Inside the The Church of John Coltrane

Dec 22, 2011 at 12am

God and I have never been friends. It’s not that we had a dramatic falling out, we’ve just never seen eye to eye. I’m a woman of science; each tree with its roots stretching into the earth and every woolly creature or winged insect was born out of a miraculous collision of chemistry and luck. When we die, we’re swallowed up by the cosmos and spit out again as carbonized loogies in the unending circle of life.

Growing up with parents who rarely acknowledged any higher powers certainly colored my perception of the spiritual world. Nevertheless, I’ve always had an instinct that I couldn’t shake: We’re just tiny specks floating through space! Who are we to think there’s someone watching over us? 

This is why I am surprised by the flutterings of curiosity in my brain each time I’d pass the Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church while riding the 22 on Fillmore Street. In my mind, if you’re going to worship anything, it should be music. It connects everyone; it is the audible beauty of the world. And if there’s any musician worth revering, it’s saxophonist John Coltrane. The guy’s music transcended what it meant to be music. His songs were a movement, a philosophy, and in this case, a religion.

The church of Coltrane was founded back in 1969 by Archbishop Franzo Wayne King and Reverend Mother Marina King, who first saw Coltrane perform in San Francisco in 1965. They were so blown away by the experience that they formed a progressive church. Originally called the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Body of Christ, it preached the gospel of Coltrane’s music and in particular, his 1965 album A Love Supreme. For any regular Christian church, it takes at least 100 years and a mountain of deliberation to canonize a person. Astoundingly, Archbishop King and Mother Marina King were able to beatify Coltrane when their church became a part of the Catholic-rooted African Orthodox Church in 1982. For the members of the Coltrane Church, A Love Supreme is a pure expression of higher ideals.

I decide to get brave and shed my spiritual skepticism for one day and enter this alien world of musical worship.  

I arrive at the church on one of the windiest Sundays in memory. Having never attended church outside of the semiweekly secularized services of my private school youth, I expect the interior to be a grandiose temple. Yet, tucked inside a small, inconspicuous space near Yoshi’s jazz club, the intimate place of worship sits about 40 and has fewer than 100 members. Tambourines hang at the ends of each row of seats and incense wafts through the air. Between the walls, decorated with vibrantly painted Byzantine portraits of Coltrane with tenor sax in hand or in a celestial throne, it is calm and quiet, a wild contrast to the violent gales howling through the heart of the Fillmore outside.

Nervous and feeling thoroughly out of place, I sit in the back corner. Can religious people spot nonbelievers? Musicians float around, some wheel in a giant keyboard, while others carry saxophone cases or a pair of drums. Some are warming up in the back while a tall, dreadlocked woman arranges her stand-up bass, and a man noodles on his electric piano out front. People of all stripes are sprinkled around the room waiting for everything to begin.  

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Nine people, who form the church’s musical collective Ohnedaruth, assemble at the front of the room and begin the opening prayer: “Let us proceed in peace. In the name of the Lord, Amen.” Ohnedaruth is a Sanskrit word meaning “compassion” and was given to the group by John Coltrane’s second wife, Alice Coltrane. These Ministers of Sound shepherd the rest of us toward “Coltrane consciousness.”

The dreadlocked woman turns out to be Reverend Sister Wanika King-Stephens, the church founders’ firstborn daughter. She starts plucking the bass – her beat lays a steady backbone for the musicians who play the drums, piano, and multiple alto and tenor saxophones, surprising virtuosos in their own right. Every single member of Ohnedaruth is completely unhinged, vibing on a wavelength that engulfs the entire room.

A man wanders in carrying two huge hand drums and joins in, while an elderly man with a long white beard whips out a pink recorder and starts wailing on it next to me. I quickly grab a tambourine and begin knocking out my own rhythm. No one is sitting or standing still. Music, that great connector, has us all in the palm of its hand. As soon as one song ends, a few words and prayers are said, and then Ohnedaruth launches into the next Coltrane opus. Church cofounder Mother Marina King’s mellifluous chanting of “a love supreme, a love supreme” during Ohnedaruth’s rendition of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement” brings the entire room together until we were all whispering the phrase in quiet revelry. 

The music, gracefully freewheeling, becomes a plane of existence. It hijacks my senses so that time and religiosities dissolve. The journey through the deep grooves of “Lonnie’s Lament,” which ornaments the opening passages, the headiness of “Attaining,” which accompanies the Confession, and the intense contemplation of “Spiritual,” played during the Lord’s Prayer, proves that Coltrane’s music exists to make people feel.

After the service, I talk with Reverend Wanika, who has recorded with Alice Coltrane and grew up around jazz musicians like Pharaoh Sanders and McCoy Tyner. When I ask about her parents’ relationship with Coltrane, the holy saxophonist who forever changed their lives, Reverend Wanika recounts: “The first time [my father] saw Coltrane in ’65, it messed up [his] mind. The second time [he] witnessed Coltrane’s perform, it sent him running out of the club feeling like he had just seen God playing the saxophone.” Her mother, she says, saw the Holy Ghost walk with Coltrane when he came onstage, and her father likes to say that when their church became part of the African Orthodox Church, Coltrane was demoted from God and became a saint.

When I confess to her that I’m more of a music freak than a Jesus freak, she smiles as she tells me that the one thing that truly connects all people who come to the Coltrane Church is the music.

“I’m a Christian, but the bottom line for me is that I really love Coltrane’s music,” she says. “When you have pure souls like Coltrane or Beethoven or Bach who really give, there are so many levels that we can relate to on just the beauty of it.”

As the music ends in a flourish of saxophone trills and crashing cymbals, the room is full of smiling faces, each person tenderly taking another’s hand, bidding a farewell until next Sunday. Before putting my tambourine down, I look outside at the Fillmore’s wind-whipped streets, and I almost don’t want to go back out there.   

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The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church is a place where music is religion. Weekly services take place every Sunday from noon to 3 p.m. All are welcome, and if you play an instrument, bring it with you and get ready to jam. Visit the website at http://www.coltranechurch.org. Reverend Sister Wanika King-Stephens also hosts The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane Uplift Broadcast, which airs every Tuesday from noon to 4 p.m. on KPOO 89.5 FM. The show includes music and words of wisdom of St. John Coltrane, and occasional interviews.

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