Organized religion got you down? Feel like giving up on it altogether? You are not by any stretch alone. Religiosity is in grave decline in Europe and the U.S., prompting panic in some quarters and satisfaction in others (that young adults, for example, agree more with Karl Marx than with the Bible). The list of reasons for religion’s growing unpopularity is long and rather predictable, and you won’t find a case for the contrary here—unless, that is, it’s for the St. John Coltrane Church. If there’s any religion that deserves an upswing, so to speak, perhaps it’s one based on the genuinely ecstatic, consciousness-expanding music of one of America’s most spiritually-minded jazz composers.
Founded in San Francisco by Bishop Franzo King and his wife Reverend Mother Marina King in 1971 as the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, the small body of worshippers has since become something a little more radical: The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church, whose vibe, writes Aeon, “is a rapturous out-of-your-head-ness, where instead of the choir and the hymn book there is the sinuous, transcendent music of the jazz saint.” We get a powerful immersion in that vibe in the course of the 30-minute documentary, The Church Of Saint Coltrane. (Watch it above, or find it on Aeon’s YouTube channel). The church band, with Bishop King himself on the soprano saxophone, gets deep into Coltrane’s music, in funky performances of cuts from Coltrane’s groundbreaking 1964 A Love Supreme especially.
That career-defining album of religious music changed the course of Coltrane’s career at the very end of his short life. (He died three years later at the age of 40.) He wasn’t always such a mystic. Before he discovered the idiosyncratic God of his recovery from heroin addiction in 1957, he was a rapidly rising star in an increasingly precarious place. After his “spiritual awakening,” as he describes it in the liner notes to A Love Supreme, Coltrane became a musical evangelist. And Bishop King heard the call. King’s “sound baptism” took place when he saw Coltrane in 1965 at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, a Pentecostal experience for him. “I am the first son born out of sound,” he says.
Other worshippers identify with Coltrane on a more biographical level. Saxophonist Father Robert Haven is also a former addict and alcoholic, who got sober “under Coltrane’s spell.” At the church, he found both a spiritual and musical home. As the documentary progresses, you’ll see the experiences of non-musician church-members are equally profound, but the common thread, of course, is that they all love Coltrane. That would appear to be the most important criterion for joining the Saint John Coltrane Church, where one can ostensibly come for the music and stay for the music. At least that seems to be the pitch, and it’s quite a compelling one for people who love Coltrane, though Bishop King’s services do get preachy at times. But the resident church iconographer tells us that King converted him with one simple phrase, repeated with confidence over and over: “It’s all in the music.”
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For more background on the church, see our 2014 post: The Church of St. John Coltrane, Founded on the Divine Music of A Love Supreme