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 Tsioulcas. A 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.
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.