US trip, part 1: The Church of St John Coltrane

Posted by Ken Edwards on Wednesday, September 29, 2010 Under: music
On Sunday we went to church.

Haven't done that for a good many years, but this was different. I had always been curious about the St John Coltrane Church in San Francisco - wondered if it still existed, but there it was mentioned in the guidebook: services between 12 noon and 3pm every Sunday.

The church was founded by Franzo Wayne King, now Archbishop of the St John Will-I-Am African Orthodox Church, after he had had a religious experience listening to Coltrane's music.

Finding it was another matter, because the guidebook had the location - on Fillmore and Eddy - slightly wrong. Elaine and I walked to it from downtown, through the Tenderloin district, which San Franciscans will know (and we know now) is somewhat dodgy. 

I didn't know what to expect, or whether we would be welcomed. The storefront was much smarter than I had imagined, with glass doors leading straight to a smallish, square room, partitioned off by a curtain at the back, with a quarter circle of blue upholstered chairs, and on the back wall large brightly coloured paintings of Jesus and Mary and John Coltrane himself, somewhat oddly garbed in white robes holding a soprano saxophone. There was incense in the air.

The service had not yet begun, and the pastor and his colleagues, all African Americans, were busying themselves getting ready. The only other people sat on the blue chairs were all white, and another anxiety re-surfaced: that this was now merely an eccentric tourist attraction. But not so: the white folk were clearly sincere congregants, and they were soon joined by a multi-cultural group who began filling the spaces. An older white couple were in discussion with the pastor about setting out a tap-dancing board, which necessitated moving some of the chairs out of the way.

In fact, we were the only tourists, as far as I could tell.

The service got under way about 12.30. The pastor, Rev Wanika King Stephens, a tall, lean man dressed in a black shirt with a clerical collar and tan trousers, led the way, followed by Mother Marina King and the Sisters of Compassion. A rhythm section had set up, comprising a woman upright bass player in a white robe, a drummer and a keyboard player. The pastor played a soprano saxophone.

After the opening prayer, a "Confession" was intoned by the congregation to the tune of "Attaining" from A Love Supreme, and then the band kicked in. They really blew me away. This was no namby-pamby Christian music with tambourines (though some tambourines were in evidence among the congregation) but the real thing. Some of Coltrane's other spiritually-focused tunes followed: "Lonnie's Lament", "Spiritual" (to which the words of the Lord's Prayer were sung) and "Acknowledgement" from A Love Supreme. A white tenor player, a short stocky man in an African hat, blew a sensational solo. The pastor blew soprano sax. 

The white couple tap-danced, though it has to be said their friend, a younger African American man with dreadlocks, was much better than they were. But nobody seemed to mind, and Elaine was moved to take out the piccolo she had been concealing in her bag and join in the jam. The pastor was delighted when he spotted her, and brought the microphone over.

My final impression was that this ranked with my reading on Saturday, and meetings with poets, as the warmest welcome we had had in San Francisco. The idea of canonising John Coltrane didn't seem quite so eccentric as I had always thought - in fact, the music's spiritual function struck me as not too different from that of, say, Bach, a condiuit to spiritual communion and social well-being.

I am not a believer - in gods, devils, saints or angels, still less in Coltrane as a saint - but if I had to choose one church to go to every week, this would be it.

My report on my San Francisco reading with Myung Mi Kim follows.

In : music 

Tags: "john coltrane" jazz "san francisco" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at