Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

A conversation with Bill Edgar - S11.E2


WORLD Radio - A conversation with Bill Edgar - S11.E2

The music of jazz and the hope of the gospel

Photo courtesy of iStock

WARREN SMITH: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with musician and scholar Bill Edgar. Today, we’ll be talking about music, jazz in particular, and its relationship to the Gospel.

BILL EDGAR: In one way, we know a lot about the origins of jazz. We know about the precursors, we know about spirituals we know about the blues marching bands. In another way, we're not quite sure why it all came together at the beginning of the 20th century, or how it all came together.

WS: Jazz has been called the only distinctively American art form. Most historians of jazz are quick to note its roots in the African American experience. In slavery. Jazz cannot be understood apart from an understanding of what has been called America’s original sin.

Theologian and musician Bill Edgar makes the case that if slavery is America’s original sin, jazz is an important cultural expression of the Gospel message. Just as jazz cannot be understood outside of an understanding of slavery, neither can it be understood outside of the gospel. Bill Edgar notes that jubilation and beauty of jazz bear witness to a joyful reality of the Christian experience: That while sin leads to death, the Gospel leads to life.

Dr. William Edgar is professor of apologetics and coordinator of apologetics at Westminster
Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Today we'll be talking about his latest book, the one we’re discussing today, is A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel. Bill spoke to me from his home near Philadelphia.

UNDERWRITING SPOT: Now We Live invites and equips Christians to propel faith into action. This free, worldview Bible study will spark rich discussions about some of life’s most foundational questions. These six videos from Summit Ministries offer life-on-life discipleship for churches, small groups, and families. Get free access today at summit.org/listeningin.

WS: Bill Edgar Welcome to the program I gotta say I found your book A Love Supreme really nourishing. I'm, I'm not the kind of jazz guy that you are. Obviously, if we can talk a little about your musical background here, in a little bit of fact, I hope we will. But I am something of a fan. And I just found the book nourishing and helpful and really knowledgeable when it comes to jazz. So thanks for the book. Appreciate it very much.

I'm so please, I enjoyed writing it though. It was quite a labor of love. And I have thought about these things all my life, and I didn't realize how much research still needed to be done. So I was glad to get it all done. And there's more I could have said, but thanks for those words.

Well, there was a lot of research in the book it was learned, shall we say? I mean, after all, you are a professor and in that showed up, but I found that extraordinarily accessible and helpful and reader friendly as well. And I especially enjoyed the short biographies that you had some of the key players in the, in the jazz.

Yeah, that was that was good. You know, some of the credit for this goes to my wonderful editor, David McKnight, at InterVarsity press. He said, You know, you oughta do this you oughta do that you oughta put this guy in and he was almost always right.

Well, I sure found it enjoyable. But before we get to some of these biographies, because there are a few that I think we obviously we can't process every single biography and every single idea that you talked about in the book. But I do, there were a few figures that are particularly important to your thesis, and I want to talk about some of those. But before that I want to talk about what I came away thinking was the thesis of your book, and you say it pretty early on, which is that jazz cannot be understood, apart from the Christian message. And then you go on to say, again, very early in the book, maybe on page one or two, that jazz, that the Christian worldview is embedded in the origins and history of jazz, and that jazz is best understood again, in the light of the gospel. First of all, am I getting you right? Is that your fundamental, maybe your foundational idea in this book? And when did you arrive at that conclusion?

Ah, well, those are two different questions. Yes. Is the short answer to your first question. That's certainly the theme of the book. And as I reiterate several times, I think the essence of the gospel message that is captured by jazz is the, let's say, narrative that moves from deep misery because of oppression to inextinguishable hope. I first, this might be of interest came up came to this conclusion through a unusual Dutch art historian, who in the early 60s, was at a community called Labrie, which is what where I stumbled as a young man and became a Christian. He, in addition to his work in art history, was kind of a European expert on early jazz. And there's a lot that I kind of quarrel with in some of his views. But I think fundamentally, he was right that there's a connection there's an affinity between early jazz and basic Christianity for reasons that are explained in the book.

