John Coltrane Church

Peter Jan Margry
Daniel Wojcik

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JOHN COLTRANE CHURCH TIMELINE

1921:  The African Orthodox Church was founded as a denomination for black Episcopalians. It separated from the Protestant Episcopal Church at time when people of color were excluded from advancement in the Episcopal Church.

1926 (September 23):  John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina.

1943 (June):  Coltrane moved to Philadelphia.

1943 (September):  Coltrane’s mother Alice bought him his first Saxophone.

1945 (June 5):  Coltrane saw Charlie Parker playing for the first time and was transformed (“it hit me right between the eyes”).

1945:  Franzo Wayne King, founder of the Coltrane religious movement, was born in St. Louis, Missouri.

1946:  Marina Lynn Robinson, co-founder of the Coltrane movement, was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

1957:  Coltrane experienced a religious awakening that enabled him to overcome his heroin addiction.

1963:  Franzo King moved to Chicago to go to cosmetology school with the intention of becoming a hairdresser; he became involved in the jazz scene there.

1964:  Franzo King moved to San Francisco.

1964 (September):  Franzo King and Marina Robinson married, a result of their “spiritual destiny.”

1964 (December):  Coltrane produced his musical masterpiece, the album A Love Supreme , an expression of his spirituality and love for God.

1965 (September 18):  Franzo King and Marina King had their first vision (“sound baptism”) of John Coltrane and the Holy Ghost, as he performed on stage at the Jazz Workshop nightclub in San Francisco.

1966 (July 9):  Coltrane alluded to the desire to be a saint, when asked in an interview about what he would like to be in the future.

1967:  Franzo and Marina King started an informal “listening clinic” for jazz in their apartment in the Protrero Hills (San Francisco), as a space for learning about jazz, African American culture, and the pursuit of enlightenment promised by the 1965 sound baptism.

1967 (July 17):  John Coltrane died at the Huntington Hospital in Long Island (NY) from liver cancer.

1967 (July 17):  A second “sound baptism” was experienced by Franzo King at 2 A.M., immediately after Coltrane’s death, at Jimbo’s Bop City jazz club (the later Temple Theater at Fillmore and Sutter Street, San Francisco).

1968:  The Kings started a jazz club in honor of Charlie Parker, called the Yardbird Club, in the basement of 1529 Galvez Avenue in San Francisco.

1969:  Franzo King initiated a spiritual movement in his apartment in the Potrero Hills, and the Yardbird Club was renamed the Yardbird Temple, with a focus on the sacred aspects of jazz. Part of the apartment was converted into a chapel.

1969:  Yardbird Temple’s name was changed to the Yardbird Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour.

1969-1971:  The Coltrane movement becomes connected to Dr. Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party and takes on an activist social program addressing hunger, poverty, and the need for clothing. The movement was inspired by black liberation theology and a “global” spirituality associated with Coltrane: wanting to bring people back to God through the inspiration of Coltrane’s music.

1971:  Yardbird Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour changed its name to the One Mind Temple, which soon afterward was extended to the One Mind Temple Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour, located at 201 Sawyer Street, San Francisco.

1971:  John Coltrane was “deified” as a universal God (“transcended incarnation”) within the One Mind Temple Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour.

1971:  The Coltrane Church began a weekly radio program called the “Coltrane Uplift Broadcast” on the San Francisco radio station 89.5 FM KPOO, a radio ministry that broadcasts four hours of “the music and wisdom of St. John Coltrane” every Tuesday afternoon.

1971-1972:  The movement changed its name again, initially to the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of the Hour (the emphasis now on spiritual “evolution” not revolution), and then later to the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ, and relocated to a storefront space at 351 Divisadero Street, San Francisco where it functioned until the end of the 1970’s as a relatively closed community.

1972:  Franzo King’s “Supreme” mother, Phyllis Prudhomme (who died in January 2011 and was involved in the Pentecostal movement in California), was regarded as “Holy Ghost Mother.” She validated her son Franzo as bishop and leader of his Holy Ghost Church connected to John Coltrane.

1974:  The movement shifted toward Hindu spirituality and practice, in connection with Alice Coltrane’s Vedantic Center in Agoura Hills, California.

1974-1981:  Franzo King and his small congregation increasingly associated with Alice Coltrane’s Vedantic Center and eastern spirituality, viewing Coltrane as the spirit of “Blue Krishna” and a Sufi mystic, whose music transcended cultural barriers in a universalist way. During this period the One Mind Temple also is referred to as the Vedantic Center.

