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.
After a short stint in the navy, Coltrane became deeply involved with the postwar jazz scene, backing some of the era’s top performers, including Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Miles Davis. But jazz wasn’t the only thing consuming Trane. Like Charlie Parker, one of his idols, he got hooked on both heroin and alcohol. While opinions vary as to how severely Coltrane’s addictions affected his music, he did get fired from several gigs, including his most prominent one, with trumpeter Davis.
In 1957 Coltrane overcame his addictions and, like many others who conquer their personal demons, found his way to a greater spiritual depth. “I experienced, by the grace of God,” he later wrote, “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 produced an amazing amount of work in the 10 years he had left to live. By the time he died of liver cancer in 1967 at age 40, he had taken the saxophone, and jazz itself, to new places, raising the art of improvisation to a level that few if any have equaled.
Coltrane’s hallowed status at St. John’s is largely the work of the church’s founder and bishop, Franzo Wayne King. King founded the church in 1971 as the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ. In 1982 the church joined the African Orthodox Church, a small denomination started by African Americans who had been drawn to aspects of Greek, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox liturgy. Appointed the church’s bishop, King dropped its old name and chose Coltrane as its patron saint. As a young man, King–not unlike Coltrane–had fled the religion of his Pentecostal parents for the jazz clubs. Seeing Coltrane play in 1965 was the “sound baptism” that started King on a “very serious and earnest journey to seek out God.” At St. John’s, he hoped to lead others to the transformative spiritual experience he had encountered in Coltrane’s music.
St. John’s attracts a diverse group of seekers: disaffected Gen-Xers, affluent African American businesspeople, dreadlocked hippies, aging beats. Even those who are familiar with Coltrane’s music may not be prepared for the positive vibrations of “St. John, the sound Baptist,” as the church calls him. On the Sunday I attended, the tiny chapel was nearly full when the service began, but within minutes people started slipping out. The din of saxophones, drums, congas, bass, and percussion quickly overwhelmed the uninitiated. A trumpet inches from the back of my head screeched and honked the artist’s avant-garde music throughout the service. But the worship style, flowing out of the Pentecostal and black church traditions, is as fervent and powerful as you’ll find anywhere.
Many Christians have criticized St. John’s for granting sainthood to a jazz musician and former addict; but given Coltrane’s spiritual impact on the African American community and beyond, the decision isn’t so strange. In many ways, mainstream Christianity’s refusal to consider canonizing exceptional people like Coltrane parallels the dominant Western culture’s assertion that the only truly “classical” music is by Beethoven, Mozart, and other white Europeans. Yet the music of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, and, yes, John Coltrane is equally “classic”–or more so, some would argue.
On another level, the service at St. John’s challenges mainstream assumptions about worship itself. While people around the world spend hours, if not days, celebrating their spiritual traditions, North American churchgoers often get irritable if services last more than an hour. At St. John’s, the hours of worship filled with unsettling sounds are a challenge to mainstream churches that have conformed in many ways to the dominant paradigms of Western society: consumerism instead of personal sacrifice, entertainment instead of prophecy, the individual instead of community.
In the coming decades, as the center of Christianity moves from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, other cultural expressions of worship are destined to become more influential. St. John’s is an indication of that trend. Indeed, the cultural reshaping of spiritual expression has been going on as long as humans have gathered for religious worship. Still, many find it hard to equate worship with “ugly” music, which is how some would describe much of Coltrane’s later work. Can art that challenges our sense of aesthetics be said to inspire us? Or can only the art we consider beautiful and attractive lift our hearts and souls toward the divine?
Coltrane’s later work is, in fact, beautiful, at least for many who have delved deeply into it. Some Coltrane critics have called it “anti-jazz,” but others would disagree. In his recent biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan, 1998), Lewis Porter, professor of jazz theory at Rutgers University, explores one of Coltrane’s most obtuse works, “Venus,” recorded in 1966 with drummer Rashied Ali. Porter concludes that “Venus” is an exceedingly complex study of chord contortions based on systematic, almost mathematical, musical theory.
But what Coltrane was doing went far beyond technical virtuosity. After recording A Love Supreme in 1964 (a work he said had come to him as a vision from God), Coltrane stated that 90 percent of his playing was actually prayer. “I know there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world,” he once said, “but I want to be the opposite force, I want to be the force which is truly for good.” By all accounts a humble and gentle man, Coltrane no doubt would have been uncomfortable being called a saint. But he surely would have been happy to hear his music moving people toward a deeper relationship with the divine.
THE ESSENTIAL COLTRANE
John Coltrane recorded more than 75 albums as a bandleader and played on numerous others. Here are a few of his key recordings.
Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). This Miles Davis classic is an excellent example of Trane’s work as a sideman, along with fellow saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly.
Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1959). Coltrane’s first album of entirely original material had a huge impact in jazz circles.
A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1964). Recorded with his quartet of 1961-65, Coltrane’s spiritual masterpiece is both profound and accessible.
Stellar Regions (Impulse! 1995). This recently discovered 1967 recording shows the more contemplative direction Coltrane’s “late period” music was headed at the time of his death. If you can handle this, you might want to look into some of Coltrane’s more esoteric works: Meditations, Ascension, Om, and Interstellar Space.
Aaron McCarroll Gallegos is a writer living in Toronto. From The Other Side (March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (10 issues) from 300 W. Apsley St., Philadelphia, PA 19144.