Online Conversation | Jazz, Hope and the Gospel with William Edgar and Carl Ellis
Jazz music has the power to express the deepest meanings of life. Its rich history and distinctive elements like improvisation and syncopation reflect the complexity and richness of the human experience. In his new work, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, theologian and jazz pianist William Edgar traces the development of jazz within the context of the African American experience and argues that the music form cannot be properly understood apart from the context of the Christian gospel.
On Friday, August 5th at 1:30pm ET, we hosted an Online Conversation with William Edgar and Carl Ellis, professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary. They discussed the way jazz encompasses the movement from deep lament to irrepressible joy, reflects the creation of harmony out of chaos, and presents the unique hope of the gospel. We are sorry that Ruth Naomi Floyd was unable to join us for this conversation, due to the train strike in England.
Thank you to Fetzer for their support of this event
Online Conversation | Edgar + Ellis | August 5, 2022
Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for this Online Conversation with Bill Edgar and Carl Ellis on “Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel.” I’d like to thank the Fetzer Institute, whose grant support has helped make this program possible, as well as the anonymous donors who contributed today. And a particular welcome to our nearly 100 first-time and international guests. We so appreciate you joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. And send us a note in the chat feature. Let us know where you’re from. And speaking of whereabouts, one of our original guests today, the extraordinary Ruth Naomi Floyd, has been waylaid by the train strike in England and sadly will not be joining us today. We had the opportunity to talk with Ruth last summer about jazz—encourage you to check out that Online Conversation and hope to host her again. So, Ruth, you are missed and we wish you safe and speedy travels.
If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to provide programs and resources like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers.
For all of you who are returning participants, thank you. We really appreciate. This is actually our 73rd Online Conversation since the pandemic began. And we’ve had the opportunity to talk about all kinds of subjects ranging from curbing the culture war to reading for regeneration, fear and conspiracy, suffering and meaning. And today we’re going to discuss all that jazz.
Jazz has been called the one truly original American art form, the baseball of music. It was born from the African American experience, fusing African culture and ritual sounds, spiritual songs, and classical music, and fed by spirituals, field songs, gospel, blues, and ragtime. It’s the music of lament, of protest, of endurance and resilience and creative improvisation amidst uncertainty and hardship. It is also, as our guests today will argue, an art form embedded with a supreme love and a deep hope. In holding the history of Black people in America, and through its unique syncopation and improvisation, jazz evokes both the deep misery and the inextinguishable joy of life, and draws us to a gospel that includes both the suffering of the cross and the joy of the resurrection. It’s a fascinating argument, and it’s hard to imagine someone who can make it with more theological gravitas or effervescent love for the music than our guests today, Dr. Bill Edgar and Dr. Carl Ellis.
The Reverend Dr. Bill Edgar is a professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and, I am quite proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. He has spent much of his career developing and applying the tradition of covenantal apologetics to several different research interests, including cultural studies, Huguenot history, African American music and culture, the question of theodicy, and aesthetics. He also runs a professional jazz band which specializes in gospel music and has toured internationally. Dr. Edgar has published more than 20 different books, including his most recent book, A Supreme Love: The Music of Jazz and the Hope of the Gospel, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Joining him is Dr. Carl Ellis. Dr. Ellis serves as the Provost Professor of Theology and Culture at Reformed Theological Seminary and Associate Pastor for Cultural Apologetics at New City Fellowship. After receiving his doctorate from Oxford, he served as the president of Project Joseph, the Dean of Intercultural Studies at Westminster Seminary, pastored a church in Chattanooga, and co-founded the Makazi Institute to train the next generation of high-level cultural analysts. He’s authored numerous books, including Free at Last: The Gospel in African American Experience and Saving Our Sons.
Bill and Carl, welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Bill Edgar: Thank you so much. It’s an honor.
Cherie Harder: So as we get started, I’d love to hear from both of you and maybe starting with you, Bill: how did you come to love jazz?
Bill Edgar: Well, it was in my family. My mother had two requirements for her two boys, me and my brother. We needed to learn how to swim and ride the waves because we lived on a beach, and we needed to learn how to dance to jazz. So I have childhood memories of her pushing the furniture out of the living room and putting on records, you know—it was the old swing stuff—and showing me the steps. And I just grew to love the rhythms, the music, the improvisation. And then later, when I was in high school, there was a beat-up old piano in the dining room. I went to a boarding school. And there was a young guy who could play “Boogie Woogie” really well, and I wanted to be like him when I grew up. So I started imitating him and listening to a lot of records, collecting records. And then in college I studied music as a discipline. And then, as you said, I’ve had a jazz band for many years and I’ve spent my life trying to understand the beauties and the mysteries of this extraordinary music. So thanks for asking me. And I’m honored to be here with my dear friend Carl Ellis.
Cherie Harder: Yes. What about you, Carl?