1978 (November 18):  The mass-suicide/murder of 918 members of the Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple commune in Guyana resulted in public condemnations of alternative religions and sects in San Francisco, including the One Mind Temple and its devotion to Coltrane.

1981:  John Coltrane Speaks (the first edition contains also Coltrane Consciousness) by Franzo King was published, which declares Coltrane’s sound as divine or holy.

1981:  Alice Coltrane sued the One Mind Temple for $7,500,000 citing copyright infringement and exploitation and unlawful use of her husband’s name. The law suit received national publicity with headlines such as “Widow of ‘God’ sues Church.” As a result of the publicity, representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church and African Orthodox Church approached Franzo King and offered the Coltrane Church an institutional setting.

1982:  Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson of the African Orthodox Church, located in Chicago, formally invites the Coltrane congregation to join his church with the hope of expanding the branches of the church to the West Coast. The One Mind Temple is examined and consecrated into the African Orthodox Church (AOC), providing greater legitimation for the Coltrane movement. The One Mind Temple is renamed the One Mind Temple Missionary Episcopate of the African Orthodox Church of the West.

1982 (September 19):  John Coltrane was canonized by AOC Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson and named “Saint John.”

1982-1986: Bishop King and his family periodically traveled to Chicago to study under Archbishop Hinkson.

1984:  Franzo King is said to have received a “Doctor of Divinity” degree in Chicago and is formally consecrated as a bishop in the African Orthodox Church.

1986:  The Coltrane movement changed its name to the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

1986-1989:  Bishop King and his family spend time in Chicago for intensive theological study and training.

1989 (October 17):  The Loma Prieta earthquake occurred in San Francisco.

1989:  Bishop King returns to San Francisco after the earthquake to provide spiritual guidance, comfort and aid to victims of the disaster.

1989:  The newly organized “St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church,” now with “legitimate status,” was established on San Francisco.

1989:  Bishop King connected up with Minister Christopher “X” Muhammed of the Nation of Islam, with the intent that they be religious “watchmen” for the black community, represent its concerns, and assist African Americans in San Francisco.

2000:  Rent increases pushed the church out of its Divisadero Street location; the church moved to the upper room of the St. Paulus Lutheran Church on 930 Gough Street, San Francisco.

2001 (March 10):  Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson proclaims Bishop Franzo King to be Archbishop of the African Orthodox Church Jurisdiction of the West.

2003 (July):  Franzo King visited Ghana and Liberia in Africa.

2007:  The church relocated to a storefront space at 1286 Fillmore Street, near the corner of Eddy Street, in the heart of the Fillmore district.

2007:  John Coltrane was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to the history of jazz, his “masterful improvisation,” supreme musicianship and iconic status.

2008 (February 8):  Franzo and Marina King, with other members of the church band, performed Coltrane’s music at a concert in Paris.

2008:  The church became involved with the “Occupy SF” movement in relation to the mortgage crisis. The church broadened its political activities.

2009: The church became involved with the Oscar Grant movement, a continuation of its decades of activism, now in collaboration with the Nation of Islam.

2009 (July):  The church launched a proposal for a project involving the creation of the St. John Coltrane University of Arts and Social Justice (yet unrealized), as a first institution for higher learning to be founded by African Americans on the West Coast.

2010 (September 19):  Wanika Kristi King-Stephens was installed as first female pastor of the African Orthodox Church, challenging the gender politics of the AOC.

2014:  John Coltrane’s son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, donated his fathers Mark VI tenor saxophone for display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

2014 (December 8):  The Coltrane Church celebrated “A Love Supreme 50 Years Celebration,” a free program performed at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill.

2015:  Church member Nicholas Baham III, published a history of the Coltrane Church, based on his PhD dissertation (2001).

2016 (January):  Rent increases once again threatened the church, which resulted in the online petition, “Hands Off The Coltrane Church,” directed at the West Bay Conference Center, through change.org. The church claimed “Victory” after it obtained two more months to stay at its location on Fillmore Street.

2016 (April 24):  The last service at the Fillmore Street location was held. Unable to pay the increased rent, the church was forced to move.

2016 (May 1):  The church relocated to 2097 Turk Street, holding services within the St. Cyprians Episcopal Church building.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

The founder of the Coltrane movement is Franzo Wayne King (1945), [Image at right] who originates from St. Louis, but was raised in Los Angeles. He comes from a family of preachers (the Church of God in Christ, an African American Pentecostal denomination), and was reared in the tradition of the Pentecostal school of black homiletics. Initially he worked various odd jobs, and went to school to become a hairdresser. The early history of the movement is somewhat unclear, with conflicting information, as little exact documentation exists.

