St. John Coltrane church faces a supreme challenge

Music: The storefront place of worship based on the work of the late jazz saxophonist might be shut down after 29 years.

February 27, 2000|By Andrew Gumbel

SAN FRANCISCO -- Every Sunday for the past 29 years, a storefront church in the heart of San Francisco has swayed to the mellifluous tones and odd rhythms of jazz legend John Coltrane, in the name of divine worship.

The music is not a prop but the very key to the Almighty. For this is no ordinary house of God, but the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, the first place on earth to turn a jazz saxophone player into an object of religious devotion.

Jazz fans have been quietly coming for years, as have local aficionados bedazzled by the mystic allure of Coltranes sleeve notes for his 1964 album, A Love Supreme.

Recently, the church has become something of a minor San Francisco institution, offering food and clothing to the homeless as well as a free education in bebop-era jazz.

But that all looks like it will be coming to an end.

The building containing the church has been sold, the new owner has more than doubled the rent, and the church fathers have had no choice but to accept an eviction order that will toss them out by the middle of next month.

Franzo King, the founder of St. John Coltrane and a bishop of the African Orthodox Church, has warned his parishioners that they face a great transition and appealed for financial help to find a new address within the city.

With San Franciscos housing prices rising through the roof, thanks to the economic boom and the Internet revolution, Bishop King has few illusions about his chances of finding help anywhere. Were pretty much out of here, he said.

And so the curtain appears to be closing on an eccentric little institution whose origins go back to a revelatory night in 1965 when Franzo King, then working as a hairdresser, happened to hear Coltrane and his quartet at a club in the Western Addition neighborhood called the Jazz Workshop.

What happened to him that night, he later recounted, was tantamount to a baptism in sound, a realization that the music could help him to see God.

A year earlier, Coltrane had revealed his spiritual awakening after years of heroin addiction and ill health.

The sleeve notes to A Love Supreme, the first in a flurry of ground-breaking albums recorded in the three years before his death at age 41, include a hosanna to the Lord and a poem that reads much like a prayer.

On this rock of 1960s jazz was the church founded. In its original form, it was called the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ.

Soon the tracks from A Love Supreme had been incorporated into its weekly services, complete with gospel chorus backing from the Sisters of Compassion, led by Kings wife, Marina.

At first, the Kings enjoyed the approval of Coltranes widow, Alice, but in 1981 she sued them for $7.5 million for desecration of her late husbands image.

In a peculiar settlement, the Kings allowed themselves to be taken over by the Chicago-based African Orthodox Church and agreed to stop treating Coltrane like a God if, in exchange, they could proclaim him a saint.

The walls of the one-room church have been adorned with 10-foot murals of Coltrane ever since, along with a portrait of a black Jesus Christ above the altar.

The Lords Prayer is chanted to Coltranes Spiritual; The Lord Is My Shepherd is sung to the sax line from Acknowledgement.

Until recently, the church did not need to rely on a collection plate, surviving on private donations, cake sales and a modest business in T-shirts and postcards. Now, the Kings are lobbying many in San Francisco, including Mayor Willie Brown, to save their church.

Once they had ambitions of making A Love Supreme the U.S. national anthem.

Now just a roof over their heads would do.

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