Carl Ellis: Well, it’s interesting. I grew up, my parents, you know, they grew up in the thirties and forties and they listened to jazz a lot. And I just, by default, just started listening. But I didn’t really understand it that well until one day, I think I was in like fifth grade, sixth grade, or something, and they were playing—in the music class—they were playing some stuff by Fats Waller. And before I used to—I liked certain tunes, but I would not understand when these guys would start improvising, you know? And so this one time I was listening, and then as he started improvising, I started humming the tune to myself. And suddenly the flashlight came at me and I said, “Oh, that’s what that’s all about.” Because the improvisation was another expression of the tune. And I just said— That hooked me right there. From that point on, I became an avid jazz fan. It’s funny, I went through my teenage years, everybody else was listening to Motown and everything, and I was listening to Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and all these people. You know, I could tell you everything there was to know about jazz. I didn’t know anything about R&B. But though I hear R&B today and it kind of brings back memories. But I was really a jazz buff.
And then years later, I really loved the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet and others, especially Milt Jackson. And one day I was at a—there was a group, a singing group, that I used to work with called Soul Liberation. And they were putting together their ensemble. They were auditioning people. And there was a set of vibes there, and so I just started tinkering with the vibes and I caught on, and I became a vibe player. I really did a lot to master it and everything. And so I became also a participant. And I’d play with Soul Liberation. I would play with other bands sometimes, and it was a lot of fun. So I got a chance to see it from both perspectives, from both a listener and a performer.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Now, Bill, in reading your book, you made a number of really interesting claims, and you claim that the aesthetics of jazz can’t be understood without acknowledging the reality of a biblical God. And you’ve also said that it’s the gospel that actually makes jazz more explicable. What did you mean by that?
Bill Edgar: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Well, there’s a historical dimension to it, and that is that what became jazz—and early on was spirituals and then blues and so forth—was born out of the suffering of African American people, unspeakable suffering in slavery. And throughout that time, both white and black evangelists would sometimes get through to the the enslaved Africans. And they responded—not all of them responded, not all of them responded to the evangelists—but they responded by creating a music that has some African roots, some—you mention this—some European roots, but it’s very original. And so, for example, spirituals, which have embedded in them a strong range of Christian doctrines came out of—I mentioned this in the book—Hush Houses or Praise Houses, where, because the masters often did not want their slaves to become Christians, which is a kind of sordid story, they would go and worship clandestinely and they would go into these houses. The scene was almost amusing, except that it was so sad, carrying sheets and buckets of water. And when they got there, they nailed the sheets up on the wall, doused it with water, and that created a soundproof environment. And they began to sing.
And as you, if you’ve been to a a Black church or you know Black worship, the sermon often starts in a talking mode, the way I’m talking now. And then, before too long, the preacher gets caught up in cantillation and starts singing the sermon. And it’s not irrational. This continuity is all there. But he will sing. And then the congregation doesn’t just sit there and listen placidly, but they start to sing back. And so it’s called antiphonal. That’s one of the many sources of jazz historically, and the Christian gospel is connected, and the music, especially spirituals, makes no sense without an awareness of the gospel.
One other point: It’s one of the miracles of history that enslaved Africans made the difference between Jesus that was preached and the lifestyle of the preachers and the masters who claim they believed in it. I call it a miracle because, you know, the message came with people who had a lifestyle that was, you know, highly questionable, including enslaving other people. But Black people saw who Jesus really was. And as your introductory song by the great Billy Taylor says, they wanted to be free and they saw Jesus as the path to freedom. My friend Carl has written a wonderful book on freedom, Free at Last. And so we’re not there yet. But that connection of music and the gospel began in those Hush Houses. And then there’s lots more to tell.
Cherie Harder: Yes. Carl, you have been called at times a jazz theologian, and you’ve said that a jazz approach to theology involves a focus on life, not just facts, and the hurts of people as opposed to propositions alone, even though you are from a fairly propositional denomination. How does jazz help you understand and explain the gospel?
Carl Ellis: Well, let me first say that I am not, my roots are not in the PCA. I got called into the PCA later on, kind of like Jonah got called to Nineveh, you know. [Laughs.] But anyway, no, it was really interesting in that as I began to understand the whole art of improvisation and as I begin to read the Bible, I think one of the things that helped me out was that— See, there are people who are churched, there are people who are unchurched, but there are some people who are unchurchable. And I was an unchurchable. I was allergic to church, as we understand it, in terms of its institution. And so for up to age 17, I just totally resisted God. But finally, some guy, some other unchurchable guys came along and shared with me the gospel outside of church language. And it made sense and I got saved.
But as I would read the Bible—as matter of fact, it was interesting. I had mastered a—well, let’s put it this way: I had really studied hard. I got really good into a particular theological system, which I disagree with today. But I was confronted with, when I was a student, I was confronted with Black militancy, student radicalism, and all the rest of it. And these nice, neat answers that I had didn’t answer. And so in desperation I just cried out to God. I said, “God, what do I do?” So I started reading Genesis 1, you know, and as I got through my whole outlook changed. I saw the sovereignty of God, I saw the covenant. But most of all, when I got into the Gospels, I saw Jesus had an approach to ministry that I had never thought about before. He was very improvisational, very improvisational. He was able to make the connection between a rock and the kingdom or a tree and—you know what I’m saying. He was able to make these connections. And all my life I’ve been making connections like that but people thought I was crazy. But I began to realize, wait a minute, this is a way of doing theology.
