Thriving on a Riff

Thriving on a Riff: Jazz and the Spiritual Life

Release Date: April 23, 2024

.What does jazz have to do with human spirituality? 

In Thriving on a Riff, Presbyterian minister and jazz pianist Bill Carter shows us how jazz, in its quest for transcendence, bridges the gap between the secular and the sacred and, further, that these two worlds are not mutually exclusive--jazz is spiritual. 

Carter traces jazz from its origins in the twilight of American slavery, to its evolution from dance music to serious art form during the American civil rights movement, and its eventual introduction into the church as a legitimate expression of praise and lament. Along the way, he explores the spiritual dimensions of jazz, with its blend of passion and intellect, its ability to awaken us to something in and beyond ourselves. 

From King David to Dave Brubeck, from the Psalms of Israel to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, musicians help us glimpse the experience of music as communion with the Divine. And true to jazz sensibilities, brief "Improvisation" sections add to the gravitas and delight, expounding on the chapter's theme in the form of a poetic extension without breaking rhythm. Weaving together stories from the history of American music with his personal experiences as a working musician, Carter invites us to meet a God who not only embraces syncopation but blesses the swing. 

About the Author 

William G. Carter maintains a dual career as a jazz pianist and a Presbyterian minister. He is the pastor and head of staff at the First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, and the leader of the Presbybop Quartet. A highly regarded speaker, teacher, workshop leader, and composer, Carter is regarded as a national authority on the use of jazz music in liturgical settings. He is the author of eleven books and numerous published articles and the editor of the jazz hymnal Swing a New Song to the Lord: Jazz Resources for Worship.  

Carter is a graduate of Binghamton University and Princeton Theological Seminary and lives in South Abington Township, Pennsylvania.  

Read the book project blog


This book is no less than a love song to the art and genius of improvisation. But it is also a musical primer about transcendence and the risks of biblical faith. Along the way we overhear the author’s own listening and playing. What do prophecy, ecstasy, wisdom and good jazz have in common? These pages give us teasing, provocative access to the answer. The pleasure here is that the words read like jazz sounds. Should you not be a jazz fan, or perhaps a spiritual sceptic, Carter’s book may just change your mind. But if you love jazz and seek a deep sense of what is spiritual, this is a feast.

  • Don E. Saliers, Professor of Theology and Liturgy, Emeritus, Emory University, and co-author of A Song to Sing, A Life to Live with daughter Emily of the Indigo Girls

Jazz is born of diversity; it requires openness. It's a shared improvisational thread that can overcome bigotry and unite all who embrace it. In these pages, Bill Carter — who cheekily confesses that he was put on Earth to "pray the piano" — rhapsodizes about the timeless euphoria of wholly embracing a transformative jazz performance. He's a born raconteur; readers from every walk of life will enjoy his sublime gift for sharing the jazz world's most uplifting and provocative stories, and for gently reminding us of music's power for spiritual healing.

  •  Derrick Bang, author of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano 

This is a lovely, personal, and highly readable book. The poetic “Improvisations” along the way give good flavor to the whole, moving it more toward the world of music than simply print. 

  • Jamie Howison, author of God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane

If you consider yourself to be 'spiritual,' and if you have any interest in music--especially the sublime and moving genre of jazz--you must read this masterpiece of a book. Bill Carter has lived at the intersection of Spirit and Jazz for years, and now he shares captivating stories and illuminating insights that can challenge and form our faith in deeper, richer, more melodious ways. Bravo, Maestro!

  • The Rev. Peter M. Wallace, author of A Generous Beckoning and other books and emeritus host of the Day1 radio/podcast program.

If you've ever been moved by music... Improvised ways to enliven your soul... Pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink, and dive in to Thriving on a Riff. This is prayer.

  • Diane Stephens Hogue, spiritual director and former convener, Liturgy & Spirituality Seminar Group, North American Academy of Liturgy

The stories, insightful connections to theological thought and spiritual experience, and unabashed passion of Thriving on a Riff will be memorable music to your soul. Take your time and savor; there is vibrant reflective inspiration here. Moreover, I take personal joy in knowing that this fine, meaningful offering adds more fuel to the fire of a belief I have held for many years: Jazz is the exclamation point to the Resurrection!

  • Kirk Byron Jones, author of The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy and The Spiritual Treasure of Jazz: Wisdom that will Make Your Life Swing!

Press photos

Bill Carter

The Presbybop Quintet

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