A Place For The Soul To Sing: The Church Of St. John Coltrane

The plight and the power of the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church of San Francisco

The first time I listened to The John Coltrane Quintet’s majestic 1965 album A Love Supreme, I was a teenager taking the city bus from one side of L.A. to the other. This is a journey that sometimes involves entire hours of your life creeping away as you crawl block by block. The bus in Los Angeles is a fever dream, a meditation on waiting, on sitting, on sweating. On shit-brown and dull, blood-red monotony, on gang tags etched in plexiglass; the balm of partially dried urine at your feet. I had nodded off somewhere on the east end of Santa Monica Boulevard, letting the music play, my head pressed against the window, beads of sweat dotting my brow, a parade of fruit carts and strip malls drifting past my view until I finally gave in and closed my eyes.

I awoke, or maybe came into dreaming, to the sound of four black men chanting in my ears, close enough that I could feel their breath. A love supreme, they said. A love supreme. A love supreme. Nineteen times until I could not be sure if I was waking or dying. I opened my eyes. I was on Ventura Boulevard. The afternoon crush of East Hollywood had given way to the dry and desolate stucco of the Valley. I had never heard music in which men were chanting at me. Before I understood what was happening, I was launched into the second track, “Part 2: Resolution,” and by the end of Coltrane’s solo, where he answers McCoy Tyner’s kaleidoscopic chord symphony with an epic striving, a flawless and fruitless reaching toward the heavens, where his sax finally fails him and he travels the final miles on squeaks and breath alone, I was crying. On the bus. On the part of the boulevard where there are only tanning salons, martial arts studios, and acting classes.

That was the place where kids like me, whose parents didn’t have cars, had to go for their spiritual awakenings. In public. In transit. John Coltrane, that motherfucker, was trying to explain all of life, all the pain and confusion, hope and striving, all the bloodshed and crying and most of all the rapture of being. And he was trying to do it in a song. A fucking jazz song. It wasn’t the music that made me cry. It was the audacity it took for him to make it. There is nothing more human and more godly than stepping up to a mic with the kind of nerve it takes to believe you’re about to say everything.

Coltrane was a spiritual figure haunted by a deep grief and a drug addiction that nearly killed him. Born in North Carolina, he lost almost his entire family by the time he was in his teens and moved north to Philadelphia alone to be cared for by an aunt. It was then that he began playing and never looked back. It is said that so much of his adolescence was spent at the dining room table with a sax and a tattered stack of sheet music that his family treated him like part of the furniture. Eager to avoid the draft, he enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, which happened to be the same day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and unleashed a horror from which no human being should ever recover. During his deployment, his talent was quickly discovered and he began playing with the Navy swing band.

By the time Coltrane was discharged, bebop was happening and he jumped into recording as a sideman and studying the work of Charlie Parker. He quickly rose up the ranks of session men due to his outsize technical prowess until he got a call from Miles Davis in 1955 to join his quintet. It was the big leagues, and that team went on to make some of the best recorded music of the century, culminating in the seminal masterwork Kind of Blue. But Coltrane’s heroin addiction, which had begun in 1948, made it impossible for them to go on. Startled into a moment of clarity by the end of the Miles Davis Dream, Coltrane quit drugs cold turkey in 1957, and during the shuddering horror of detox he claims to have had the visit from God that forever changed the direction of his life and led to the creation of his masterwork, A Love Supreme.

“Dear Listener,” he wrote in the liner notes, “in 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a 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.”

Apparently God answered in the affirmative.

I’m not the only person who has had a spiritual experience listening to A Love Supreme . In 1966, a young musician and son of a Pentecostal minister named Franzo Wayne King heard John Coltrane play at the Jazz Workshop. King would later refer to this night as his “sound baptism,” and soon after Coltrane’s death in 1967, King and his wife formed a small church congregation based on the idea that the saxophonist was so badass that he might just be an incarnation of God on earth. This was not a run-of-the mill idea for a church, but in the city that gave us the People’s Temple and the Church of Satan, a Coltrane devotion constituted a relatively mild and harmless form of religious divergence. More than a place for music, the church, situated in the historic Fillmore District, became a nexus for political action, community healing, charity, and anti-racist work. In 1982, King met with an archbishop of the African Orthodox Church and gained recognition for his congregation. The result was the Saint John Coltrane Church, San Francisco, which is the only African Orthodox Church for which Coltrane’s own words constitute the liturgy and his music, the scriptures.