And so when I got into campus ministry, I started doing that and it was very effective. I would sit down, I wouldn’t come to the students with a script, you know, like the Romans Road or whatever. I’d come to them with a question, you know, “what do you think about life?” Or “how do you see this or that?” And I’d listen to what they say, and I’d improvise on the basis of that. And it was incredible. And then when I got to Westminster, I finally put these two things together. I realized that that’s what jazz theology was. And my very first paper I did at Westminster was articulating what I would consider to be a jazz theology.
And so there are others in the country who have taken that and run with it and all that. So I’m pretty fascinated by it. I just see God doing that all the time, you know, and not to say that God doesn’t do things in other ways, but it’s just that it’s a way of doing things that— It’s kind of like the Bible says he’s “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” But at the same time—that’s a classical statement—but at the same time, he’s eternally refreshed, “morning by morning new mercies I see.” And you see you have both of these within the Triune God. You have the unity and the diversity, the form and freedom. And so, yeah, it’s a very— I go into a situation not with a script, but with a scale, I guess you’d say, or a key or whatever, a theological key. And that is improvised within that. And it’s a whole new, it’s a different way of doing things. But it really suits me and it seems that God has used it in a very good way.
Cherie Harder: Bill, one of the things that you have said in your book is that the question of theodicy—that is really the unanswerable question of why suffering exists and if God is God, how can he be good? If God is good, how can he be God?—is present in jazz. And we’d love to hear more about what you mean by that. How is theodicy present in jazz?
Bill Edgar: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, you know, going back to the spirituals, though they were affirmative many of them, some of them asked questions more than they gave answers. You know, “were you there?” And that’s an open question. And then as the blues developed in the age of Jim Crow, it was almost more explicit that there was a theodicy involved because many of the blues asked the question directly: “God, what are you doing here? What’s going on? And why is there injustice?” And it goes through the history of jazz that people make affirmations, but they ask questions that, as you suggest, some of them are unanswerable, but they have to be asked. The greatest musicians specialized in this kind of inquiry. Duke Ellington wanted to know why God looks down and sees his people through in the midst of evil. And many other musicians have asked the question, “What is God doing?” Now, there’s a difference between asking within faith and asking as skeptics. So, you know, the book of James tells us one kind of question is absolutely legitimate. If you’ve got a question, come and ask God about it. But don’t ask as a skeptic, ask as somebody who thinks God has the answers, whether or not he decides to give them to you. I think jazz belongs to that category. There’s answers. There’s a script, there’s the playbook, there’s— But we don’t always know why things happen and where they’re going. So there’s a deep, deep misery to jazz, and there’s a theodicy in the blues that is unmistakable.
Carl Ellis: Yeah, that’s an interesting thing on the blues theme. Again, as I read Scripture, I began to see that when the prophets would speak to the people about how they were unfaithful to God, it suddenly reminded me of a blues singer, the man singing to the woman, and how she’s unfaithful to him.
Bill Edgar: Yeah, yeah.
Carl Ellis: You know. And so, in essence, the prophets are singing the blues, or God was singing the blues through the prophets. I think of even in—what is it?—Isaiah chapter five? God said, “Let me sing you a song about my friend in the vineyard,” you know, and you could almost hear that, you know. He planted his vineyard, he did all this stuff, and the fruit turned out to be bad. Or you think about Hosea. You know, after all of that, he said, “How can I give you up? How can I? My heart is turned within me.” Those are very, very strong. God is the very first one who ever sang the blues, you know what I’m saying? And so so the blues comes out of us because we’re in the image of God. And so it has a very, very beautiful correlation. So whenever I hear the blues from the woman’s point of view, it’s a great illustration of how idols treat people. Idols are mean. Idols are not very good boyfriends, you know what I’m saying? They beat you. They do this, that, and the other. When I hear blues from the man’s point of view, I see that’s how the church is unfaithful to God, how we treat God, you know, and that’s how we turn to idols and things like that. It’s very, very—it’s very parallel,as a matter of fact. But God originated that. We were able to sing the blues because God did first.
Bill Edgar: The greatest blues singer maybe in the Old Testament was Job.
Carl Ellis: Yes.
Bill Edgar: And he was a wonderful man. I want to meet him soon. But he asked, “Why are you doing this? Lord, I want an umpire,” it says in the King James, “because this isn’t fair.” And then I think the greatest—I’m sure you’ll agree with this—the greatest blues singer of all times is Jesus in the Garden.
Carl Ellis: Absolutely.
Bill Edgar: “Why have you forsaken me?” he says. That’s, I mean, that’s the blues.
Carl Ellis: That’s it. “O Jerusalem, but I would have gathered you beneath my wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks.” All these things are very, very—this is very [inaudible], you know, it’s very, very much a part of who God is.
Cherie Harder: You know, the question has to be asked. We’ve been talking about jazz and the gospel. But of course, there was a lot of religious language used to justify slavery and all sorts of oppression bathed in it. And would be interested in hearing—maybe we can start with you, Carl—how does the Christian worldview embedded in jazz speak to that narrative? How does it rebut it?