The movement seems to originate in a period of personal spiritual searching for Franzo King, an exploration of what his own musical and spiritual interests might reveal. King’s jazz enthusiasm began with him first starting a “listening clinic” and then a jazz club in his home named after the saxophonist Charlie Parker; it is unclear why this was the case, as he says he was “baptized” by the sound of John Coltrane’s music. However, King later explains that Charlie Parker is seen within the Coltrane movement as being similar to the way John the Baptist is viewed in Christianity in relation to Christ. Parker was taken likewise as a prophet, the forerunner who announces the messianic figure of John Coltrane, as the bringer of salvation and sound baptism, and thus invoking the Holy Ghost as well. Throughout the development of the Coltrane Church, King has attempted to bring the movement into a social, political and activist domain, expressing sympathies with the Black Panther Movement and other activist groups. The church is quite serious in its efforts at community outreach, but also regarded as too radical by some commentators.

After establishing the Coltrane movement, and then facing challenges to his church, King accepted the invitation to allow the movement to be incorporated into the African Orthodox Church. In the 1980s, he studied with the leaders of that church in Chicago. After receiving a Doctor of Divinity degree, he returned to San Francisco and restarted his movement with the formal title of the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Despite the various name changes over the years, the performance of Coltrane’s music has remained central to the movement from its beginning, and King is an experienced saxophonist who continues to lead the worship services.

The work of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church is not about the aesthetic development of the music. Bishop King often reminds the congregation “there will be no one coming after John Coltrane.” Instead the mission of the church is about expanding the spiritual possibilities of sound and pursuing a mystical path toward communication with God through sound, a path forged by St. John Coltrane.

During the 1970s and 1980s, King (who for a while called himself Ramakrishna Haqq) and his congregation worshiped Coltrane as “an earthly incarnation of God” and a second coming of Christ, but also considered him a manifestation of Hindu Lord Krishna (“the enchanted player of the flute”). They studied Vedic scriptures and sacred texts from various religious traditions, and they were influenced by black liberation theology and their interactions with Alice Coltrane and her devotion to the popular Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. Vestiges of these influences are still evident on the church’s website and Facebook page, which refer to the “mighty mystic” Coltrane as Sri Rama Ohnedaruth, the Hindu spiritual name given to him by Alice Coltrane after his death. As the Facebook page of the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church states:

We thank God for the anointed universal sound that leaped (lept) down from the throne of heaven out of the very mind of God and incarnated in one Sri Rama Ohnedaruth the mighty mystic known as Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane. That same healing sound was captured and recorded on the sound disc on the wheel in the middle of the wheel (sound disc recording). Music has the power to make others happy, deliver and set free the mind, hearts and souls of the dear listener. All praise to God. One Mind, A Love Supreme (Saint John Will I Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church-Jurisdiction West Facebook page n.d.).

During the late 1970s, a time of spiritual exploration, King’s One Mind Temple was located a few blocks away from another temple, the Jim Jones Peoples Temple. After the Peoples Temple relocated to Jonestown (Guyana) and ended there in 1978 in mass suicides/murders, the assorted alternative religious movements then flourishing in San Francisco at the time were scrutinized and condemned. The Coltrane temple also was seen as “alternative” and criticized by some for its “cult” worship of Coltrane. This resulted in their subsequent affiliation with the African Orthodox Church, a move that provided the movement with an institutional home that appeared more legitimate and less cultic.

The origin of the movement arose from Franzo and Marina King’s [Image at right] own personal “sound baptism” and spiritual transformation that occurred during a live performance by Coltrane at a popular jazz club in San Francisco in 1965. Their experience of Coltrane’s music changed their lives forever, an experience that they equated with the presence of the Holy Ghost, filling their hearts with the love of God. Other individuals have described comparable transformative experiences occurring because of Coltrane’s music. For instance, saxophonist Robert Haven (aka Roberto DeHaven), who became a minister in the church, states that

For me, Coltrane had this very powerful influence in that he was like me, he was using heroin and drinking, but then he quit. Then he went on to devote his music to God. I would sit in my room and cry listening to Coltrane solos. . . . I was completely under Coltrane’s spell (quoted in Gilma and Swimmer 1996).

For congregant Jon Ingle, Coltrane’s music restored his religious belief:

I grew up in Texas, and for a long time I had this little war going on with God . . . I turned away from myself and my spirit. John Coltrane has led me back. So I feel like the spirit of John Coltrane has led me to being more fulfilled in my life than I ever could have imagined (quoted in Gilma and Swimmer 1996).

