How do those fit together to tell the story of jazz as a genre?

What is it about the human spirit that cannot be silenced? I think about the slaves who were forced to dance to entertain the White people. It was subversive because they danced, and they knew it was manipulative and propagandistic, but they decided to be creative anyway and subvert the whole process. There is such a thing as good subversion. Duke Ellington played at the Cotton Club, which was a unique place. Audiences were White only, and performers were Black only, and it was run by gangsters. Duke was asked to play “jungle music,” which is so demeaning. But instead of saying no, he agreed to it and then gave us incredibly creative sounds that maybe somehow came out of the jungle, but most likely did not. Jazz has this ability to deal with heavy oppression and yet emerge with an authenticity the oppressors can’t deal with. 

In the book, I mention an incident at the place in New Orleans called Congo Square, a historic open space in the city’s Louis Armstrong Park. Congo Square was a place Blacks would come to drum and dance. At one point, the town fathers had gotten wind that dance can incite riot, and they became extremely cautious. At one point, the fathers forbade dancing in Congo Square.

Spirituals, not in spite of but because of being connected to slavery and human suffering and yet generating hope out of that, are an amazingly powerful art form.

The Black leadership went to the town fathers and said, we’ll obey you, but what do you mean by dancing? The fathers decided that dance is when you cross your legs, so the Black people invented all of these extraordinary dances where they didn’t cross their legs, but they sure moved. You can take oppression and either throw it out or work with it to subvert the thing. That’s what I think the best of jazz has often done. 

Good subversion, and this may be a stretch, but I think God subverted the human race by sending Jesus Christ to be a man and to endure human suffering and human experience in order to subvert death. That may be a stretch, but I think there’s something to that. Other music also has elements of subversion, but jazz does it par excellence.

 What would you say to someone who either doesn’t like jazz or perhaps just doesn’t even know where to start with listening to jazz?

Let’s introduce them to the best jazz and why it’s such a beautiful art form. Many people will come at jazz with prejudice around [its] coming out of brothels or that it incites immoral behavior, and you can find jazz like that, but most of it is a rich art form that came out of a consciousness of contributing something unique to American culture. 

For others, jazz is this forbidden monolith that has led people away from deep aesthetics. I haven’t always succeeded, but I often tell friends, “If you want deep aesthetics, listen to Duke Ellington’s Sacred Suites!”

We are really talking about human nature and how it’s easy to get stuck in cultural traditions. This doesn’t just happen in music, it happens in so much of life. Everybody has their default favorite music. For some it’s Handel, and for others it’s Bach. I listen to Handel and Bach a lot, but I don’t want to get stuck in a culture that says, “This is God’s music,” and folk masses or Duke Ellington’s Sacred Suites are not.

William Edgar is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His latest book is “A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel.” 

Tim Nicholson is director of music at Covenant Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee.

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