Carl Ellis: Okay. I mentioned earlier the oneness of God, the three-ness of God, unity, diversity, form and freedom, those kind of things. There are two sides to this thing. There are two sides. There’s the—shall I just say—the classical side, not the—you know. And then there’s the jazz side. And what has happened, I think, in Western theology is that we focus on one side more than the other. So like, for example, in theology, we have— When you read Scripture, there are propositions in Scripture, but there are also narratives. And so what happens is that we in the West, we tend to focus on the propositions more than the narratives and that put us out of balance. Of course, if you do the opposite, you’ll also be out of balance. But what happens is when you break that down, you have the difference between epistemology—that is, what we should know about God—and ethics, how we should obey God. And again, we focus more on epistemology. As a matter of fact, the classical definition of theology is the study of God, you know. But that’s just what you should know about God. But how you should obey God is a whole different thing. And what has happened is that in our theology, we are out of balance on the epistemological side. We were focused there, and we messed up on the ethical side. And that’s kind of what happened.
So what happens in the absence of the ethical side, from the Western theologians in the American experience arises this theology that is much more ethical. If you listen to historic African American theology, it’s very heavily on the ethical side. You know, “I’m going to stay on the battlefield.” “I’m going to treat everybody right.” Those kinds of things. Those are ethical things. Whereas on the other side, you have in terms of, well, “I will subscribe to the statement of faith” or something like that.
But what we have to do, we have to learn how to hold both in balance and to be able to seamlessly go back and forth. And I would say in our part of the world, we are theologically out of balance. And that is one explanation for how we seem to be so theological on one side and so unethical on the other.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Go ahead, Bill.
Bill Edgar: Well, this is a marvelous answer, Carl. And of course, there are historical reasons why people justified slavery and made it sound like the Bible was behind it. You know, there was empire building and the economic aspects of slavery and so forth. But the text that was in front of them clearly denounces it. Man-stealing. It’s one of the great [sins].
Carl Ellis: That’s right.
Bill Edgar: And it was right in front of their eyes. One of my friends who’s a, he’s actually a PCA guy, he says if in the early 1860s or late 1850s, five Presbyterians had preached against the evils of slavery, we might not have had a civil war. But they didn’t. They either were complicit and silent or they were actually favorable to it. There’s a lot of writing about this that I would recommend, but the best scholars are trying to show that almost all of the great leaders said they opposed slavery, but then in practice, they didn’t. Like you’re saying, the ethics of it, they didn’t carry it out. And so they intended to get rid of it. But yeah, that’s not good. The gospel of great intentions is not a gospel.
Carl Ellis: Right.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, Carl, you mentioned that the epistemology and ethics has sort of gotten out of balance. But, Bill, I sort of detected an epistemological argument in your book as well, that there are things that we can learn or apprehend from music that might be difficult for us to apprehend otherwise. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that, whether I misinterpreted that, or, if so, what are the things that we can understand or apprehend through music?
Bill Edgar: Thank you. I don’t know if that’s epistemological. One of my gurus is Jeremy Begbie, who has taught for years that you should do theology through music and not just music through theology. So, you know, there’s a lot of books out there that interpret Bach’s cantatas theologically and so forth. And he argues, yeah, those are fine, but we can actually better understand the Bible and theology through music, the listening experience, the emotional experience. We had a chapel speaker not too long ago who came and said, “I’m going to do something that it’s probably never been done in this group. I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.” And so everybody closed their eyes. And then he started picking parts of the Book of Revelation, mostly the music parts, and just read them. And then everybody opened their eyes and they all said, “I see.” Because they had heard. And so this—you know, you don’t want to go too far with this, but there’s so many wonderful analogies between the way music is structured and the way God reveals himself theologically and through the Scriptures. So I’ve come to agree with Jeremy that you need to do theology through the arts, not to, of course, minimize the pure thinking, the epistemology, but to understand it better through the practice of artistic work.
Carl Ellis: Yeah. Truth vs. beauty. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bill Edgar: Yeah. For example. Yeah.
Cherie Harder: You know, a question for both of you before we go to questions from our audience, which is: there’s going to be a range of folks who are watching today. We’re going to have a number of jazz aficionados and we’ll probably have a number of people who are sort of jazz curious, but haven’t had a lot of exposure per se. How does one learn to listen well? How do you kind of learn to listen to it, understand the music, and apprehend the themes of hope and protest that you’ve talked about? And Carl, maybe we can start with you.
Carl Ellis: Well, I don’t want to sound too nebulous here, but you can think and you can feel. You know what I’m saying? And in music, I can think about music. I was just thinking about this on the way back from my appointment, that music is very mathematical. You know, what makes a harmony sound good? You know, that’s mathematics, you know? But I don’t think of it. When I hear a harmony, I don’t think of it as math. I think of it as beauty. I feel it. I think one of the things we need to do is that we need to learn how to feel it more. Don’t try to analyze it so much, although an analysis is good, but sometimes things are just meant to be just enjoyed for their beauty. You know, when I see a rose, I’m not going to go through all this biological explanation and everything. It’s just a rose. And so that’s an art to be able to feel it. But at the same time you’ve got to do more than feel. You also have to be able to analyze. But I’m saying that’s the one thing: relax and let it impact you.