In 1981, three years after the trauma of the Jonestown as mass murder/suicide, Alice Coltrane sued the Coltrane Church for $7,500,000, accusing it of exploiting her husband’s name and violating copyright laws. The case received national attention after the San Francisco Chronicle covered the dispute with the headline “Widow of ‘God’ Sues Church” (Boulware 2000). Amid this controversy and under increased scrutiny, the Coltrane Church was approached by members of the African Orthodox Church, a small denomination searching for new membership and the expansion of its fledgling organization. In response to these overtures and offers of support, King pursued a somewhat more legitimate status in religious territory, and in 1982 the previously informal or “lay” Coltrane movement was incorporated into the African Orthodox Church. Coltrane was subsequently canonized on September 19, 1982 by Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson and called Saint John. In 1984, the renegade Hinkson left the African Orthodox Church and created his own independent jurisdiction, the African Orthodox Church of the West, consecrating Franzo King as a Bishop.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

From 1969 to 1971, during the initial development of the movement and its various incarnations (e.g., Yardbird Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour; One Mind Temple Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour; One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of the Hour; One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ), the small congregation did not seek new members, but would keep the church doors closed and the windows boarded up, as this close circle of worshipers explored the Christ-like nature of John Coltrane, ultimately proclaiming Coltrane as the manifestation of Christ. “You have to understand that for us,” Bishop King comments, “John Coltrane was God, was the anointed one, the spirit of God, was Blue Krishna. I mean, Coltrane had written songs telling us about ‘Evolution’ and ‘Transition’ and ‘Meditation 4 a.m.’ These were all helping us to evolve into higher spiritual beings, and so we knew that John Coltrane had the power to assist us in our remaking” (Baham 2015:247).

Franzo King is clear about Coltrane’s non-denominational and open sacral and spiritual qualities: “We don’t hold a monopoly on John Coltrane. John is a saint among Buddhists; he is a saint among Moslems. He is a saint among Jews. And I think there are even a few atheists who are leaning on that anointed sound” (Cox 1995:154). And so the church is a shared locus for both views, as King himself recognizes that there are indeed different religious expressions present: the non-mainstream but more or less formalized African Orthodox Church and the open and more “implicit” Coltranist musical expressions perceived by non-AOC-churched Coltrane devotees from all over the world who are able to have transformative experiences brought up solely by the performance of Coltrane’s music. King writes:

We are fully aware of the universality of John Coltrane’s music and philosophy, and that his spirit and legacy does reach and touch the lives of people of many different faiths, creeds, and religions. We however, in this time and place, are grateful for the opportunity to lift up the name of Jesus Christ through John’s music, knowing from personal experience and testimony, and from a great cloud of witnesses, that the Spirit of the Lord is in the Sound Praise as it is delivered from heaven through John (St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church Facebook Page n.d.)

In a related manner, this unique St. Coltrane branch of the African Orthodox Church is strongly independent and conveys a double message: the Christian and Coltranist. And the mission of the Coltrane Church remains international in scope: “to paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God” (St. John Coltrane website n.d.). [Image at right] While this mission is presented within its orthodox Christian dogma of monotheism, it also promotes a pluralistic and holistic spiritual dimension that integrates curious tourists, jazz devotees, and individuals from other religious traditions into its broader sense of purpose. As Archbishop King proclaimed recently in one sermon we attended, “We are part of the African Orthodox Church, but we [Coltranists] are a universal church, a revolutionary church,” and the sermons by King and Reverend King-Stephens repeatedly emphasized the church’s activist and inclusive nature, with references to Buddhism, Hinduism, Bob Marley, the Dalai Lama, Plato, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coltrane’s own personal search for “religious truth” beyond one particular spiritual tradition.

The Saint John Coltrane Church exhibits a triple line of doctrines: 1) the ideological ideas of Coltrane himself, expressed in his writings, lyrics, and musical scores; 2) the complimentary framework that King and his wife Marina created during the years of the Coltrane Church’s existence, as they explored various expressions of eastern religion and forms of alternative spirituality; and 3) the formal teachings that additionally were applied, as a result of the incorporation of the movement into the community of the African Orthodox Church.

The iconic inspiration for this movement, saxophonist John Coltrane, was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition. His own religious awakening occurred in 1957, at a time when he was struggling with alcohol and heroin addiction. The experience transformed his life and musical aesthetic. As he later wrote in the liner notes for A Love Supreme (1965): “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” Coltrane adopted a broad, non-sectarian eclectic view of the divine that was accepting of all faiths, and he viewed his music as a personal expression of a universalist spirituality: “My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music . . . I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls” (Porter 1998:232).