Well, this man you're referring to is, you know, it's funny, Bill, I have known about him for most of my adult life, but I've never heard his name pronounced out loud. So I want to say Rookmaaker. Is that accurate or close to

Yeah Rookmaaker. In Dutch, it means smoke maker. And he was a partner of Francis Schaeffer and came off and came to Laguna and he became a very good friend, and we had him in our home when we moved to America. And he was, he considered himself a sort of mentor of mine, which is fine. When I had a jazz band, he would send me you know, music and tapes and say, This is what you need to sound like he was a bit dogmatic but delightfully so.

Yeah. Well, just to kind of integrate some strands of the rope here. So you encountered Rookmaaker. I'm gonna I'm gonna keep them mispronouncing your probably at Labrie, he ironically, a European became an aficionado of this distinctly American art form jazz, he was able to articulate the relationship between jazz and the Gospel. At you were taking all of this on board at the same time, you are a musician yourself. You were studying piano study playing jazz music. Is that accurate?

Yeah, that is accurate. I don't know, if I'm a very good musician, but I love music. And I've, I've run a jazz band for most of my life. And Rookmaaker took an interest in our jazz band. We have a little more modern taste than then it was suitable to him. But he very much thought that what we were doing was an appropriate Christian activity.

Yeah. Well, I think you're being a little modest. I know John Patitucci. A little bit the the amazing bass player. In fact, I've had him on this podcast before. And if you were able to, if you were on the stage with John Patitucci, which I think you said at one time, you were


That's, that's all the boat a few days you need for me. As far as I'm concerned.

I made a CD, a fundraiser for Chesterton house. And I was honored to play with John. And I sent it to a friend of mine, actually the guy that I dedicated the book to. And he said, Bill, you kept up with the pros. Well done.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, it is well done. I heard a couple of years ago, I heard John Patitucci and Phil kaigi at Carnegie Hall in New York, just the two of them on stage. And it was, it was one of the most, shall we say transcendental music experiences that that I have ever been a part of. But anyway, that we wander a field, let us come back, shall we say, to your book, and you quote, Jelly Roll Morton several times in your book, near the beginning, but also later on, whenever you actually kind of do a biographical sketch of jelly roll. He said, This ridge that "rejoice at the death and cry at the birth. New Orleans sticks pretty close to the Scriptures." And that that kind of some I would say, semi famous quote, If you're not, if you don't know who Jelly Roll Morton is or you don't not much of a jazz fan, you might not have heard that quote, but but you know that that quote, in some ways reiterates what you just said as well that that jazz is born of this deep suffering. This jazz is born out of the brokenness of the world. And of course, the fact that the world is beautiful, was made beautiful, but is broken is a obviously itself a Christian idea. So so when you cry at the birth as Jelly Roll, Morton said you are acknowledging that that beautiful, but brokenness, broken nature of the world. But when you rejoice at death, you are celebrating the hope that death is not the end. And so in many ways that that quote, personify or is emblematic of your notion that that jazz and Christianity are intimately related. Can you say more about that?

Yeah. Well, thanks for picking that up. You know, you wouldn't expect a pianist from the barrel houses, though, a very good one, to be so profound, philosophically. But a lot of these extraordinary black musicians were raised in the church and had a Christian consciousness. I think that one of the times I've quote this as in connection with the music of the funeral march or the marching band, and there there's a almost metaphorical pattern. When the body is celebrated in the church, in the coffin, the band, they all these societies that people belong to, had orchestras and it would play music of lament. bluesy, kind of meditations on the sadness of life. And then they would march on out of the church into the grave site. And then when the body was interred, suddenly the band lit up into joyful music. Lord, didn't he ramble or the saints or whatever it might be? And I think Morton grasped that metaphor extremely well.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, and in that sense, too, they are modeling the Psalms are they not? I mean, if you read the Psalms, you will discover that many of them begin as laments, and it, you know, the I'm being, you know, significantly reductionistic and simplistic and when I say this, but it's also many of the Psalms say things like, you know, the world is a broken place my enemies have, have, you know, one over me, and yet God is good, and yet I trust in the Lord. And yet the, you know, the Lord is sovereign or whatever. In other words, this this, this juxtaposition of the brokenness of the world, and the lamentation, that should be a proper response to that brokenness. But then later, the joy of the hope that we have, it's in jazz, it's in New Orleans jazz, specifically, but it's also in the Psalms, it's, it really comes from scripture, is that fair to say?

