Reflections on John Coltrane’s spirituality
There’s a John Coltrane church?
As an 18-year-old pilgrim to San Francisco, I stumbled on to St. John Coltrane Orthodox Church, a storefront worship center a short six blocks from my dingy basement apartment at the corner of Fillmore and Hayes streets. A young man in search of experience though not particularly religious at the time, I attended a Sunday morning service.
Music as liturgy
What impressed me most was the way the music of Coltrane and others was used as the content for the liturgy. I don’t so much remember reading of Scripture or preaching, but that the entire service seemed to be an unbroken fabric of praise. At one point, the entire congregation joined in a beatific chant of “John Coltrane, John Coltrane….”
Worship through jamming
At another point, a young woman plugged in a bass and started rocking out the notes to Bob Marley’s “Jamming.” Her performance struck me as a totally selfless yet focused outpouring of praise to the Almighty — no ego or self seeking, just a pure and simple act of worship.
Attraction, not recruitment
I recall the congregation being racially and generationally diverse. The atmosphere felt totally welcoming, and I gathered that I was not the only visitor. And yet no one asked us to introduce ourselves or made a big deal about us being there. I learned later that visitors are encouraged to bring instruments and join the jam session.
I spotted a trio of young, blond-haired white people. They struck me as Midwestern migrants. Two of them seemed as if they might be brother and sister. At one point, when the brass music hit a particularly inspirational period of improvisation, the young man became overwhelmed, smiling and raising his hands as if freaking out with joy.
Although I fancied myself a writer, I did not write about the visit. I understood that Coltrane was a giant, that his music and spirituality were infinitely more profound than anything I was equipped to process. I felt humble by the authenticity of worship in the church, and felt that someone who wanted to write about it should make several visits.
The official story
The church’s website records that founders Archbishop Franzo King and Reverend Mother Marina King saw Coltrane perform live in San Francisco in 1965. Franzo King had been raised in the Pentecostal church and “knew the presence of the Lord when it came through the power of the Holy Ghost.” He describes the experience as a “sound baptism.” The passage concludes, “Further investigation into this man proved him to be not just a ‘jazz musician’ but one who was chosen to guide souls back to God.”
African Orthodox Church
The African Orthodox Church reportedly canonized Coltrane in 1982. According to its official history, the African Orthodox Church was founded by George Alexander McGuire, a former Episcopal priest, who reportedly said, “The white churches in America had drawn a circle to exclude people of color. Our vision is to draw a wider circle that will include all people.”
A Love Supreme
A key piece of the Coltrane church’s liturgy is A Love Supreme, the artist’s undisputed masterpiece. A Love Supreme was huge for me the first time my cousin played the CD recording to me in high school. Instantly recognizable as a piece of music, it’s more than that — both a theological treatise and a mode of living emphasizing gratitude and universality.
The liner notes of A Love Supreme provide the most direct testament to the spiritual impact Coltrane hoped to have through his music and appear to reference an effort to defeat his heroin addiction: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was 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 fell this has been granted through His grace.”