It’s like I said, for me, the key that opened the whole thing was just humming the tune, the original tune that they were improvising on, and seeing how it harmonized, how it just fit perfectly. And I said, wow, that was so— You know, I must have been about eight or ten or whatever. But that really opened it up for me. Now, of course, there’s good music and bad music in all disciplines, of course. But I’m talking about listening to the masters, you know. You know, that’s just a side of us that we need to learn how to function in. I mean, I love my wife, but I can’t give you an articulate explanation outlining what that means. I just love her, you know. It’s a similar kind of a thing. It’s part of who we are, you know. Even in the Scripture, again, God displays emotions. You know what I’m saying? And we’re in his image and we can do the same.
Bill Edgar: Yes. Very, very wonderful. One of my closest friends and a person I dedicated the book to—who played for years with Milt, by the way—Monty Alexander, he has a beef against overstressing academic learning. Now, he’s gone and given master classes and all the rest. But he believes you can only really learn about jazz by being in the trenches. And he tells a funny story. He was giving a concert once, and this man and his young son come up to him. And he said, “My son has a question for you. Were you using the mixolydian scale or—.” And Monty said, “Hold it right there. You need to hang around clubs. Bring your dad along because not all of them are safe. But you need to hang around clubs and hear what musicians are doing and find out what makes them tick, what their lives are like. Jazz comes out of the trenches, not from an academy.” No denying some analysis is good. I’ve done it myself. But this is what Monty says, “Get down and dirty and experience this at the level that it was created. And then maybe you can say a few things about the mixolydian scale.”
Cherie Harder: Well, thank you, Bill. And thank you, Carl. We’re going to turn now to questions from our viewers. And if you are watching and want to ask a question, just put a question in the Q&A feature. And you can not only pose a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So we’ve seen a number come in, and I’ll combine a couple of them. There’s an anonymous viewer who asks, “Is contemporary jazz music animated by the gospel?” And then there’s a question from Al Sikes, who asks, “Jazz covers a wide spectrum of styles. Stylistically, what jazz reflects theology?” Bill, you want to take a shot at that?
Bill Edgar: Thanks, Al. Well, I think the first thing to say is that, well, to echo Dizzy Gillespie, there’s only two kinds of music, good music and bad music or good music and the other kind. The good music will have a theology component. It can’t help it. Even—not even, but maybe especially—people like Beethoven and Brahms, it’s very different, but they have the gospel all over the place. And jazz, I think, in all of its styles, reflects some level of gospel awareness. And you can get into the different complexities of which styles do it better than others. And, you know, there are musicians who are more intentional about putting the gospel into their music and they write cantatas like, you know, Billy Taylor, who wrote a wonderful suite of Christian music, and Duke Ellington and others. And some who just, I think, like Miles Davis, they reflect it, they know it, but they don’t speak it carefully. So I don’t think there’s any one style of modern music or any other kind that says, “Oh, this is Christian.” And then there’s another style, “Now, this is not Christian.” I don’t think that’s a very good way of approaching music. It’s either good or bad.
Carl Ellis: Right. Yeah. Music belongs to God. And, you know, he’s the source of all music. And so we sing and we play and we do this because we’re in the image of God. So even if I was an atheist and I was a good jazz musician, my music will still reflect the theological dimension because it comes out of a being that’s in God’s image.
Bill Edgar: Amen.
Carl Ellis: Yeah.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Nathan Swanson. And Nathan asks, “What wisdom or relief does jazz theology / spiritual notes of jazz offer us in a post-truth culture that’s so polarized?”
Bill Edgar: Yours, Carl.
Carl Ellis: [Laughs.] I was hoping you’d take that! OK, again, post-truth. Yes, we are in a post-rational time. And though I respect rationality a great deal, rationality is not the only path to truth. There is the cognitive. And then there’s the intuitive. And now, again, we have to be in balance. We have to [have] one correct the other. But it doesn’t matter what kind of a culture we’re in; God’s truth is going to get through, you know. Acts chapter 14: “In the past, God let the nations go their own way, but he’s never left himself without witness.” And I think part of his witness comes through music, and so, you know, the state of the culture or the attitude of the people within the culture does not block the revelation of God that comes through. I mean, look at Romans 1. I mean, God makes it very clear and people suppress the truth in unrighteousness. So, yeah, one does not have to agree with the truth in order for the truth to be said or in order for the truth to be valid. Because truth is validated by God himself.
Bill Edgar: Yeah, very, very, very good. I mean, whether you like it or not, music has certain norms and structures and directions and it has a reality that gets through whether you want it or not.
Carl Ellis: That’s right.
Bill Edgar: Francis Schaefer used to say, you know, “I want my airplane to be well-built and to get me around. I don’t want a post-modern airplane with a pilot who doesn’t know what he’s doing.” And he says, “because God made the world with a certain structure and a flow.” And I think that’s true of music. With all we’ve said about the freedom of it, which is so important, there is nevertheless an unavoidable reality, which if you refuse it, it will come back to haunt you.
