Church of St. John Coltrane Marks 50 Years, Sets Fundraiser


Sustaining a free-spirited church centered on jazz in increasingly tony San Francisco seems like a tough task. But devotees of the Church of St. John Coltrane have faith as they prepare to celebrate the institution’s 50th anniversary and begin fundraising efforts.

“Sometimes, people don’t believe it when they hear about it, but others are in awe and know they have to visit,” said New York-based drummer Elé Howell. He stops by whenever he returns home to San Francisco, and usually brings a few fellow New York University music students with him.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen every Sunday, but that kind of spontaneous mix of people helps your musicianship,” he said about performing during services. “Playing ‘Acknowledgment’ 100 different ways is an incredible thing. There’s complete freedom in the music.”

Howell was introduced to the church by his father, composer and saxophonist Richard Howell, who for more than 20 years has sat in with the church’s rotating ensemble when his tour schedule allows.

“Coltrane’s music is spiritual, and its doctrine is uplifting” said the elder Howell about the church, which weaves compositions from A Love Supreme into traditional services. “I call it the original bridge music: It’s music that brings people together.”

“What we’re really talking about is love,” explained the church’s co-founder, Archbishop Franzo King, who with his wife, the Rev. Mother Marina King, started the Yardbird Club as a jazz listening group and transformed it into the cultural and community resource that the Coltrane church is today. Both of the Kings come from religious backgrounds, but their journeys toward a more spiritual Coltrane-consciousness started in 1965, after attending a gig by the saxophonist at the Jazz Workshop on their first wedding anniversary.

“We could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit moving with him,” Marina King said about the night the couple was “baptized in sound.”

It was around the same time Coltrane released A Love Supreme; he’d already recorded Ascension and was playing with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali. The Kings would see Coltrane play just one more time, in 1966, but it was his death in 1967 that catalyzed the formation of their listening group, and ultimately led to the creation of a church two years later.

In an early incarnation as The One Mind Temple, jazz listeners and players were encouraged to engage in social activism and meditation. At the time, during the 1970s, San Francisco was entering a new cultural era and upstart churches weren’t necessarily embraced by the mainstream. Enter The African Orthodox Church: Its leaders understood the dilemma of a new faith and in short order arranged for the canonization of Coltrane, and for religious training and ordination for church personnel.

Today, the Kings’ daughter, the Rev. Wanika K. Stephens, presides over the pulpit, as well as the church’s weekly radio show, Uplift, which broadcasts four hours of Coltrane’s music noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays on community radio station KPOO-FM 89.5.

A Love Supreme is the prayer, the chant, the mantra, for this day and age,” said Stephens, who deejays as Sister Wanika and also plays bass.

In addition to the Sunday service, the church continues to host a monthly meditation on the music of A Love Supreme. The communal gathering tends to draw a multi-generational crowd, less interested in religion, though definitely thirsty for a faith centered on racial, gender and economic justice.

Whether jazz pilgrims visit the church from around the Bay Area, Brazil or Belgium, they each make the trek because of their devotion to the saxophonist.

Michael G. Williams, a traveling multi-instrumentalist who played with the Sun Ra Arkestra, first visited the church 39 years ago. “It felt like home,” he said in early February, during his third visit to the church when he contributed both flute and soprano saxophone to the proceedings.

After several displacements, the church found a home for itself inside St. Cyprian’s Church, a historic building at the corner of Lyon Street and Turk Boulevard, complete with a chapel for its unique icons by artist Mark Dukes. Though in a city known the world over for its high cost of living, a question remains: How will the iconoclastic jazz church survive for another 50 years?

“We’ll keep listening to Coltrane,” said Franzo King, who plays saxophone to express his own “sound praise” at Sunday services.

Sustaining the church so others might find spiritual nourishment costs money, though. And at 7 p.m. Feb. 19, for a suggested donation of $25, Richard Howell, bandleader and guitarist Pascal Bokar and vocalist Ann Mack will join the church ensemble for a one-time performance of Coltrane’s “Alabama,” originally composed to the rhythm and mood of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. eulogy for the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The evening is billed as “A Night Called Freedom,” in reference to an often-quoted line by Coltrane: “Freedom has a hell of a lot to do with this music.”

Funds from the evening are set to cultivate the church’s jazz education programs and broaden its partnerships with local, national and worldwide educational institutions.

“People who know the music well know that it’s very much a possibility to build a whole community around Trane,” said Elé Howell, who’s since returned to his studies at NYU, though he has every intention of making his way back to the Coltrane church. “I always want to come back.” DB

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