I visited the church last Sunday morning to take part in the 10:30 guided meditation, which consists of a brief introduction from the pastor, listening to A Love Supreme in full, and then testimony from congregants on how love has reached their lives. There was a part of me that expected it to be ridiculous. I mean, I hoped it wouldn’t be, but I’ve been in the Bay Area long enough to know most radical community ideas that began in the ’60s and ’70s are silly at best and dangerous at worst. We don’t do that kind of thing anymore. No matter how many revelations were had, no matter how many ways of living were founded and formed, it seems humanity has only been substantially changed by three things: money, technology in the pursuit of money, and the destruction that results from technology in the pursuit of money. In a world like this, how can listening to a 50-year-old record mean anything substantial?

I walked into the room right as the service began and tried to look unassuming as I slipped into a seat in the back. There were more people there than I expected. Some looked like they had just come from yoga class or like they might be hiding from a job at a law firm. Others were clad in daishikis and sunglasses. All in all, it was the kind of diversity white people in San Francisco are always bragging about to white people in other cities. Sister Marlee-I Mystic addressed the congregants with an intoxicating mix of authority and familiarity, explaining how service would go. Each chair had a laminated set of album liner notes, which were read as liturgy. Opposite that were the words that Coltrane had written to accompany his solo on “Psalm.” We were told that we would read the manifesto, listen to the album, and, if we so chose, sing along. That was it. Get comfortable. Take a breath. Close your eyes. Listen.

Sometimes music gives you a feeling. Maybe it’s when you’ve had too much coffee or recently had your heart broken or maybe it’s just when you’re in the back of a cab, feeling hot and hungover, suffering a nameless and eternal shame for whatever it was that happened the night before. But then your jam comes on. And for whatever reason, you’re able to receive it. You’ve heard it before. But this time it's different. This time it feels like a revelation, the truest truth, a point of transformation that leaves you wondering, When am I ever going to feel this again? This song will be over. This whole thing will be over.

That’s what it’s like listening to A Love Supreme at the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. At least it was for me. I got to close my eyes and let every goddamn note touch me however it wanted. And there was something about the invocation Marlee-I Mystic delivered beforehand that allowed it. There was something about the community in that room that sanctioned it. There was something about the room itself, appointed as a sacred space, the album cover propped on an altar and surrounded by candles, the Byzantine paintings of Coltrane as a saint with his horn in one hand and the Scriptures in the other, the light of God rising from behind his head. There was something about the melancholy gaze of his face, the hollow and determined resignation of his eyes. A saint is someone who didn’t mean to be a saint but had no other choice. A saint was a kid. A saint was an addict. A saint was in the Navy. A saint detoxed in a pool of sweat and tears and God came to him. A saint dies at 40. A saint makes music that makes teenagers he will never meet cry on buses in the San Fernando Valley. There was something about all of this that made it safe for me to become lost in the swell of this music. There is something about a saint that makes it safe for all of us to get lost in the swell of being human.

After it was over, the testimony began. Each person spoke their gospel but in their language. Some people were quiet, some were loud. Some intellectualized their ecstasy and shared things their therapists had told them. Some just sang to a chorus of hallelujahs. Some talked about what it was like to find love for transgender people. For white people. For black people. For corporate lawyers. For Trump supporters.

Soon Father King himself emerged from the back, where he had been listening. Lithe and calm, with the studied carriage of a man who has considered the energy of blackness and violence and cities and racism for many, many decades, he spoke in clean, rhythmic sentences, eschewing for most of the time the sanctified performance of the preacher in favor of something that felt more honest, more extemporaneous. King managed to speak to us as both a recipient of, and a guide to, the spiritual experience. Sometimes he quoted Coltrane, sometimes he just said what was in his heart. Sometimes he moved so smoothly between the two that it was not clear which was which or why it even mattered.

He told us:

“Gather yourself into something that has purpose.”

“Discipline is freedom secured.”

“Our enemies are good at distraction from the issue. We are told the issue is Trump. But the issue is truth and love. The issue is always truth and love.”

“It is you who inherits the revolution.”

But in 2016 San Francisco, the revolution is rent. The church is facing eviction, up against the gentrifying force that much of San Francisco is facing. The neighborhood it is in, the Western Addition, used to be a black neighborhood and an affordable one. One in which the “business model” of a moderately successful church was more than good enough to pay rent. But this is no longer the case. San Francisco has become the most insanely expensive city in the country. There are one-bedroom apartments in dicey neighborhoods going for $6,500. In a city like that, you can do a lot. You can choose from among 50 different coffee-roasting companies. You can watch a big-wheel race down the most crooked street in America. You can run a marathon dressed as a porta-potty. But in a city like what San Francisco has become, there are also some things you can’t do: be a musician or a painter, run a soup kitchen that feeds the homeless, or be a church that preaches the gospel of love through jazz. These things no longer make the rent.

The church opened an Indiegogo campaign that, as of a few days ago, successfully raised the $10,000 needed to cover relocation costs. But where will they relocate to? Where, in a city so gleefully and irreversibly becoming rich and white, is there a home for a black saint who heals anyone for free?