Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the St. John Coltrane Church is looking past the battles it’s faced in a constantly-changing and gentrifying San Francisco, determined to make its institution into something that can be experienced throughout the world in the future.
The music of John Coltrane is playing throughout St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. The song is “Untitled Original 11383 – Take 1,” the intro track from Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album, a collection of songs recorded during Coltrane’s Classic Quartet period in 1963. Presumed to be lost, the album was released in 2018.
As the song plays, members of the ministry take on different duties. One sets up a table in the aisle between the pews and places shirts bearing an illustration of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme cover art on it. Another places three illustrations of Coltrane at an altar underneath a cross. That the ministry is still preparing service well after its noon start time isn’t of concern for the 30 people in attendance, many newcomers among a handful of recurring guests. They’re all here to experience another church service that resides in St. Cyprian. A church service that has gone through just as many name changes as it has relocations as a result of San Francisco’s ongoing gentrification, celebrating and championing the legacy of a jazz giant for 50 years now — the Saint John Coltrane Church.
“There were times when it seemed like we weren’t gonna survive but here we are,” Pastor Wanika Stephens, the daughter of Archbishop Wayne King and Mother Marina King — the church’s founders — said. “John Coltrane is a universal saint…he is that one that reached the point of enlightenment and instead of going past into the next realm and leaving us and going on, he turned around and he showed his light so that the rest of us could see a clear path and follow it to the enlightenment.”
On a 1966 tour of Japan, Coltrane was asked what he wanted to be in 10 years.
“I would like to be a saint,” he said. The saxophonist would never make his transition to sainthood. He died a year later from liver cancer at the age of 40. That Coltrane aspired to be a saint is a testament to his devotion to his faith. Released in 1965, A Love Supreme, the album considered to be his magnum opus, is his ode to God — the result of a profound “spiritual awakening” that came about when he went cold turkey from drug and alcohol addiction eight years prior. He famously locked himself in his Philadelphia home to overcome his 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,” Coltrane wrote in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. His faith was interwoven with his music. The albums that followed A Love Supreme maintained its spiritual foundation: Ascension and Meditations, which were both released in 1966, and the posthumous Om — originally recorded in 1965 — show an almost symbiotic relationship between his faith and music, the latter becoming more and more experimental as he learned about other religions, philosophical teachings, and music from across the world.
The Saint John Coltrane Church — or, more accurately, the Saint John Coltrane Global Spiritual Community — wasn’t made with the late musician’s wish of sainthood in mind. The Kings, who are both in their 70s — when asked by Stephens how old the pair is she responded, “The age of wisdom” — aren’t related to Coltrane. (Although they did have a relationship with Alice Coltrane, Coltrane’s late wife.) They are fans of Coltrane, the church’s inception brought about after the pair saw him live in 1965.
“When he walked out the Holy Ghost walked out with him,” King said. “It was like he was speaking in other tongues. What he was playing was so far beyond what I had been listening to.”
King wanted to preach ever since he was a child. Seeing Coltrane live was reminiscent of his upbringing in the Pentecostal church in St. Louis, the city he was born in before relocating to Los Angeles and, ultimately, San Francisco, as an adult.
The Fillmore District is a neighborhood affectionately called the “Harlem of the West” because of the influx of black people that migrated to San Francisco during World War II. This was where King spent most of his time. He frequented the many jazz clubs in the neighborhood, most notably Jimbo’s Bop City, where attendees could find themselves watching Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis, between two and six in the morning, all for one dollar. The Coltrane concert that led to King’s profound spiritual experience didn’t occur at Bop City but the Jazz Workshop, a nightclub in a neighborhood called North Beach.
Bop City was also where King later learned of Coltrane’s death.
“I was in Jimbo’s Bop City, a jazz joint, at 2 a.m. and there was a guy playing furiously on the bandstand,” King recounted in the 2015 book The Coltrane Church: Apostles of Sound, Agents of Social Justice. “He was going from one corner of the bandstand to the next, playing, stopping, playing. I remember that I asked Bishop Norman Williams what was wrong with that cat and he told me, ‘Don’t you know, man? John Coltrane’s dead.’ At that moment the first thought I had was, ‘Man, they done killed Coltrane.'”