Carl Ellis: Yeah, yeah. We sometimes concede the base ground to secularism, you know: things are secular unless God does something. No, no, no, no, no. This is God’s world. And the secular is an intrusion or a perversion of God’s world. You see? And so an atheist can’t be an atheist without God. I mean, you know, just plain and simple. And so yeah, I agree. I, by the way, I agree with everything you said, Bill. I don’t want you to think I was opposing you.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Dan Kunkel. And Dan says, “There’s a wonderful scene in Gordon Park’s film The Learning Tree, in which an African American pastor in his pastoral prayer says, ‘And deliver our young people from lipstick and jazz.’ Could you comment on what appears to be a tension between jazz’s grounding in the gospel and perhaps a deep suspicion of jazz and the questionable moral implications that it had at least in 1920s Kansas, where The Learning Tree is set.” Bill, you want to tackle that?
Bill Edgar: Sure. Jazz has always been under suspicion by various people and there’s plausible reasons for it. I remember my grandmother said she didn’t allow my dad to go to certain clubs because it was prone to debauchery and she didn’t know much about jazz or the music or, you know, the subtleties of it. But she was just sure that whatever it was, all those rhythms and all that dancing around was debauched. And there is a slightly plausible argument that says that jazz came out of really seedy places. Sometimes it had to. Mostly it didn’t want to. And so the association is understandable. Now, it’s completely wrong. It’s a beautiful film, Dan, you know, and I think jazz and lipstick—I can understand. By the way, what’s wrong with lipstick? Anyway— no, it’s an association that people make, and it’s going to last. I remember Ruth and I gave a concert in a Black church once, and, you know, it went pretty well. And one of the congregation members, a Black woman of a certain age, said, “I want to respond to something you said. You said Louis Armstrong smoked marijuana, but he read his Bible every day.” And I said, “Yeah.” She said, “No, he couldn’t have.” I said, “Why not?” “Well, because he played jazz.” So we went through this long thing of “what on earth?” But this was a Black person. This was not just some white ignoramus. So yeah, that prejudice is there. And I hope my book and Carl’s books go a long way towards dismantling it because there’s so much bluster rather than truth in that view.
Carl Ellis: Some of the young men I talked to in the hood, if I come at them and begin to mention Christianity and they have this visceral, negative reaction to Christianity, and I’ve learned how to ask them why they have this. And as they begin to describe to me what they think Christianity is, it is horrible. It is debauched. And for them to have that reaction to Christianity is telling me that in a very real way they are not far from the truth because they have a sense of truth against which their understanding of Christianity stands. And so it depends on who you talk to. I mean, there are some people say stay away from Christianity. I mean, there’s whole cults that grew up, the Nation of Islam, grew up and said Christianity is an evil thing, and they make these associations which were obviously not true. But they argued it well. As a matter of fact, I always said that one of the effective things that the Nation of Islam did was that they used [inaudible] apologetics when they gave their message. All that presuppositional stuff. But anyway. Yeah, yeah.
Another reason, though, is because jazz was not accepted in polite society, so the only place it could be done was in those seedy places, you see. And so in a lot of ways those seedy places were more, you know, in sense those seedy places might have been a little more righteous, in the sense that they would accept people, whoever they were, than our respectable churches. And that we would exclude people. We’d say, “We don’t let those kind of people in here because of this or that or the other.” I’m not saying that it’s righteous to be a prostitute or anything else like that, but I’m saying that in some of those situations, they demonstrated more righteousness than we did. I mean, that’s not too far from what Jesus said. He told the scribes, the Pharisees, said, “You know, the prostitutes and tax collectors will get to heaven before you.” So I think we need to see that in the whole picture. It depends on what perspective you’re in. And I would agree that I don’t see anything wrong with lipstick or jazz. So, you know, my church, for crying out loud, most of our music is jazz, you know. So yeah.
Cherie Harder: Great. So our next question comes from Ann Vandermeer. And Ann asks, “Can you talk a little bit about the relationship you see between spirituals, jazz, and the Psalms?”
Bill Edgar: I love to tackle that. And Carl, I’m sure you’ll have lots to say. There’s a very interesting historical connection between spirituals and the Psalms, which is very odd, but a lot of history is odd. When the few times white masters allowed their slaves to come to church—of course, sitting in the back and all that—what music did they hear? Well, in the 18th century, it was likely the Psalms sung a cappella. No instruments. And sung antiphonally. Lead singer would sing and then they would repeat it. It got very slow. It was hauntingly beautiful. And the Black people said, “We understand this. This is our music back home.” And they started to write Christian music that was not necessarily quoting the Psalms, but that was biblically themed, that had the same ambiance, the same feeling, the same aesthetic as this Psalmity. Now, there’s a lot more connections, of course, that you could mention. I mean, so many of the themes of the Psalms are found in the spirituals. They’re very closely connected. And some spirituals actually sing the Psalms. So there’s a lot of connections. But I love that reference to the antiphonal singing when they weren’t supposed to be in church, but they came anyway.
