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

The experience he could best compare it to, he says, would be moments in church, during his Pentecostal youth, when the music and preaching would escalate and build to such a level that the congregation felt a direct and intimate communication to God. The old folks called it "the Holy Ghost falling on the people."

"It manifested in different people in different forms," recalls King. "Some people would dance, some people would cry, some people would rejoice, some people would speak in other tongues. But for that moment, that period, time was arrested, so to speak. You were at the obey of the Holy Spirit."

He had that same feeling that night at the Jazz Workshop. When the quartet took a break, bassist Jimmy Garrison stayed onstage and played a solo with such commitment that an unnoticed string of drool hung out of his mouth, dangling almost to the floor.

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.

"I realized that the music of John Coltrane was representative beyond culture," King says. "And it wasn't just a cultural or ethnic thing. It was something that was higher."

He leans forward. This is an important point. This is the genesis of his church, the core of his belief system.

"In other words, you begin to see God in the sound. It's a point of revelation," he says. "It's not something that happens with absolute clarity, but it begins an evolution or a transition or process. The consciousness level, that opening, is evolving. Baptism is what it is."


Although he lived and recorded on the East Coast, John Coltrane visited San Francisco frequently. According to the 1999 Lewis Porter biography John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Coltrane first performed there in 1950 with Dizzy Gillespie's band at Jimbo's Bop City. He would return to play every major venue in the Bay Area, including the Civic and Masonic auditoriums, as well as the Monterey Jazz Festival.

In his formative years, the shy young saxophonist from Philadelphia apprenticed under some of the best bandleaders at the time -- Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Gillespie, Davis, Thelonious Monk. As Porter points out, Coltrane wasn't born a boy genius like Charlie Parker. He had to work at his talent. Friends would find him backstage in the dressing room between sets, practicing constantly for the perfect series of notes. While on tour, if hotel guests complained, he laid on the bed and silently fingered the keys. At night he fell asleep with the horn still in his mouth.

Coltrane was known as quiet and polite, wasting few words in conversation, but as with many other jazz musicians, the hectic life of touring led him to booze and heroin. After watching him nod off onstage one too many times, Miles Davis fired him from his band, then the hottest quintet in the industry. Coltrane could easily have given up, but what he did next, in 1957, illustrates his essence. He went home to his mother's house, drank glasses of water, and went through cold turkey by himself.

Newly clean, he took Monk up on an invitation to play a series of gigs, and then rejoined Davis for more recordings, which produced the classic album Kind of Blue. His style was starting to change. He seemed to be on a mission now. His solos were often hailstorms of scales and arpeggios -- an aggressive, intense style one critic dubbed "sheets of sound."

Coltrane assembled a group of musicians to back him and recorded several albums on the Prestige label before jumping to Atlantic Records. His 1960 album Giant Steps marked a milestone of sorts, the first record for which he wrote all the compositions. It was also notable for its fast, complex, impossible-sounding solo lines. The album is now required study in jazz education classes.

Immediately after that Coltrane put together what he considered his dream quartet -- a young virtuoso named McCoy Tyner on piano, the powerhouse drummer Elvin Jones, and, for the majority of the time, Jimmy Garrison on bass. This group would play together for the next several years, recording for the new Impulse! label and redefining the conventions of jazz.

The quartet's 13-minute version of "My Favorite Things" proved so popular that many thought Coltrane, rather than Rodgers & Hammerstein, had actually written the melody. But successive albums baffled both listeners and critics. Africa/Brass utilized an orchestra and unfamiliar rhythms that Coltrane had borrowed from African folk recordings. At other times, his playing was so loud and full of skronks and shrieks and attempts to hit three notes at once that critics referred to his music as "anti-jazz." Down Beat magazine started assigning two writers to review Coltrane, because one would invariably trash him. Rather than argue, Coltrane answered criticism by recording albums of ballads and standards, two with crooner Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington.

Coltrane's true calling was the so-called modal structure, which doesn't follow a typical blues chord progression but lets the music weave in and out of a single scale. With everyone playing essentially in one key, soloists have a chance for endless improvisation. One example would be "Lonnie's Lament," from the 1964 Crescent album; for most of the 11-minute track, Jones and Garrison anchor a syncopated groove, and Tyner and Coltrane head off in all directions, the result so complex and beautiful that it's easy to forget the music is wrapped around a single scale.

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