As a result of the enormous success of his album A Love Supreme (recorded in December 1964 and released in 1965), his concept of multicultural musical transcendence became extremely popular in the late 1960s. His early adoption of Eastern spiritualities is evident in recordings such as Om (1965) and Meditations (1966), while his Ascension album (1966) shows his move towards the incantatory and the shamanistic, bringing in the “magical powers of repetition.”

Coltrane’s second wife Alice [Image at right] played an active role in the ways he started to explore non-Western spiritualities and to look for his “authentic self,” as he was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita, Theosophical texts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Krishnamurti, Yogananda, the Kabbalah, yoga, astrology, and Sufi mysticism. In 1965, he was also meditating daily and began experimenting with LSD (Berkman 2007:44-45, 55; Nisenson 1995: 166-67). The spiritual universality he wished to realize through music was an intentional path to religious pluralism and away from the institutionalized religious traditions, an attempt to use jazz as a universal vehicle for modern spiritual self-realization. The album Universal Consciousness released in 1971 by his widow Alice Coltrane after his death in 1967 is a later example of that spiritual quest.

Within the formal exegesis of the St. John Coltrane Church, the consecrated Coltrane is often addressed with his two first names as “Saint John Will-I-Am,” which is a reference to Exodus 3:14 in which God says to Moses from the burning bush: “I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.”

The nicknaming of Coltrane as the “Risen Trane,” is a reference to the spiritually transformed John Coltrane “post-1957,” after he overcame his heroin and alcohol addiction. It points equally to a specific Christian context, on the one hand to Coltrane’s resurrectional success as a person overcoming human vices and on the other hand suggesting an analogy with the resurrected Christ. As the publications and Facebook page of the St. John Coltrane church explain:

The ascension of St. John Coltrane into one-ness with God is what we refer to as the Risen Trane. In dealing with the Saint, John Coltrane, we are not dealing with St. John the man but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound. From the standpoint of the biography of John Coltrane, the Risen Trane is the post-1957 John Coltrane. He who emerged from drug addiction onto a path of spiritual awakening and who gave testimony of the power and empowerment of grace of God in his life and in his Psalm on A Love Supreme, and in his music thereafter. . . . We, too, having been touched by this anointed sound and being called and chosen by the Holy Ghost, endeavor to carry the holy ambition and mantle of sound baptism of St. John Coltrane (Saint John Will I Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church-Jurisdiction West Facebook page n.d.).

In line with the doctrines of African Orthodox Church, as Archbishop King explains, Coltrane has been accommodated to the formal Christian teachings and downgraded to a saintly figure, not a prime godly being: “We demoted Coltrane from being God. But the agreement was that he could come into sainthood and be the patron of our church” (Freedman 2007). Yet, the sacred and godly status of Coltrane still seems prominent, a synthesis of beliefs, as explained on the Church’s Facebook webpage in a somewhat hybridic manner:

Our primary mission at the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church is to bring souls to Christ; to know sound as the preexisting wisdom of God, and to understand the divine nature of our patron saint in terms of his ascension as a high soul into one-ness with God through sound. In our praises we too seek such a relationship with God. We have come to understand John Coltrane in terms of his sound and as sound in meditative union with God ( (Saint John Will I Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church-Jurisdiction West Facebook page n.d.).

In this way Coltrane is referred to both as a divine and ascended godly person and as a saintly mediator to bring people to Christ, with Coltrane’s musical sound described as a direct expression of God, even as the “preexisting wisdom” of God.

As the group is now established formally as the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, God is worshiped through sound, and saintly Coltrane is honored by them as an enlightened being who attained mystical union with God and conveyed this through his music. In this context, improvised jazz itself becomes the vehicle for transformative experiences of the sacred. Coltrane’s compositions, venerated as holy and divinely inspired, have been elevated to a level of sacred song conventionally reserved for more traditional forms of devotional music. Officially, the primary principle of the church is now defined and limited to the worshipping of the Christian God, with a mission to “bring souls to Christ.” Or as King once phrased it, “when you listen to John Coltrane, you become a disciple of the anointed of God” (Freedman 2007).

