For some time now, people like poet Robert Graves and countercultural guru Timothy Leary have assumed that ancient religion and mysticism were the products of mind-altering drugs. But in the case of one modern religious experience—the inspiration behind John Coltrane’s holy four-part suite, A Love Supreme—it was the distinct absence of drugs that lit the flame. Like many recovering addicts, Coltrane found God in 1957, after having what he called in the album’s liner notes “a spiritual awakening.” Seven years later, he dedicated his masterpiece, “a humble, offering,” to the deity he credited with “a richer, fuller, more productive life.” No rote hymnal, chant, or psalter, A Love Supreme offers itself up to the listener as the product of intensely personal devotion. And like the ecstatic revelations of many a saint, Coltrane’s work has inspired its own devotional cult—The Church of St. Coltrane.
Presided over by Bishop Franzo King and his wife Reverend Mother Marina King, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco reminds people, says Bishop King in the short documentary at the top of the post, “that God is never without a witness. St. John Coltrane is that witness for this time and this age.” Dig. The vibe of the Coltrane congregation is “a rapturous out-of-your-head-ness” writes Aeon magazine in their introduction to another short film about the church. And just above, you can meet more of the worshippers—of the music, its creator, and his god—in “The Saxophone Saint,” yet another profile of St. Coltrane’s prodigious religious influence. The congregation, NPR tells us, “mixes African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes” and of course music, and A Love Supreme is “the cornerstone of the [Bishop King’s] 200-member church.”
King cites the titles of the suite’s four movements—“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—as the basis for his form of worship: “It’s like saying, ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost.’ It’s like saying Melody, harmony and rhythm.’ In other words, you have to acknowledge and then you resolve and then you pursue, and the manifestation of it is a love supreme.” The Kings founded the church in 1969, but their introduction to the power of Coltrane came four years earlier when they saw him perform at the San Francisco Jazz Workshop, an experience they describe on their website as a “sound baptism.” Since its inception, they tell us, the church “has grown beyond the confines of San Francisco to include the whole globe. Every Sunday, the congregation includes members and visitors from throughout the world.”
That diverse assembly recently filled the sanctuary of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral for a service in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on Monday, December 8th. Just above you can see Bishop King open the service. His inspired delivery should convince you, as it did New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman, that “the Coltrane church is not a gimmick or a forced alloy of nightclub music and ethereal faith. Its message of deliverance through divine sound is actually quite consistent with Coltrane’s own experience and message.”