Considering legendary jazz musician John Coltrane a god by musical standards may be nothing new, but at least one church in San Francisco has honored the late virtuoso’s memory by canonizing him their patron saint.
Known as the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, the congregation’s concentration on a musician may seem to some as borderline idol worship, no different than groupies following the Grateful Dead or their jam band torch bearers Phish. But more than Coltrane’s music, the church exists as an extension of the dramatic conversion and commitment to God Coltrane made late in life, a declaration and sanctification of sound in the unforgettable recording A Love Supreme.
"During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which has 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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD," read the liner notes of John Coltrane’s 1964 album A Love Supreme. Based on this premise, the church with his namesake meets weekly in an anonymous storefront in a run down section of San Francisco.
The church was first organized by a hairdresser named Franzo King, the son of Pentecostal ministers whose spiritual journey was largely influenced by seeing John Coltrane perform in 1965. Describing the experience as a "baptism of sound," King did a one-eighty in his life and started studying for holy orders. It wasn’t until after John Coltrane’s death that he decided to start a church in his memory.
Originally known as the One Mind Temple, the church embraced all religions in worshiping Coltrane as a god, but in 1980 King took steps to sorting out the doctrine of the church by going to Chicago to study under Archbishop G.D. Hinkson of the African Orthodox Church, which is affiliated with the Eastern Catholic Church. In 1982 the church was recognized by the African Orthodox Church and John Coltrane was canonized a saint.
Inside the church, a picture of John Coltrane hangs on the wall, along with a picture of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. In the picture Coltrane holds a saxophone on his left shoulder and a scroll that says "Let us sing all songs to God." That statement in many ways sums up the weekly service, a service that attracts a mixed crowd of different ages, race, and devotion to Godly principles. For some the service, which lasts on average three hours, may be a smoke-free atmosphere to listen to jazz music, but to the faithful it is a serious act of worship that only John Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme," a song played at every service can provide.
Led by King, the saxophone playing preacher, the service includes traditional liturgy alongside liturgy taken straight from liner notes and has been compared to the traditional black "call and response" services in which everyone present allows the spirit to flow and carry them away. While the church allows clergy to marry it sticks to the tradition of the Catholic Church in its form of hierarchy, liturgy, and rites.
As King explained in an article in the Valley Herald in 1994, "We’ve always been about Jesus, as metaphysical as we might get about it. The music is a tool. It’s the purity of John Coltrane’s music that prepares people to deal with a relationship with God."
"I feel that Coltrane was very unique in his calling: he was compelled by the Holy Spirit himself. God was first for him, not an afterthought. If you study what he wrote, it’s clear his music was being played for God. It was of God, from God and for God."
Like so many other saints and founders of churches in the history of Christianity, the difficulty for the worshiper, which King seems to have come to realize, is that the worship should be directed toward God, not the person being used by God. Not long before his death, Coltrane was asked what he wanted to be doing in ten years. His answer was that he wanted to be a saint, an earthly dream that has now come true in the hearts of the members of a church dedicated to the work he started rather late in life furthering the kingdom of God.
As widespread as Coltrane is — posters of him are found in nearly every college dormitory in the country — idol worship may very well take place, but the members of the church in his namesake seem to have embraced his true vision — to worship the only being worthy of praise.
Next time you pop in that favorite CD, one that puts you into an appropriate attitude of worship, remember that it’s not the anointed musician deserving of ultimate praise, but the one true God and creator of the universe.