The weekly audiences at the Coltrane Church show a global geographical representation of jazz lovers and votaries and a wide range of believers from assorted religious and spiritual currents and agnostics. Although now formatted in the frame of the AOC, the Archbishop King and other members of the church simultaneously put forward an open spiritual paradigm, in a way that almost any religiously inspired person or lover of jazz may be accommodated. In an interview in 2000, King reflected on the expansive spiritual dimension of Coltrane and his meanings: “I realized that the music of John Coltrane was representative beyond culture… And it wasn’t just a cultural or ethnic thing. It was something that was higher.” For King, the church and particularly the soundscape of St. John’s is the “genesis” of an autonomous Coltrane belief system. As he states it, at some moment, “you begin to see God in the sound. It’s a point of revelation, it’s not something that happens with absolute clarity, but it begins an evolution, or a transition, or process. The consciousness level, that opening, is evolving. Baptism is what it is” (Boulware 2000).

As noted, this “baptism in sound” clearly plays with the other baptizing John in Christianity, but refers here to the possibility of Coltrane’s music to touch and capture the hearts and minds of the listeners and to realize transformation. And so, at St. John Coltrane’s storefront church two realities of religious experience can be perceived at the same location, representing actually a simultanaeum of the formal services of the African Orthodox Church as performed at its John Coltrane Church and at the same time the open spiritual Coltranist domain that provides the experience of the musical sublime, creating spiritualizing effects, an implicit expression of the religious, among the majority of visitors and locals who know nothing about the doctrines of the African Orthodox Church.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The worship services at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church [Image at right] are scheduled to begin at approximately noon (to accommodate the late night schedules of jazz musicians who sleep late in the morning). These services take at least three hours. The core congregation is made up of a mix of young and elderly African Americans and a few white musicians and multi-ethnic parishioners. Many are causally dressed, a few in suits or African-inspired attire, some of whom bring their entire family to the service, and children freely wander about the room and participate in the service. These regular members are joined each Sunday by a potpourri of jazz enthusiasts, hipsters, spiritual pilgrims, curious locals, and travellers from all over the world who have heard of the worship services, known and promoted by enthusiasts globally for their lively style and enthusiastic performances of Coltrane’s music. Weekly attendance is typically somewhere between ten and twenty people, with attendance reaching forty to sixty people in the summer, including local and international visitors. In 2000, the audience was asked how many of them were local residents. Of the approximately sixty people present, just three raised their hands, with more than ninety percent of the congregation from somewhere else, with visitors from Arizona, Texas, Spain, France, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, and Sweden (Boulware 2000). In recent years, there are always more travellers than regular congregants. The number of formal members of the Coltrane Church is in fact relatively few, with the core congregation varying from fifteen to twenty-five parishioners over the years.

In attending services at the Coltrane Church, there seems to be no distinction made between religious intentions, such as whether one is a regular attendee or a newcomer who wants to participate in the spiritual-musical realm of Coltrane’s divine sound. Participants are all encouraged to bring their own instruments to contribute to the service, and members of the audience are handed tambourines and asked to participate as the spirit moves them, with dancing and personal “witnessing” occurring in the aisles. The church’s ensemble, Ohnedaruth (also referred to as the “Ministers of Sound”) and a small choir called the “Voices of Compassion” (formerly the “Sisters of Compassion”) lead the congregants in what they call the “Coltrane Liturgy,” which begins with a nearly two hour jam session. It combines the liturgy of the African Orthodox Church with the harmonies, melodies, and rhythms of Coltrane’s musical sermon or “prayer,” A Love Supreme, as well other Coltrane works like “Africa” and the ballad “Lonnie’s Lament.” When the ensemble plays “Acknowledgement” from A Love Supreme, the choir sang the words to Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . .”), and those present were encouraged to say (or pray) the words “A Love Supreme” at the appropriate moment in the performance, with the core congregation and visitors alike chanting in unison. In a similar synchronization of formal liturgy with Coltrane’s music, the choir sang The Lord’s Prayer when the composition “Spiritual” was played. Each Sunday, the Archbishop King, as an accomplished saxophone player, energetically performs his religious calling, accompanied by other enthusiastic performers, who sacrifice themselves on the altar of sound praise to produce illuminated layers of inspired music. Usually the performers are accompanied by Mother Marina singing praise and the soulful regulars Reverend Wanika on the upright and electric bass and Reverend Max Ha’qq on alto sax, accompanied by other family members and musically-talented devotees.

After the musical performance, additional traditional Christian liturgical elements are introduced, such as readings from the Epistles and the Gospels, the Apostles’ Creed, the offering, and then the sermon. The church follows then in a formal way the creeds of the African Orthodox Church (a blend of Eastern and Western liturgies and traditional Catholic doctrine). The services are however also strongly influenced by Pentecostalism, with an emphasis on the presence of the Holy Spirit, spontaneous shouting-out, clapping, the exorcizing of demons (through music), and Archbishop King’s own fiery preaching.

