Coltrane goes to church

"I'd expected to be moved and I was"

John Coltrane's music is often seen as an expression of spirituality. Andy Hamilton went to see the late saxophonist's work put to literal religious use in a San Francisco church



Coltrane ChurchJohn Coltrane 85th Birthday Celebration: The Saint John Coltrane Church, San Francisco, 25 September 2011

Since I first heard of the Church of St. John Coltrane in San Francisco, I've been keen to experience its offering of Coltrane jazz literally as religious music. On a recent visit to the city, walking along Fillmore on the way to Yoshi's new San Francisco jazz club, I noticed the Church's new meeting place in the adjacent block – and had to pay a visit for the Coltrane 85th birthday celebration that weekend.

Every Sunday at midday, the church hosts a three-hour Pentecostal service that is also a jam session.  This was a quiet Sunday morning, but not inside the room that you walk directly into off the street. The Voices of Compassion and the Ministers of Sound, featuring a very fine band of electric keyboards, bass and drums, several sax players and two tap-dancers, are interpreting sections from A Love Supreme. Packed into the small space, a congregation of thirty or so people, including tourists from Europe and South America, are dancing, clapping and shouting "Hallelujah!" Some join in on saxophone or, in the case of one young musician, on totally inaudible lute and balalaika.

I'd expected to be moved and I was. Since the 60s, when it ceased to be an African-American street music, live jazz has mostly been heard in the rather bourgeois environment of a jazz club or concert hall. It felt to me here as if the African-American community was asserting that it too has a J.S. Bach, who created art music that deserves to be revered and interpreted in a religious context, even though it originated in the totally unreligious setting of jazz clubs. (To follow up these remarks with the necessary qualifications would take a long article.)

The Church belongs to the African Orthodox denomination, founded in the U.S. in 1921 in response to discrimination in the Protestant Episcopal Church, and tracing its lineage back to the Syrian Church of Antioch. The Coltrane Church was set up in 1971 by Archbishop Franzo King and Reverend Mother Marina King, inspired by a Coltrane performance in San Francisco in 1965. Both were brought up in the Pentecostal Church, and King refers to this as their "sound baptism". The church was originally located in Divisadero but increasing rents forced them out in 2000.
The church calls Coltrane "the mighty mystic known as Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane", and they take A Love Supreme, where he declared his religious inspiration, as its anthem.

From what we know of the man, "saintly" is an accurate epithet, and even for a non-believer such as myself, there's something totally appropriate in interpreting his music as the Church does. I confess I only heard the inspirational musical part of the service, which normally lasts two hours, and didn't stay for till the sermon. The Guardian correspondent, on a visit a few years back, reported Archbishop King explaining "If you ain't happy, you ain't listening to enough Coltrane!" and declaring "Thank God for Adolphe Sax!" – sentiments which I'd fervently endorse.


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