Music takes on such magnificent force at times that we are left feeling small and speechless, like some wandering electron floating about in space. So engulfing is the emotional reaction that we shudder and shiver, or tremble and rejoice in smile or even laugh.
“I am not a religious person, but John Coltrane was the one man whom I worshipped as a saint or even a god.” – Frank Kofsky, jazz critic for Downbeat
It is 3:40 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and The Most Reverend Bishop Franzo W. King is snuffing out the remaining candles that line the alter. The weekly Sunday divine liturgy is just under four hours old at St. John’s African Orthodox Church. A total of 14 musicians are spread throughout the tiny storefront church: four tenors, a soprano, two pianos, drums, stand-up bass, a blue violin, guitar, congas, bongos and a varied assortment of tambourines and other melody makers. The choir has sung itself out. People pack every seat and spill into the aisles and outside onto the sidewalk.
“God breathes through us so completely…
so gently we hardly feel it…yet,
it is our everything.
Thought waves – heat waves -
all vibrations – all paths lead to God.
The universe has many wonders.
ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION -
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen
-John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
Since 1971, this humble congregation has offered its one gift, celebrating His word through the musical heart of John Coltrane. Yesterday was Saturday, September 23rd, the day the greatest modern saxophone player was born, the day of the autumn equinox, on the cusp between Virgo and Libra. It’s one of the two days during the year in which night and day are in perfect balance. So today’s celebration is especially intense.
Editor’s Note: The Church has moved around a few times in the last couple of years and so you are advised to check www.coltranechurch.org/ before setting off. In February, 2006 it was at 1286 Fillmore Street. I found it a really welcoming and vibrant place even though I am not a believer. See the pictures on Flykr
I want to be a force for real good. I know that there are bad forces here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the force which is truly for good. – John Coltrane
It is the dedicated triumph of John Coltrane’s life over many tempting obstacles, his music, and his testimony that have inspired these followers to be led down a righteous path, committed to “live cleanly and do right.” Located on Divisadero Street near Haight, they continue their search for all that is good, in spite of the evils and struggles of urban life.
“Trane still sounds inside us as the freedom we seek, the total expression of our lives, as the expression of the Human-headed Soul, the teaching that the flaming paradise of his music is in us to create the world we live in.” - Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones)
Everyone inside the church is a musician and the worship is led by King, who bangs on a bongo or blows fire into his horn. A stand up piano lines the aisle next to an aging drum kit. Tambourines and congas are played in the front rows, where the choir resides. Without a single spoken word, the service rips away into its thirty-minute procession, ‘Africa’. Then without a breath, a segue to the birth and slow build up of ‘Acknowledgment’. A Love Supreme is the highlight of the entire mass – a half hour of sweaty, intense spiritual expression where jazz meets Jesus and giant steps spiral upward. Almost no oral dialog takes place until after the first hour and a half. Just music. Don Cherry used to stand outside the church on Sundays, listening and gazing upward as the traffic blazed by.
“The emotional reaction is all that matters. As long as there is some feeling of communication, it isn’t necessary that it be understood.” – John Coltrane, 1964
Cries of “Praise God!” and “Say it Bishop!” ring out. One priest solos, then another and a third. People passing by on the street peer in to see what’s going on. Two hours into the liturgy, every musician is dripping with sweat, half the people are dancing or clapping. Some bow their heads, folding their hands in silent prayer. The percussion is throttling away. Anyone who can hold an instrument is in full swing. They have recognised the intimate relationship in life between music and spirituality, between the past and the future. Perhaps they are not waiting to get to heaven. Maybe they feel they have already arrived.
“Coltrane tried to explain in his music the wonderful things that the universe meant to him. Playing jazz was a spiritual experience to Coltrane, and he always felt that he would share his feelings with his listeners. There is no doubt about his strong religious motivation… Coltrane came, and he made music. He built on existing foundations. He and his music lived in inexorable relation to other lives, other ideas, other musics.” - Gordon Kopulos, John Coltrane: Retrospective Perspective, 1971
John Coltrane was a mortal man, living an immortal life. Like Mozart, he was given a divine gift. Had someone told him he wasn’t supposed to do all of those revolutionary things with a saxophone, he would have done them anyway. He was the fiercest player since Charlie Parker and the angels that blessed his playing also fuelled his addition. But, during the year 1957 Trane said he, “experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” Some say in order to kick the junk, he made a pact with God. If he could overcome his raging addiction, he would devote his life and music to the Church. And so it was — he cleaned up and poured the remaining years of his life into a personal crusade of a higher being.
It has been said quite often that before he recorded A Love Supreme, Coltrane was again spoken to by God, and it is not difficult to imagine how one might interpret that. The beauty of each composed note on that record speaks for his ability, in 1964, to give up his every energy to another spirit. Through courage comes freedom and by the mid-Sixties Coltrane must have felt he was the freest man alive, his wholeness bursting forward with such powerful deliverance.
“Trane’s death made me real sad because not only was he a great and beautiful musician, he was a kind and beautiful and spiritual person that I loved. I miss him, his spirit, and his creative imagination and his searching, innovative approach. He was a genius… - Miles Davis in his autobiography, Miles
Bishop King carries on that hope, that guidance, stating that John Coltrane is their “messenger of Sound Praise for the upliftment and dedication of our lives to God” and thanks “all who have held fast to the form of the Sound Word, and those who continue to share the vision and pursuit of A Love Supreme. We are fully aware of the universality of his music and his philosophy, and that his spirit and legacy reaches and touches the lives of people of many different faiths, creeds and religions.” For the church’s believers and a Bishop named King, John Coltrane — the genius — lives on forever at 351 Divisadero Street, in San Francisco, California.
“May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in always and forever.” – John Coltrane
–Photo by Damian Rafferty–