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

The Coltrane movement, born from the personal religious experiences of Franzo and Marina King in 1965, has existed in various forms now for five decades and occupied various locations as a storefront church over the years. During our research from 2009-2016, the church was situated in a plain office building, its nondescript glass front door looking like an entrance to a business. The church was identifiable only by a window poster of a cross formed from two tenor saxophones and a small sign that says “Coltrane Lives.” On the days of worship services, a larger sidewalk sign was put out on the street. [Image at right] The church was housed in a simple and rather small space that accommodated up to fifty people, with rows of blue banquet chairs facing the combined stage/altar cluttered with a full drum set, keyboards, a standup bass, saxophones, amplifiers, microphone stands, and other instruments. This brightly lit converted office space had no resemblance to a conventional jazz venue as it might be experienced now or as imagined in the jazz clubs of Coltrane’s era. The walls were decorated with large colorful Eastern-Orthodox-style icons created by church Deacon Mark Dukes, with images of the tree of life, fiery-winged red angelic beings, the Blessed Virgin Mary and child, and a dreadlocked Jesus sitting on a throne, all depicted as dark-skinned in the aesthetic tradition of the African Orthodox Church. [Image at right] To the left of the altar there was an eight foot image of patron saint Coltrane sitting on an African throne, wearing white religious vestments, framed with a golden halo, holding a saxophone blowing holy fire and a scroll with words from the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Batik depictions of Coltrane and assorted African motifs hung from banners along the ceiling and against the walls, and an image of Che Guevara was prominently displayed on a conga drum. A small table in the back of the church contained a guestbook, a pamphlet with the title “Are You an Addict?” and a few items for sale, such as Coltrane Church T-shirts, incense, prayer cloths, and icon postcards. Hanging above the table was a frequently reproduced icon of Coltrane, holy intense and otherworldly in expression, in a green velvet jacket, gripping his flaming saxophone.

In addition to Franzo and Marina King as the founding church leaders, who are now recognized as Archbishop King and Reverend Mother King within the context of the African Orthodox Church, numerous other individuals have been appointed reverends, deacons, and sub-deacons, including the Kings’ family members Wanika King-Stephens, Makeda King Nueckel, Franzo Wayne King, Jr., and Marlee-I Mystic, among others. Musicians in the church ensemble Ohnedaruth (Sanskrit for “compassion” and as mentioned, one of Coltrane’s spiritual names) have been appointed reverends and clergy as well.

There are various other members of the ministry who assist in the services and participate in the jam sessions, including two ministers of tap dance. According to Archbishop King, this church “is born out of music, a gift of God,” working to “strip down the dogma” and “bring the people in an enlightened state, to a love supreme” (quoted in Gilma and Swimmer 1996).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

The present movement is now and has always been facing challenges throughout its history. In recent years there have been crises of a more financial, habitational and urban kind, as well as matters of continuation and evangelizing.

Due to processes of urbanization, demographics and gentrification within the San Francisco area, in combination with a continuous lack of sufficient financial means, the Coltrane movement was not able to remain rooted at its original site, within its social context. The movement was forced to leave its neighborhood, and thus was less connected to the local African American community, and local attendance declined over the years. Several times the movement has been forced out of its church space due to the increase of rent or inappropriate housing facilities. In 2015, Reverend King expressed once again his dismay about the situation, lamenting the exodus of the African American community and the loss of local culture in the Western Addition and Fillmore districts: “What’s happening is just short of genocide. It’s a crime, pre-meditated with malice and forethought, to drive the African-American community out of San Francisco. We’ve tried to stand up against this fact with very little success” (MacDonald 2015).

The relocation of the Coltrane Church to various locations not only has resulted in the loss of local community members, but also the loss of numbers of tourists and foreign visitors, whether serious Coltrane devotees or curious travelers, who were not able to find the proper address of the new, nomadic church space. In this regard, the attendance and donations of tourists and out-of-towners seems especially important for continuation of the church, which seems always on the verge of financial collapse. Another major concern is the fact that at the time of this writing the leader of the movement, Franzo King, is now seventy-one years old, and the future leadership of the church is unclear.

An additional issue is that the John Coltrane Church appears to be somewhat of a fringe movement within the formal African Orthodox Church network. It is hence unclear what will happen when the leader of the movement will not be able to keep the helm in the future. Will the AOC take over the movement and incorporate it more strictly, or will it, as a Fremdkörper (a “foreign body”), be placed outside the AOC?

