A church supreme

After three decades of feeding the homeless, the world's only church devoted to John Coltrane now finds itself without a home

"It's John Coltrane," his brother explained. "Jazz. Soprano saxophone."

The two talked a lot about music. His brother kept coming back to the same idea: The kind of music you listen to is the kind of person you are.

"If you listen to jazz, then you're progressive," King explains. "If you listen to Top 10, Top 40, then you're just with the crowd. If you listen to progressive jazz, then your mind is way ahead of everybody else's. So we thought we was really halfway sharp. We were still comin' out of James Brown, stuff like that, you know."

Giant steps toward heaven: John Coltrane's music has inspired a church in San Francisco.
Giant steps toward heaven: John Coltrane's music has inspired a church in San Francisco.
Bishop Franzo King addresses his congregation during a recent service.
Paul Trapani
Bishop Franzo King addresses his congregation during a recent service.

Another heavy influence on his musical education came via an aunt from Chicago, who determined that her little nephew Franzo should become a hairstylist. King soon found himself on a Greyhound bus to Chicago to check out a cosmetology school. An older cousin named Richard Dixon met him there and introduced him to his music. Dixon owned a big collection of jazz records, musicians King had never heard of. He thumbed through the albums. Sonny Stitt? Charlie Parker? Jazz Crusaders? King got to meet many of the top acts in person, because his cousin dragged him into the jazz clubs of the North Side.

"He was the kind of guy that was very open with the musicians. Run up to 'em, 'Man, y'all soundin' good, man! Hey, this is my little ole cousin from California.' He just had that kind of rapport."

After returning to L.A., King drifted north to San Francisco and met up with his older brother and a few friends; the group began holding what they called "listening sessions." Whenever somebody had money for records, the young men would meet at someone's apartment and listen to the music, trying to guess which musicians were playing on which albums.

King says he started calling it the Jazz Club, but it wasn't just about listening to records.

"We could feel early on that the music was escaping the community that was producing it. And so we had a concern about that: How can we get the youth from the African community to get into this music for the purpose of benefiting from the properties that the music offers?"

It was fine if kids just wanted to listen to songs about love, or songs that made them dance, but King and his club had higher concerns. "What was really disturbing me was that viewing the music through experience, and seeing how it really could deal with your thought patterns, and your aspirations, and your ideals and things -- how do we get them to benefit from this?"

The answer was simple: force the jazz upon the kids. King found a regular house party in the Bayview district, where somebody had turned a garage into an ongoing hangout. People paid 50 cents at the door and drank cheap liquor and listened to rock and roll and rhythm and blues. At 2 a.m., the club was turned over to Franzo King, who had invited jazz musicians.

"We'd just set up. Guys like Norman Williams and Billy Higgins and Benny Harris, the guy who wrote 'Ornithology' with Charlie Parker. We did a thing called 'I'm Black and I'm Proud Harlem Tea Party.' We had fliers, and we put 'em out all over the clubs. The youngsters got hip to us after a while. They'd say, 'Hey, man, these guys are gonna cut off at 2 o'clock and start playin' this jazz.' And then we just killed that [early] part of it, and we started opening from 2 to 6 in the morning, and called it the Yardbird Club."

In 1965, Franzo King took his wife Marina out to celebrate her birthday, and also the birthday of his late father. At that time, as the city was bridging the gap from beatniks to hippies, rock and roll was not big yet, and jazz was still the primary genre for live music. Bay Area audiences lined up to see Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Lenny Bruce, Horace Silver, Dick Gregory, Tom Lehrer, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie. Local musicians were also rising to national prominence, among them Cal Tjader, Dave Brubeck, John Handy, and Vince Guaraldi.

In North Beach there were strip clubs, of course, but also major jazz venues, including the Jazz Workshop and Basin Street West (now, respectively, the Hi-Ball Lounge and the Crowbar). The Western Addition still boasted a fair number of nightclubs, including the legendary Jimbo's Bop City at Post and Buchanan, and, on Divisadero Street, the Half Note (now the Justice League) and the Both/And club. Splitting the difference between these two neighborhoods was the Blackhawk at the corner of Turk and Hyde, where Miles Davis recorded his live albums. If jazz fans stayed home on Monday evenings, they tuned their televisions to Channel 9 and caught their favorite musicians performing on the nationally syndicated Jazz Casual program, taped at the KQED studios and hosted by San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph Gleason.

The Kings opted for the Jazz Workshop. Playing that night was the John Coltrane Quartet, at the height of its popularity. After squeezing into the narrow, smoke-filled room, King says, he heard something that was far beyond just another combo playing in another club. He has since referred to that evening as a "baptism in sound." The performance would alter his life forever.

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