Yeah, that is absolutely fair to say. Many of the psalms are exactly the way you say it. Psalm 13, which is begins very darkly, where are you, Lord? Why are you treating me this way, ends up by saying, I will rejoice. It's not just God is sovereign, but I can enjoy him. And we're not entirely sure what led to this transition, maybe God's track record, maybe the Exodus. But this psalmist, who was deeply spiritual knew knew this God, and was realistic enough to say, there's dark periods where I feel Heaven is silent. And then at the same time, I can't leave it there. So that's, that's the jazz message. And, you know, early enslaved Africans pick this up in, in their church services, in their praise houses, in the sermons that were spoken by evangelists. And it took no difficulty for them to identify with this because of their own experience.

Yeah, you know, Bill, I want to pivot in our conversation, but explore a little bit, some of the more aesthetic ideals in your book and ideas in your book and the ideals in jazz. And I want to do that by talking, asking you to say a little bit more about a couple of just, you know, quotes that you had in your book, one again, very near the beginning of your book. And I want to say this in the context of you, you are a theologian, you are at Westminster seminary, you are specifically a reformed theologian. So I know you take Scripture very, very seriously. And you have a very high view of, of, you know, when when you use words that have theological, meaning, like the word miracle, for example, I know you don't do that glibly, or flippantly, and yet you say that jazz is one of the miracles in the history of music. Can you say more about that?

Yeah. Um, in one way, we know a lot about the origins of jazz. We know about the precursors, we know about spirituals we know about the blues marching bands. In another way, we're not quite sure why it all came together at the beginning of the 20th century, or how it all came together. It did. And so I call that a miracle. It was a small m. And I related to, let's say, Renaissance art, or impressionist painting, which were explicable in a lot of ways, but absolutely beyond the bounds of human reason. So I think, to be theological about this, it's an extraordinary gift of God. And we don't explain God's gifts. We can say a lot about them, but we can't rationalize them. So that's for me what what jazz signifies it's a marvelous, surprising miracle. That has lots of roots and explicable origins, but in the end is it's just a gift.

Yeah, yeah. I want you to say also, Bill a little bit about and I'm not sure quite how to get get you to what, I'm not sure exactly what I'm asking for here. But maybe there's a question in this somewhere that you talk about aesthetics, you talk about beauty, you talk about values. And, you know, we can talk about the roots of jazz being in the gospel and in the church in many ways, and yet I think we also have to, you know, understand that while one foot was in the church, one foot was in the brothels as well and you are not you don't shy away from that. You think that Maybe maybe that that story of jazz as coming out of Storyville and the brothels of New Orleans is maybe a little bit overblown, but But you don't deny that that is at least a part of the, of the roots of jazz. So, and then we've got the lives of some of these people, we've got Jelly Roll Morton, who, you know, articulated, in some ways, a fairly clear, biblical understanding of the world and of jazz, and then you've got others whose lives were not in any way, shape, or form worth emulation or worthy of emulation. And yet, they're all a part of this jazz scene. How do you, in your own mind as a Christian believer, as a theologian, as someone who teaches theology? How do you hold all of these disparate ideas in tension? And in Unity?