One source of hope for the future of the movement is the increasing role of Archpriest and Reverend Wanika King-Stephens in leading the worship services. Her inspired efforts, along with that of the other devoted members of the congregation, when combined with the enthusiastic support of Coltrane enthusiasts throughout the world, offer the promising possibility that the St. John Coltrane Church, as a unique religious phenomenon that has become part of the cultural heritage of San Francisco, with an expanding global appeal, will survive in the years ahead.

IMAGES

Image #1: Photograph of Archbishop Franzo Wayne King.
Image #2: Photograph of Marina King.
Image #3: Photograph of John Coltrane’s 1965 album, “A Love Supreme.”
Image #4: Photograph of John Coltrane’s wife, Alice Coltrane at the piano.
Image #5: Photograph of a gathering at Coltrane Church.
Image #6: Photograph of the sidewalk sign in front of the office building in which the Coltrane Church is located.
Image #7: Photograph of colorful wall decorations at Coltrane Church.
Image #8: Photograph of Wanika King-Stephens.

REFERENCES*

*Unless otherwise referenced, the material in this profile is drawn from Margry and Wojcik (2016), Baham (2015), Bivins (2015), and Boulware (2000).

Baham, Nicholas Louis, III. 2015. The Coltrane Church: Apostles of Sound, Agents of Social Justice. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Berkman, Franya J. 2007. “Appropriating Universality: The Coltranes and 1960s Spirituality.” American Studies 48:41-62.

Bivins, Jason C. 2015. Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Boulware, Jack. 2000. “Requiem for Church Supreme.” SF Weekly, January 26. Accessed from http://m.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/requiem-for-a-church-supreme/Content?oid=2137874 on November 6, 2016.

Cox, Harvey. 1995. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Freedman, Samuel G. 2007. “Sunday Religions, Inspired by Saturday Nights.” New York Times, December 1. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/ 12/01/us/01religion.html?r=0 on November 20, 2016.

Gilma, Gayle and Jeff Swimmer. 1996. The Church of Saint John Coltrane. Tango Films.

Margry, Peter Jan and Daniel Wojcik. 2016. “A Saxophone Divine: Experiencing the Transformative Power of Saint John Coltrane’s Jazz in San Francisco’s Fillmore District.” Pp. 169-94 in Spiritualizing the City: Agency and Resilience of the Urbanesque Habitat (Routledge Studies in Urbanism and the City), edited by Victoria Hegner and Peter Jan Margry.  London and New York: Routledge.

MacDonald, Eli. 2015. “Taking the Pulse of the Fillmore.” San Francisco Foghorn, February 11. Accessed from http://sffoghorn.org/2015/02/11/taking-the-pulse-of-the-fillmore on 16 June 2016.

Nisenson, Eric. 1995. Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. New York: Da Capo.

Porter, Lewis. 1998. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church Facebook Page. n.d. “About.” Accessed from https://www. facebook.com/stjohncoltranechurchwest/about/ .

Saint John Coltrane Church Website. n.d. Accessed from http://www.coltranechurch.org/ on 27 November 2016.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Baham, Nicholas Louis, III. 2001. Out of this World. Anthropological Testimonies of Awakening and Renewal in Coltrane Consciousness. An Ethnography of the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Ph.D. Dissertation. Bloomington: Indiana University.

Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Brandreth, Henry R. T. 1987 [1947]. Episcopi Vagantes and the Anglican Church. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo Press.

Brown, Leonard L., ed. 2010. John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fischlin, Daniel, Ajay Heble and George Lipsitz. 2013. The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Cocreation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Floyd, Samuel A. 1996. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Howison, Jamie. 2012. God’s Mind in That Music: Theological Exploration through the Music of John Coltrane. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books.

[King, Franzo W.], ed. 1981. John Coltrane Speaks. San Francisco: SunShip Publishing, Second Edition.

Leonard, Neil. 1987. Jazz: Myth and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peretti, Burton W. 1997. Jazz in American Culture. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Peretti, Burton W. 1992. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Porter, Eric. 2002. What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Pruter, Karl. 2006. “The African Orthodox Church.” Pp. 81-85 in The Old Catholic Church. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press.

Saul, Scott. 2003. Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stowe, David W. 2004. How Sweet the Sound: Music and the Spiritual Lives of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Whyton, Tony. 2013. Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Woideck, Carl. 1998. The John Coltrane Companion: Five Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books.

Post Date:
2 December 2016

 

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