New Time Religion Part Four – A Love Supreme: Can you achieve religious ecstasy through jazz? You can at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church
by Summer Burkes
“This is hell, I’m sorry to tell you / It never gets better or worse
But you get used to it after a spell / For heaven is hell in reverse …
“My Favorite Things” is playing again and again But it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane …”
“This Is Hell,” Elvis Costello
Costello’s absurdist vision of hell gets more frightening as the song progresses: the listener is propelled into a dismal Barfly-in-Vegas chasm where gluttonous, mediocre conversationalists stagger and lope amid uninspired images of luxury while overly saccharine music plays on an endless tape loop.
But what if the reverse were also true? What if heaven was a place where wits are sharp, ideals are challenged, surroundings are comfortable and variant, and mind-expanding, sometimes jarring music provides the soundtrack? After a day of philosophical discussions and archery classes, say, you could trot on over to Heaven’s modestly stylish cocktail deck, have a low-alcohol-content refreshment, press the “popular hits” selection on the jukebox, and relax as jazz guru John Coltrane blared.
Popular lore portrays John Coltrane as possessing an intense and spiritual demeanor. A troubled, contemplative man, he practically invented “modern” (atonal) jazz, channeling both honeyed melodies and more angular pieces that Mark C. Gridley (author of Jazz Styles: History and Analysis) calls “rough-textured and biting, huge and dark.”
Born in 1926 into a staunchly religious Southern family, Coltrane honed his craft with greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, dropping his faith and picking up a nasty alcohol and drug habit. In 1957, when Davis kicked him out of the group for being a junkie (you know you’ve got a substance abuse problem when someone like Davis fits you for skates), Coltrane moved back in with his family and experienced what he called a “spiritual awakening.”
His faith restored (although he still fell off the wagon), he became obsessed with religion and transcendence, both in music and in life. He practiced constantly; his jagged, unconventional style was alternately condemned and hailed as genius in jazz circles.
His live concerts with their extended solos and one-chord variations became a trance-inducing affair for both audience and performer. Stylistic preferences aside, Coltrane is universally recognized as one of the jazz greats. Some even believe he was touched by the hand of God.
The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church was founded in a San Francisco in-law apartment in 1971 as the “One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ.” Founder Bishop Franzo Wayne King — a hep hairdresser and jazz saxophonist — saw God in Coltrane’s music and, in a polytheistic Hindu-ish sense, Coltrane as a God.
Officially recognized as a branch of the African Orthodox Church organization in 1982, the church adopted its current less-of-a-mouthful title and demoted Coltrane to patron saint. The church’s long and sometimes frenzied services, which purportedly use Trane’s music as a means to worship and channel the Holy Spirit, have been offering release to a multicultural collection of spiritual misfits and aspiring musicians — and cultural fodder for adventurous tourists — ever since.
The small storefront on the corner of Oak and Divisadero is unassuming on the outside but almost entirely covered in imposing, pristine medieval-style religious paintings on the inside. A black, dreadlocked Christ beams beatifically near an African Madonna and child; on the other wall, a robed, haloed Coltrane holds a flaming alto sax in one hand and a scroll in the other that says “Let us sing all songs to God to whom all praise is due … praise God.”
A regal, smiling woman addresses the ragtag crowd in the pews and narrates a short history of the church she knows most of us are gawking one-day visitors and jazz fans, not devotees. When she joined the church at its inception, she tells us, she didn’t even know who the jazz great was, she simply liked the music and King’s preaching.
“People thought we were crazy when we started out 25 years ago,” she says, “because how could a sinner like John Coltrane be a saint?” She explains that his music, combined with the ancient text of the Bible, allows her and the other followers to meditate and become closer to God and the message of the scriptures. I get the feeling that basically, Saint John’s is a straight-up Christian church with one extra guy in the dogma.
A lone tenor sax effortlessly contemplates a melody behind a velvet curtain while a braided woman checks the sound system and church members in the front rows meditate and sway. “All rise…” As the congregation stands for the “Sound Baptism,” the church band, Ohnedaruth, breaks into Coltrane’s religious opus “A Love Supreme.” (Church members are required to listen to the epic three times a day.)
Bishop King emerges from behind the curtain, wailing on the sax with the grace of Trane himself. A group of women (all ages, all colors) gathers around a microphone to sing the words in unison, and the tourists in the back look palpably nervous, aware that they’re turning someone’s Sunday routine into a spectacle.
After about 15 minutes, the sated gawkers thin out and more followers, some carrying instrument cases, straggle in, obviously familiar with the greet-the-voyeurs routine. The unwavering force of the music stuffs the tiny storefront; everyone with an instrument is encouraged to solo, and the women continue to sing, wail, and dance as if they were at an AME Zion church.
Every once in a while, the cacaphony dies down and threatens to stop, and the bishop says a few words, but music breaks out again with only the slightest provocation. The bishop’s wife practically channels Ella Fitzgerald as King claps and pogos; another woman sings scripture in a rich alto as the crowd throws down some “amen”s and “well well”s.
Two hours later (I barely notice the time), the sermon hasn’t even started yet. Coltrane’s melodies play on, and the remaining faithful are entranced — just as he wished.
Even for those who aren’t down with religions rooted in patriarchy and spread through imperialism, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church still proves a divine experience, and at the very least, one of the most heavenly jazz concerts you’ll ever see.
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