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The Jazz Church
 by Gordon Polatnick

Sometimes I think I'm the only one who understands what true religion is.  
It's that cozy state of mind where nothing is more apparent than the unassailable  
fact that each of us belongs here on Earth, and is deeply loved by an enduring  
spirit. If you've got that kind of religion, you want to share it. If you've really  
got that kind of religion nobody will mistake you for a used god salesman.  
That's your litmus test, my proselytizing friend, turn one person off and it's  
back to the pew for you. True religion is the light bulb that just has to be flicked  
on to attract a flock of worshipping moths. Amen. That light bulb doesn't have  
to convince the moths that it's burning bright (those moths can tell and they  
come a' runnin').  

On Divisadero Street there is a pretty bright light bulb that first appeared over  
the head of Franzo King in 1971 when he had the idea to organize the "One  
Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ," which would soon  
evolve into Saint John's African Orthodox Church. Only a small portion of the  
population can see that light and recognize its truth.  

Those that do, flock to it. They experience their religion through music hearing it,  
playing it, filling the pool on Sundays and Wednesdays diving in and swimming in  
it. It's the music of John Coltrane (1926-1967).  It overflows out onto the street  
from the storefront church at 351 Divisadero near Oak. Perhaps you've heard it.  
Perhaps you've heard of it. Perhaps you're dying to hear this: You are invited to  
jump in, the water's fine -- flowing from the headwaters of the heart of locally  
cannonized Patron St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane, visionary post-bop tenor and  
soprano saxist, band leader and composer.  

Bishop Franzo Wayne King dedicated the present "temporary" church site on  
Trane's birthday in 1972. Underway is a dedicated effort to raise $100,000 to  
move into a larger space which will better accommodate the standing room  
only congregation of worshippers and always welcome sightseers. Two  
Byzantine-inspired haloed images of Coltrane stare out at them from exquisitely  
painted icons by Rev. Marc C. E. Dukes. In each, St. John is depicted with  
saxophone in hand -- reinforcing the notion among newcomers that this church is  
really different but it's for real. Other icons show a dark-skinned Jesus, and Madonna and Child.  
 

The Sunday Divine Liturgy lasts over three hours, starting late for late-risers at  
11:45. Coltrane's music swallows you up as you enter. The curious, who don't  
intend to stay past the playing of music (i.e. not through the sermon), appropriately  
populate the last three pews and standing room by the door.   A deacon of the church  is there to assist you to an open pew. You are treated to the inspired sounds of  
Bishop King, Ohnedaruth (the church band), guest soloists, your neighbors and  
yourself if the holy spirit moves you. Tambourines and shakers move throughout  
the congregation and many people bring their own instruments to church with them.  
 

A wooden toy train whistle and a recently acquired Hammond organ create new  
sounds spilling out onto Divisadero Street. And by around 1:30, so are many of  
the back pew occupants. They have elected to deprive themselves of the more  
familiar nonmusical trappings of a Sunday church service. A few weeks ago those  
folks missed some humorous spontaneous riffing along the lines of "TOOT TOOT  
All aboard the Coltrane," the humble little train whistle taking on a more and more  
prominent role as the service steamed forward.  

Also missed was Bishop King's incredibly literal reading of the scripture story  
about Mary and Joseph "losing Jesus" during a Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem,  
and their subsequently "finding Jesus," not in a crack house, but in the house of  
worship. Bishop King has the ability to spiritually move his congregation with words  
as well as music.  

When John Coltrane in 1957 experienced a spiritual awakening (around the same time that he was briefly teamed up with Monk) he "humbly asked [God] to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." One visit to St. Johns  African Orthodox Church brings home the realization that his prayer was heard.  You begin to realize that for a lot of people around San Francisco, prayers voiced  for a place and manner of worship unlike any in the world has been heard as well.  A Love Supreme seems to be alive and well and jamming in the Haight. 
 
 

Stories Home Page
Elvispelvis.com
 
 
In the news: 2/1/2000
 
Church of Saint John Coltrane Facing Eviction
Rent hike endangers storefront home of world-renowned
religious order that reveres legendary  jazz saxophonist. 

                 Contributing Editor Richard B. Simon reports:  

                 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).  
 

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