Carl Ellis: A lot of times in some of these old traditional congregations, like in Alabama and Mississippi, they would do what they would call slow meter, where somebody would line the song: “Lord of [inaudible], hear my cry.” And then the congregation: “…cry.” You know, and they would just drag it out. A lot of that goes back to the Wesleyans who looked down on all rhythm. And so they slowed their music down so far. And so some of the African Americans who came under the tutelage of Wesleyan people, they slow it down like that. But yeah, you hear that antiphonal thing going on, too. And I’ve never heard this in an Anglo church, this kind of thing, you know. But I would even say most African-American churches today you don’t hear that. But in those old traditional churches, you hear it. And the older folks, they would know exactly what you’re talking about.
Cherie Harder: So for our next question, I’m actually going to combine two questions. Sarah Efford asks, “Do you think rap music has anything similar in its purpose?” And somewhat relatedly, Carol McClain asks, “Can you speak to the younger generation’s scream of angry music? Is there a jazz-like emotion behind it?” Carl, throw that one to you.
Carl Ellis: Rap has a cadence to it, and it’s very powerful in that sense. When you look at the prophets in the Old Testament, you had like two streams, at least two streams of prophets. You had what some call the ecstatic prophets, those who would prophesy to music. And remember, when Samuel anointed Saul, he said, “Go down the hill and you’ll find some musicians and the Holy Spirit will fall on you and you will prophesy.” And everybody in Jerusalem said, “Oh, did you hear about Saul? We got religion.” OK, or the one where it was the prophet standing before the king—I can’t remember who the prophet was now—he said, “I’ll give you a prophecy, but I need a musician to play.” And then the musician played and he was able to prophesy.
That was a prophetic tradition that got corrupted. So by the time you come to Amos and everything, these prophets were now official, they were on the federal payroll. You know, they were yes-men to the king. And a new God raised up a new kind of prophets. So these early prophets were like singing prophets. This new kind of prophets, if you hear the cadence of their prophecy in Hebrew, it had a very similar cadence to spoken-word today, you know, spoken-word and even rap. So I would say that rap as a form of speech certainly does have roots in biblical history. Not to say that modern-day rap is carrying the same message, but at least the art form itself, I would say, would be related to that.
And the other thing is that there is a school of thought within the hip hop community, improvisational rap. I mean, you’ve got to be really good to do that. But there are people who can do that. And, again, you get back to the improvisation, now you’re talking about jazz again. So, you know, rap is, you know, is very rote. But when you get into improv, you know—you’ve got classical rap and you’ve got jazz rap. You get to the improv end of it and it becomes a—it’s quite a feat to be able to improvise and rhyme at the same time like that.
Bill Edgar: Yeah. I can’t add to that. Just to say at Westminster we have a whole bunch of students who are trying to translate the gospel into rap and they do breakdancing and they do the whole thing. And some of it is very beautiful. It’s about telling stories poetically in rapid fire. I don’t know how they do it, but it just shows that that form of music can be redeemed.
Carl Ellis: There’s— Oh, go on. I’m sorry.
Bill Edgar: Oh, just the anger part. There’s a thin line between righteous anger, which is protest music, and irrational rage. And I think the best of jazz that should be taught to the young people you’re talking about should be a protest. We just don’t want to forget how to protest. I think a lot of our young people have become bourgeois-ised, and they think it’s incorrect to protest. Not at all. It’s thoroughly biblical, as long as you do it, you know, with honor and respect and let the sun go down on your anger.
Carl Ellis: Right. To follow Jesus is a protest statement, in a very real sense. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bill Edgar: Amen.
Cherie Harder: So for our last two questions, I want to combine two somewhat dissimilar questions and hopefully we can hear from both of you. We’ll start with Bill. Fritz Heinzen asks, “Who would our guests suggest as leading jazz composers whose work reflects the spiritual sensibilities that Bill talked about?” And then conversely, we have an anonymous viewer who asks, “Is there a practical application of your book for the Christian who may not be into jazz music?” So, Bill, maybe we can start with you.
Bill Edgar: Wow, that’s a very good question. Actually, both of them are good. There’s a plethora of wonderful jazz musicians who are composing gospel music, and some of them do it indirectly, but many of them do it directly. You know, Oscar Peterson and Billy Taylor and just the great Monty Alexander. He’s written a bunch of Christian stuff. And most of them are believers. Oscar grew up in the church. Billy comes out of the church background. Dave Brubeck, who is a white guy who nevertheless has some pretty good chops, I had the privilege of meeting him once, and he said to me he had composed more Christian music than any other kind. Which is very surprising. Some of it’s good. Some of it’s less than good. But anyway, so that was the first. There’s plenty of resources there, a lot of people to go to. And, you know, maybe I can give you a list if you want to follow up.
How do you initiate young people into this great music? Well, to go with Monty, I’d say hang out in the—now it doesn’t have to be a bar—it could be a concert hall. Monty earned his chops by playing at Jilly’s, which was a place owned by Frank Sinatra. And there was a lot going on in that place, and he closed his eyes about it. But he learned how to back the great Frank Sinatra in ways that complemented him. And I think young people should go and try this out, try it at home. When I was a kid, I had a huge record collection. Remember vinyls?