In his death, the Coltrane Church’s inception came about. The Kings conducted listening clinics, the weekly gatherings an opportunity for the two and their friends to listen to and discuss the music of Coltrane, Art Blakey, Fletcher Henderson, and others. In 1968, the Kings started their own after-hours nightclub called the Yardbird Club, named in honor of the late saxophonist Charlie Parker. A pioneer of bebop — a style of jazz known for its fast tempos, complex chord progressions and improvisation — Parker is considered one of jazz’s most influential figures, with trumpeter Miles Davis once saying, “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” The club then evolved into its literal spiritual successor, the Yardbird Temple, which was the earliest iteration of what became the Coltrane Church. Taking place in the late 1960s at his house, King invited “people to arrive at midnight on Tuesdays, when they would commence twenty-four hours of prayer and fasting by listening together to A Love Supreme,” according to the 2015 book Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion.
“John was so much under the spell of Charlie Parker,” King said. “He comes through Bird. It’s like when John the Baptist said, ‘There’s one amongst you that you know not, but he is preferred before me.’ And he’s talking about Jesus. So for us, we’re saying Charlie Parker prepared for the coming of John Coltrane.”
Yardbird Temple then took on different names: the Yardbird Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour, followed by the One Mind Temple, then One Mind Temple Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour and, lastly, the One Mind Temple Revolutionary Transitional Body of Christ. With each name came ideological shifts. Initially, King saw Coltrane as an embodiment of black theology and the black nationalism that came about during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. But the church’s political and religious ideas shifted as King learned from the likes of Huey Newton and Alice Coltrane.
From the former, King embraced a more universalist ideology for the church, as well as implemented outreach programs in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. Through Alice, King received opportunities to learn more about Eastern religious movements, particularly Hinduism. As the One Mind Temple, King deified Coltrane as God, equating him to the likes of Jesus Christ and Lord Krishna.
“From a certain angle we see him as the evolutionary transitional existence of Christ,” King said. “We talk about Christ consciousness and Coltrane consciousness…if you go to the old testament, you go to the new testament, you’re going to find there is a connection that we could see John Coltrane as God.”
Initially, Alice was supportive of King. In The Coltrane Church, he claimed that she told him he was fulfilling John’s “highest ideals” through the church. Alice had even given King, his family, and a handful of core members of the church Hindu names, as well as taught them Hindu chants and meditative skills. But in 1981, she sued the church for $7.5 million for improper use of Coltrane’s name. The church was now in the headlines: “Widow of ‘God’ Sues Church” from the San Francisco Chronicle; “Coltrane’s Widow Sues San Francisco Church” from the New York Times.
Alice claimed that “the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ was illegally using Mr. Coltrane’s name ‘without family sanction and is misrepresenting us and infringing on copyright laws,'” according to the Times. “By preaching what it calls ‘Coltrane consciousness,’ Mrs. Coltrane said, the One Mind church was invading her privacy and she wants it to stop associating her husband’s name with the One Mind religion.”
King, who at the time was referring to himself as Ramakrishna Haqq, offered the following quote to the Times: “Did you ever think it was necessary to ask Mother Mary to use Jesus’ name?”
By 1982, the lawsuit was dropped. King believes that the death of Alice’s eldest son, John Coltrane, Jr., led to her abandoning the lawsuit.
“I remember when it happened we had her blessings, we had her teachings, and we had her reprimanding,” King said. “I don’t think my mother has betrayed me because she tries to correct me…she was such a blessing to this community and to me personally. I never felt anything dark coming from her. She was always light for us.”
Alice’s lawsuit indirectly led to the next incarnation of the church: the One Mind Temple Episcopate African Orthodox Church, which ultimately became the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The year Alice sued the church, it was invited to join the African Orthodox Church by one of its archbishops, George Duncan Kinkson. King accepted. The black Episcopalian denomination officially canonized Coltrane as a saint; John Coltrane became what he aspired to be.
King speculated that this want stemmed from his Methodist background, both his maternal and paternal grandfathers African Methodist Episcopal preachers. The Episcopal Church believes in saints and recognizes them as holy people to be honored, but doesn’t pray to them. Methodism believes in saints but doesn’t pray to them or consider them mediators to God, instead seeing them as people who “exemplified the Christian life,” according to the United Methodist Church.
