Church of Saint John Coltrane Facing Eviction

Rent hike endangers storefront home of world-renowned religious order that reveres legendary jazz saxophonist.

SAN FRANCISCO — The world-renowned Church of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane is facing eviction from the rented Divisadero Street storefront that has been its home since 1971.

The church, which is affiliated with the African Orthodox Church (a branch of Catholicism), reveres late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane as a saint whose music and ideas convey the word of God.

Its most recent landlord has refused to extend the church's lease and will offer only month-to-month tenancy, said the Rev. Roberto De Haven, a priest and saxophone player with the Church of Coltrane. In a city experiencing growing pains from a booming high-tech business, the church space could garner top dollar — and the current landlord has nearly doubled the rent from $1,350 to $2,500.

"We need some really big donors who have the vision to see the Saint John Coltrane Church as a permanent edifice that it owns, with room for music classes, a recording studio, a social hall where we feed hungry people, a kitchen," said the goateed, black-beret-wearing De Haven, who views the eviction as a mixed blessing.

"The fact that the people that have the vision don't have the money doesn't mean that somebody else won't have this vision and be able to do something about it."

The organization's secular wing — a community outreach program that offers vegetarian food, clothing, music classes and other essentials to the homeless of the church's Western Addition neighborhood — also is being affected. Even if the church remains at this site, the landlord will no longer allow use of the building's kitchen.

Cash Concerns

The church has found a new space, in a former nightclub in the Hunters Point neighborhood, an economically depressed, postindustrial region near San Francisco Bay. But De Haven and others are concerned that the less-central location will exclude both the Western Addition congregants and the church's international visitors.

"They get a lot of money from visitors," said Jordan "M.C. Green Bear" Dowling, 31, who stopped by the church Tuesday to verify the rumors that the organization might be leaving the neighborhood.

"Haight and Divisadero [a corner near the church, a few blocks from the fabled Haight-Ashbury district] is a more touristy stop than Hunters Point, so I don't know if they'll get as much money from [the tourist] crowd," Dowling said. "A lot of people appreciate it around the world. Like Jesus was appreciated more outside his hometown, I think this church is better known outside San Francisco than inside San Francisco."

A vintage Hammond B-3 organ sits in the church's storefront window on Divisadero. The organ's Leslie speaker cabinet is nestled among the pews, with a drum kit, a bass amplifier and an upright piano covered in tambourines and red-bound Bibles.

A second window is shaded by an African-style tapestry depicting a group of winged angels — bearing the face of Miles Davis — surrounding the Virgin Mary. The tapestry is a gift from guitar legend Carlos Santana.

Two large, painted icons of a golden-haloed Coltrane adorn the walls. They feature him holding in one hand a saxophone, its bell spouting flames, and bearing a scroll with lines from his A Love Supreme liner notes in the other. The icons share space with renderings of the Virgin Mary and a dreadlocked Jesus — all depicted as dark-skinned in this heavily African-American neighborhood.

Spiritual Transformation

Founded in 1971 by Bishop Franzo King and his wife, Marina King, the church originally held Coltrane to be an incarnation of God, but it eventually designated the spiritual sax guru a saint, to fend off charges of cult worship and to move into more mainstream religious territory.

"[The Kings] had gone to see Coltrane, and they had a Holy Ghost experience like you have in the Pentecostal Church, emanating from him and his vibration," De Haven said. "They felt baptized in the sound, and they were so inspired that they had to go tell everybody. Then, they found out John had said in an interview that he wanted to be a saint."

Coltrane, who died in 1967, underwent a spiritual transformation in the early 1960s, while recovering from heroin addiction. The saxophonist's seminal work, A Love Supreme (1964) — featuring "Acknowledgement" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Resolution" (RealAudio excerpt) — included extensive liner notes in the form of devotional poetry, which the church has adopted as prayer.

Regular Sunday and Wednesday services often feature several musicians — as many as five sax players, three bassists, a pianist, organist, drummer, percussionists and singers. They incorporate traditional Catholic prayers, sung to Coltrane's melodies. Hourlong jazz jams frequently occur before Bishop King addresses the congregation.

For more information on the Church of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane, check out its Web site (www.saintjohncoltrane.org).