What a question? Well, in many ways, most of the great jazz musicians were flawed heroes. Flawed, because they had passions that were not particularly sanctified. They played some of them in these brothels, as I argue, many of them didn't want to, but they did, because it was the only way to do it. But some of them just played because that's the place that people responded to jazz. And, you know, that's something that we ought to teach our kids is, I don't spend a lot of time in brothels don't spend any time in brothels. But recognize that even there, there's a bright light, there's an image of God, humanity shows forth countless stories of how Christians ministered to not only prostitutes, but pimps and so forth. And because they knew that they the cause was not entirely lost. One of one of my great heroines is Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And she took the extra step of playing in these places. And when she was criticized for it, she said, I can preach the gospel anywhere, her style was gospel oriented. So this is a no ways to justify the seedier side of Storyville, and the reality of you know, life and these barrel houses. But it's just to nuance it with saying, nevertheless, heroes were there, they were flawed, but they came out of it. And gave us this incredibly beautiful form of music, which in some ways owes its realism, to that to the life in the barrel houses, not to justify it, but to say, you know, that's where jazz comes from. One of the one of my little biases is that, although I think universities today have excellent jazz programs, and I have benefited from them a lot, the danger is in Academic Presentations of jazz, to forget, it was born in the trenches. And if you want to understand it properly, you gotta go down there. Get down and dirty. So I don't know if that answers your question. But what was my position very nicely.

Yeah. Well, it does help answer the question and you say, you know more about that in the book. And one of the things I really appreciated since you mentioned, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who, who, who you do devote a few pages to in your book, I want to kind of do a lightning round of some of the folks that that you also profiled in the book and with an eye towards you asking, you know, how, you know, their music or their work related back to this idea that, that you're, you know, that is the theme of your book, which is that, that you can't really understand jazz, apart from understanding the gospel message. And we're gonna have to skip over a lot of the greats like Louis Armstrong, for example. And, and probably Duke Ellington, though I've got a quick question or two about Duke I want to hit you with. But let's start with King Oliver. King Oliver in some ways. I mean, a lot of folks know Louis Armstrong, a lot of people know, Duke Ellington, and maybe coming forward Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Kin Oliver is in some ways, the granddaddy of them all, and not quite as well known to modern folks today. Is that fair?

That's very fair. He was just the most noble, delightful godly person, played an astonishingly pure form of cornet, and he was a bandleader and a pied piper. It was through him that pops Armstrong got his place in the sun. And then he went on to do his own music. One of the people that turned me on to King Oliver was Rookmaaker. And in one of his books, he quotes, letters that he wrote on his deathbed, to his sister, and they're just full of godliness full of Christian piety and hope. So he's, and if you listen to him today, you get, let's say, the old okay recordings. You'll be astonished at the purity, the clarity, the electric nature of his style, his improvisations were always guarded. But they were they were there, he played freely. So I think you're right. He was one of the pioneers of jazz unsung, by all who, except for the experts. And you asked musicians, like pops. And they'll say, Oh, I owe him everything.

Yeah. There's, as you also mentioned, that one put in may have been where Pop's Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were in the recording studio together. But I can't remember now you'll have to refresh my memory of this, where they actually stood close, like 18-20 feet away from the microphone, because they both played so powerfully, am I remembering that story, right?

Yeah, he did. Well, in those days, recording industry at the art of recording wasn't nearly as developed as it is now. So they had one or two live microphones that had to receive everything. They didn't have little, you know, amps all over the place. And that's right, these two great trumpeters played clearly, resolutely, not I don't think too loud, but too loud for the primitive recording devices. And it's amazing that they were able to succeed the way they have some of these old recordings. You know, they're they're rough, scratchy, but they they're remarkably balanced considering the technology.