A part of the agreement between the African Orthodox Church and King was that Coltrane would be demoted from being God but could be the patron of the church as a saint.
“That helped us embrace the African Orthodox Church,” King said. “I don’t think John meant he wanted the pope to qualify him, you know? But he wanted to live a good life. He wanted to live clean and do right. He wanted to do all he could to be worthy of God.”
In 1971, the Coltrane Church moved to a storefront space on Divisadero Street. Here, weekly services; social programs focused on feeding, clothing, and counseling the homeless; and meetings discussing mass incarceration, police brutality, and more occurred until 2000 when the church could no longer afford the space. While the church was at Divisadero, a short documentary titled The Church of Saint Coltrane was filmed in 1996 and aired on BRAVO in 1998.
Rising rent costs, a result of ongoing gentrification occurring in San Francisco, has affected the Coltrane Church throughout the last two decades. Following Divisadero, the church’s next longterm location was at the West Bay Conference Center on Fillmore Street. The Fillmore District that the church had come to wasn’t like the one King frequented in the past. Since the ’70s, the neighborhood had undergone redevelopment that led to the decline and displacement of its black population and, subsequently, its jazz scene.
The Coltrane Church’s presence in the neighborhood was important because of this. Now, it wasn’t just carrying Coltrane’s legacy but the jazz culture that defined the Fillmore District for so long, functioning as one of the neighborhood’s last black-owned musical institutions along with being a place of worship. In 2004, another documentary was made on the church by the BBC, and from the 2000s to the early 2010s, countless Coltrane fans from across the world had traveled to the church. Among notable appearances the church has had: Carlos Santana, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Joe Henderson, singer Abbey Lincoln, and Rashied Ali, who served as Coltrane’s last drummer prior to his death. It’s unknown if any of the remaining Coltranes have attended the church. (Ravi Coltrane, Alice and John’s second child, was contacted for this story but wasn’t available for comment.)
In September 2015, the church was given a three-day notice to vacate the space in the center, with King claiming that Floyd Trammell, the center’s director, hadn’t accepted rent from the church since 2014. The church had been paying $1,600 on a month-to-month lease for five years.
“We’ve got people coming from all over the world every week. It’s like a pilgrimage place,” King said at the time. “In that sense, it is a great tragedy if we are not able to survive in the climate that many are being faced with at this time.”
The church tried to fight the eviction; a petition titled “Hands Off The ‘Coltrane Church’” had even received close to 4,000 signatures. But in March 2016, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the church would be leaving the center by the following month. In return for the church’s leave, the center dismissed the eviction action. According to court documents, King would’ve had to pay $19,200 in unpaid rent, which spanned from February 1, 2015, to January 31, 2016.
By October 2016, it was reported that the church had relocated to Saint Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in the North of the Panhandle — or NoPa — neighborhood, where it still is now.
Nowadays, King and Stephens lead church services. Pairing Psalms with Coltrane songs like “Tunji” and “Acknowledgement,” the two lead an ensemble through an extended jazz jam session. They’ll each take solos and encourage other members of the ministry to do the same. On the Sunday I visited in April, James Max Haqq, a priest of the church, provided a soprano saxophone solo over “Acknowledgement” wailing with an intensity that almost felt like a purging. Moments like this showcase the church’s sincerity in its intent to honor Coltrane. To learn the late artist’s music and improvise over it is no easy feat.
At the end of the service, Stephens — who dedicated her sermon to the then-recently diseased Nipsey Hussle — and I spoke. I asked her what continues to motivate her and her family to not only keep the Coltrane Church alive but keep it alive in San Francisco, a city whose gentrification has erased black people’s cultural contributions and history, as well as displaced them, so much so that they represent only 5.5 percent of the city’s population.
“I have tried in my mind many times to justify getting out of this but I can’t because the need is here,” Stephens said, adding that she wants the church’s story to be more than its past eviction battle as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. “This isn’t a tragedy…I want people to know that John Coltrane was more than just the heavyweight champion of the tenor saxophone…he is a powerful example of what it means to live out your humanity and connect with people.”