Saint John Coltrane: The San Francisco Church Built On A Love Supreme

Lit­tle of San Fran­cis­co today is as it was half a cen­tu­ry ago. But at the cor­ner of Turk Boule­vard and Lyon Street stands a true sur­vivor: the Church of St. John Coltrane. Though offi­cial­ly found­ed in 1971, the roots of this unique musi­cal-reli­gious insti­tu­tion (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) go back fur­ther still. “It was our first wed­ding anniver­sary, Sep­tem­ber 18, 1965 and we cel­e­brat­ed the occa­sion by going to the Jazz Work­shop,” write founders Fran­zo and Mari­na King on the Church’s web site. “When John Coltrane came onto the stage we could feel the pres­ence of the Holy Spir­it mov­ing with him.” Over­come with the sense that Coltrane was play­ing direct­ly to them, “we did not talk to each oth­er dur­ing the per­for­mance because we were caught up in what lat­er would be known as our Sound Bap­tism.”

Or as Mari­na puts it in this new short doc­u­men­tary from NPR’s Jazz Night in Amer­i­ca, “The holy ghost fell in a jazz club in 1965, and our lives were changed for­ev­er.” This was the year of Coltrane’s mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme, a jazz album that, in the words of The New York­er’s Richard Brody, “isn’t mere­ly a col­lec­tion of per­for­mances. It’s both one uni­fied com­po­si­tion and, in effect, a con­cept album. And the core of that con­cept is more than musi­cal — it’s the spir­i­tu­al, reli­gious dimen­sion.”

Coltrane, as the doc­u­men­tary tells it, com­posed the suite in iso­la­tion, deter­mined to go cold-turkey and kick the hero­in habit that got him fired from Miles Davis’ band. In the process he under­went a “spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing,” which con­vinced him that his music could have a much high­er pur­pose.

It was Coltrane’s ear­ly death in 1967 that clar­i­fied the Kings’ mis­sion in life, even­tu­al­ly prompt­ing them to con­vert the lat­est in a series of jazz spaces they’d been run­ning into a prop­er house of wor­ship. “John Coltrane became their Christ, their God,” writes NPR’s Anas­ta­sia Tsioul­casA Love Supreme “became their cen­tral text, and ‘Coltrane con­scious­ness’ became their guid­ing prin­ci­ple.” Over the past 50 years, their church has endured its share of hard­ships. In the ear­ly 1980s a life­line appeared in the form of the African Ortho­dox Church, whose lead­ers want­ed to bring it into the fold but had, as Fan­zo remem­bers it, one con­di­tion: “John Coltrane can­not be God, okay?” Then the Kings remem­bered a remark Coltrane con­ve­nient­ly made in a Japan­ese inter­view to the effect that, one day, he’d like to be a saint. Thence­forth, St. Coltrane it was: not bad at all for a sax play­er from North Car­oli­na.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

John Coltrane’s Hand­writ­ten Out­line for His Mas­ter­piece A Love Supreme

John Coltrane Talks About the Sacred Mean­ing of Music in the Human Expe­ri­ence: Lis­ten to One of His Final Inter­views (1966)

John Coltrane Draws a Mys­te­ri­ous Dia­gram Illus­trat­ing the Math­e­mat­i­cal & Mys­ti­cal Qual­i­ties of Music

The His­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al Jazz: Hear a Tran­scen­dent 12-Hour Mix Fea­tur­ing John Coltrane, Sun Ra, Her­bie Han­cock & More

New Jazz Archive Fea­tures Rare Audio of Louis Arm­strong & Oth­er Leg­ends Play­ing in San Fran­cis­co

Japan­ese Priest Tries to Revive Bud­dhism by Bring­ing Tech­no Music into the Tem­ple: Attend a Psy­che­del­ic 23-Minute Ser­vice

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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