I want to move forward just a little bit, I said, we wouldn't have time to talk about maybe some of the big ones. But, Duke, I do want to mention Duke Ellington for a couple of reasons. One is that Duke Ellington in some ways, popularized jazz, helped popularize jazz with a white audience. And Duke Ellington also famously said that, you know, that there are only two kinds of music, there's good music and bad music. And in some ways that that simple statement, in and of itself really defines, in my view, what a Christian worldview related to art should encompass is, you know, is it, is it good? Or is it not good? And that we don't think so much about you know, how many uses of the word Jesus per minute in a contemporary Christian music song, for example. Can you say more about, about Duke and again, that I characterize his role in this in the development of jazz properly?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he is probably my greatest hero of all, even though you don't want to rank them. You know, he was an intriguing character, one of the flawed heroes had the greatest gift for orchestration, arrangements of he could take musicians that didn't seem to go together and they did. He was compared to an artist who puts colors together that shouldn't be there. And that works beautifully. He didn't like the word jazz. This is really interesting. He thought, people who use that word, tied it so closely to racial origins, that they didn't see the the universal beauty of it. Now, he was very conscious of race. A lot of his music is a proclamation of racial injustice and what needs to be done about it. But he didn't want jazz to be pigeonholed as a kind of racial stereotype. This is what these people do. He wanted music to be truly universal. And the result shows that it was his music was universal. People from all kinds of backgrounds came to listen. He had spots at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall, and was listened to by people all over the world who some of which didn't know much about the music we call jazz. So his his desire was to have an aesthetically transcendent and integral music that was nevertheless, also entertaining, entertaining and fun.

Yeah. Well, it's, it's, and I want you to, I maybe getting you wrong here on this bill. But you also make a point at various places in your book. And I think maybe when you're talking about Duke Ellington, you might be might be one of those places is that you say that not only was jazz coming along in the 20th century, early 20th century, but you had composers like Stravinsky, and Ravel and Schoenberg and others, who were also kind of revolutionising classical music as well. And that they were listening to each other, or at least the jazz guys were paying at least some attention to those composers. Am I remembering that right? And is is that is is is that an important idea in the development of jazz?

Yeah, you're remembering it absolutely right. Um, Duke had a great respect for the major, we call them classical composers of his day. And, and a lot of them had a great respect for him. You know, Horowitz came to hear Art Tatum because he couldn't believe what he was hearing. And it worked the other way around. Ravel wrote pieces about jazz that jazz musicians came to love. So there was what would you call this a symbiotic relationship between the various forms, and the various genres, which is incredibly important for the development of jazz.

Since we're on the subject of Duke, I can't resist just a little aside here. You did not really spend any time talking about Billy Strayhorn, who was one of Duke Ellington's longtime collaborators. Was that just a function of and I know, there's been some controversy about whether Billy Strayhorn actually wrote a lot of they are a lot of the pieces that we attribute to Duke Ellington and there's been sort of a revisiting of some of the authorship claims, both Strayhorn and Duke Ellington over the years. Where do you where do you come out on that I can't resist?

Well, the only reason that he's not mentioned much in the book is space. An extraordinarily great and sensitive musician. Duke respected him enormously, but he also sometimes failed to give him credit where he should have. You know, some of the greatest masterpieces of, of Dukes were actually written by, by Billy, by Strays as we call him. And he was gay and had a difficult life. But he, you know, there, there's been, as you say, increasing attention to him and his role. Some biographies have come out, a film came out. So you cannot overstate the importance of Billy Strayhorn and his partnership with Duke

Yeah, we're gonna have to leave out a whole lot of people and a whole lot of ideas, Bill in your book, but I did want to fast forward a bit to Dave Brubeck because, Dave, Dave Brubeck is I mean, again, I'm going I'm skipping over Miles Davis, I'm skipping over John Coltrane, skipping over Charlie Parker to get to Brubeck. But there's a reason I want to do that. And that is that, that in some ways, Dave Brubeck also played a role in popularizing jazz with a broader audience with an audience outside of jazz songs for example, like, you know, take five actually became hits that album, if I remember right, the album that take five was on it take five was actually written by Paul Desmond. But was was the first I think it was the first jazz album to sell a million copies if I'm remembering right?

Might be yeah, timeout. Certainly was the first album if not the first song to sell over a million. Yeah.

And, and Dave Brubeck was also a committed Christian. He wrote, he wrote what we might call sacred music. And once again, you see that the sort of the river of jazz while it winds in you know, twists and turns, it can never really fully leave its relationship to the gospel.