Carl Ellis: Oh, yeah.
Bill Edgar: I have thousands of those. And you just—anyway, now you just press a button and it’s an MP3 or whatever, but, you know, collect records, follow what you like. When I was in high school, for some odd reason, I loved the Chicago style and I bought everything I could with my meager allowance. So those are some of the ways. Carl, you’ve got some suggestions too.
Carl Ellis: Well, I would just say amen to what you said. And, you know, like I said, listen to the music. Just try to see how different the craft of jazz would be than, say, another. And listen to its strengths. There are plenty of ways to do this. If you are already a musician, just see if you can jam with some jazz musicians. You know, they can help you to see some things. But it’s a way of seeing things. It’s a way of life, you know. So it’s just—and, you know, to add that you don’t have to lose what you have.
Bill Edgar: Yeah, that’s right. And to go back to something you said before, there are musicians who can hardly do jazz because they’re stuck with the score.
Carl Ellis: That’s right.
Bill Edgar: You can’t get free from that score. So, you know, Monty, my friend, he gives some lessons sometimes and he says to somebody who’s struggling, “You don’t love that piano, do you?” And the guy trembling says, “No, I’m trying to play the notes.” He says, “Look, love the piano.” So there’s an element there where you can’t teach academically what jazz is. There’s some good books out there on that, but you basically got to fall in love with those instruments and embrace it.
Carl Ellis: A great example: we learn how to speak. We learn how to speak outside of the academic environment. You know, we just listen and we pick it up. And, you know, of course, when you start studying it academically, some of us don’t do so well. You know, “I already know that,” you know. But so yeah, it’s a similar kind of a—. Jazz is something that can be taught, but also it can be caught. So I think that’s what we need to understand. You don’t get everything—. When I became a father, I was shaken to my very foundation because for the first time, I was plunged into a major phase of my life where I didn’t prepare to do it through an academic curriculum. I was just suddenly, I’m a father. What do I do? But then I discover that there were aspects of my being that were there that I never knew about. And I think learning language, learning jazz, would be a very similar kind of thing. It brings something out of you that has always been there that perhaps you didn’t know was there.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Carl. And thank you, Bill. In just a moment, I want to ask both Carl and Bill to give us a last word. But before that, immediately after we conclude, we’ll [lost audio briefly] … our comments. We read every one. It’s really valuable to us. We take your advice and try to make this an ever more valuable experience. And as a small token of our appreciation for filling out that online feedback form, we will send you a code for the free download of a Trinity Forum Reading of your choice.
In addition, those of you who’ve signed up to participate in the breakout rooms that are happening, or discussion sessions that are happening, right after this: right after this webinar is over, exit as you normally would and then just click on the link that was sent to you earlier this morning to access those breakout and discussion groups. We’ll give everyone just a few minutes before getting started, but if you want to discuss, go a little bit deeper into what’s been said today, we welcome your participation in those follow-up discussion groups.
Tomorrow, we’ll be sending around a video link so that you can share this conversation with your friends. We’d love for you to share it with others. Start your own discussion groups. And we’ve also included a jazz playlist that we’ve drawn upon; many of the suggestions are taken from Bill’s book, as well as a number of recommended Readings to help you go further into this topic, including “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” “Babette’s Feast,” “Letters of Vincent van Gogh,” and Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Cherie Harder: In addition, another invitation I would like to extend to all of you is to become a member of the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people that help further the mission of the Trinity Forum. Your membership in the forum not only supports our mission, but also comes with a number of benefits, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings. And we just put out a new one, “Spirit and Imagination: The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” with an introduction by poet Malcolm Guite, as well as 102 other titles that are part of that series. And our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations. And as a special incentive for joining the Trinity Forum Society, with your membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Bill’s book, A Supreme Love, so hope that you take advantage of that invitation.
Finally, the last word goes to Bill and Carl. Carl, maybe we can start with you.
Carl Ellis: I would say that God created the world, if you look at the very beginning, he created the world for us to enjoy and for us to flourish in it. And I would say that to miss out on the experience and the perspective of jazz is a tragedy. It cuts us short of what God wants us to do in our world, I would say. Enlarge your horizons, don’t turn away from what you have, but add to it a good appreciation for jazz and you’ll be the wiser for it.
Bill Edgar: Jazz and gospel are a reminder of, first of all, our misery, which is because of sin and evil, our finitude, but also the greatness of God who, as Carl said earlier, improvised. The incarnation is actually the giant improvisation of God to come and find his people and rescue them. And there’s no one who quite expresses this more powerfully and more poignantly than the father of gospel music, Thomas A. Dorsey. So I thought I’d just read—I’m not going to sing it because there’d be weather problems—but I thought I would read just a few lines from his most famous hymn, which is property of all Black churches and some white churches. It’s called “Precious Lord”: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on. Let me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord. Lead me on.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Bill. And thank you, Carl. And thank you to each of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.