John Coltrane, Patron Saint

Sundays rock at a tiny church whose worshipers celebrate Coltrane's divine sax

| July-August 1999

By the time my wife and I arrived for morning worship at St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, waves of intense sound were already flowing from the Divisadero Street storefront. Located in San Francisco's Western Addition district, between the gritty Tenderloin and groovy Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods, St. John's has a powerful witness the local community can't ignore. Even the most jaded pedestrians were poking their heads in the door to see what all the racket was about.

In spite of the church's huge reputation, the sanctuary is only the size of your average living room, and it feels even smaller because of the radiant Byzantine-style icons that cover the walls: Jesus the Alpha and Omega, Mary the Mother of God, the Tree of Life, and, above the altar, the icon that testifies to the uniqueness of this congregation—a noble image of the church's patron saint, jazz musician John Coltrane, complete with golden halo and holy fire streaming from his saxophone.

While some might find it odd that a church would so honor a jazz musician, this diverse gathering of church members, music lovers, tourists, and the spiritually curious didn't seem to mind. Throughout several hours of worship, the brilliantly colored church pulsated with Coltrane's music, led by a drum-beating, sax-playing team of clergy. Shouts of “Hallelujah!” “Amen!” and “Praise God!” punctuated chants and melodies from Coltrane's masterwork, A Love Supreme.

Some recent accounts in the press about this church have missed the point, mistakenly concluding that the church worships Coltrane himself. In fact, its theology is quite traditional. What makes this church wildly different—and somewhat controversial—is its use of the music and words of a jazz musician to express devotion to God. But something else is going on at St. John's as well. I believe their unique form of worship raises important issues about the changing nature of modern American religion, especially mainstream Christianity, as we enter the 21st century.

John Coltrane is certainly not the most likely candidate for Christian sainthood. He wasn't a conventional Christian, nor was he a conventional musician. Until his death in 1967, “Trane,” an endless seeker, pursued an eclectic spiritual path influenced by Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the Kabbalah, astrology, and Einstein's theory of relativity. He expressed this spiritual search in his music, and he invited his listeners along on the pilgrimage.

Coltrane had a strong Christian upbringing in the North Carolina home of his minister grandfather, but music—not religion—was his life's passion. He took up the clarinet and saxophone in high school, then moved to Philadelphia in search of work. Coltrane practiced hard, often silently fingering his sax late into the night in the boardinghouse room he shared with his cousin Mary.

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