Yeah, well said. If I could do a commercial here, a new relatively new study on Brubeck has come out by Steve Crist, a marvelous pianist in his own right, head of the music department at Emory. It's called timeout. And he shows without preaching, how you can't understand Dave, without understanding the role of the gospel in his life. I had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times. I went to a concert of his in New York once. And among other things, they did some of his sacred music. So I went up to talk to him, and he couldn't have been nicer. And he said, Yes, I've written more sacred music than any other kind. Some of it is so so some of its really good. And, yeah, he's, he's just a remarkable man. And because he was white, and had a classical affinity, sometimes the black musicians didn't properly recognize and honor him. But others did. Miles Davis loved him. Lennie Tristano hated him and he was white. So, he was controversial only because I think of his skin color. And the classical hue of some of his playing. You know, it wasn't as gutsy as, I don't know, Erroll Garner or others but remarkable man, he's, he only left us recently, as did his wife Yola, and I think we're gonna take years and years to call his legacy.

Yeah, yeah. In fact, I wrote an appreciation of Dave Brubeck whenever he died for World Magazine a couple of years ago. And we'll try to link that in the show notes to the story to this podcast episode rather. Okay, Bill, I've taken so much of your time, but I've got to just sort of, I can't resist a couple of little kind of like, like random lightning round questions. Number one is, I want to know what you you know, we mentioned John Patitucci, who is both a committed Christian and a jazz player at the highest level. We've got other people out there in the world, Charlie Peacock, Kirk Waylum who, who are in the contemporary have been in the contemporary Christian music world, but are also jazz players. I would say though, that with a very with, with those exceptions, are those, you know, men, named in probably a very, very, very short list of others. We don't see a lot of Christian musicians or certainly not the contemporary Christian music industry, or, or even the praise and worship world embracing jazz very much. Do you think that's a problem? Is that is that a weakness? Is that an impoverishment of our life as Christians?

Of course. I think it's a major, major gap. Let me answer your question in pieces. There are more committed Christian musicians than we might think. You know, people don't know Cyrus Chestnut very well. But he's a church musician. Aaron Deal, Monty Alexander that that, you know, sometimes their faith is quiet. And it's understated. Like Hayden and others, but it's there. Eddie Thigpen, one of the greatest drummers of all time. Every Sunday, he was in Philadelphia, he played in his church. So point number one, there are more than we think. Point number two, jazz and contemporary Christian came up into very separate cultures. I was going to say tribes. My friend, Monty Alexander, to whom I dedicated the book. He, you know, he grew up in the 60s and he we're the same age and he said, he knew almost nothing about rock'n'roll. Of course, he knew it was a phenomenon. And he'd heard of Elvis but he was in the jazz world. And you can ask white, contemporary gospel people, what they know about jazz and you get a very mixed review or ignorance, a lot of ignorance. My sweet wife grew up without much jazz and when she met me, I made her come to some clubs. And she said, Oh, that's jazz? Oh, I love it. Yeah. So there's they're really in separate universes, which is, as you said, it's a great impoverishment. Because we can learn so much from from each other.

WS: You’ve been listening in on my conversation with Bill Edgar. His new book is “A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel.”

A quick word before we go. A couple of the musicians we discussed on today’s program – jazz bassist John Pattatucci and guitarist Phil Keaggy – have been guests on Listening In. Another great jazz player, Dave Brubeck, was not a guest, but I wrote an appreciation of him ten years ago, when he died in 2012 at the age of 91. If you want to dig deeper into the relationship between jazz and the gospel, I recommend checking out these pieces. Just go to the WORLD News Group website – wng.org – and use the search engine at the top of the page.

Listening In
comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many podcasts and publications available. To find out more about our complete family of products visit WNG.org.

Join me next week for a conversation with Katelyn Beaty. Her new book is “Celebrities For Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting The Church.”

The producer for today’s program is Paul Butler. Johnny Franklin is our technical producer. Production assistance from Lillian Hamman. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….

UNDERWRITING SPOT: Now We Live invites and equips Christians to propel faith into action. This free, worldview Bible study will spark rich discussions about some of life’s most foundational questions. Watch Summit Ministries’ worldview video series for free at summit.org/listeningin. These six videos from Summit Ministries offer life-on-life discipleship for churches, small groups, and families. Get free access today at summit.org/listeningin.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.