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

That same year, the quartet set aside a day and recorded A Love Supreme, the first jazz record to sell 500,000 copies. Coltrane structured the record much like a symphony, in four movements: "Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm." And it was essentially all improvised. None of the quartet learned the music until the day of the recording.

Listeners opened the album and saw immediately that something was missing in the accompanying essay. There was none of the usual pretentious blathering on; for the first time, Coltrane had written the liner notes himself.

"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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD."

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.

People understood that this "awakening" probably coincided with Coltrane's kicking his heroin habit, but the rest of the notes were equally spiritual. The accompanying poem, "A Love Supreme," also written by Coltrane, began: "I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank you God. Peace." (Porter, the Coltrane biographer, maintains that the album's final movement, "Psalm," is actually a musical interpretation of these words.)

If one could point to a single record that best sums up the Coltrane quartet, this is it.

The group would play together for another year or so before its members trickled away and were replaced. Coltrane pushed his experimentation still further. Audiences expecting to hear "My Favorite Things" in concert watched him play an avant-garde solo that lasted more than an hour, and ended up walking out. The posthumous album Om was supposedly recorded under the influence of LSD. But he released records steadily up until his death from liver cancer in 1967. The final albums are difficult listening for even the most dedicated Coltrane fan, but they demonstrate that he was obviously still pushing himself for what was just out of grasp, attempting to translate sounds he was hearing in his head into music out of his horn.

The memory of John Coltrane is still present in the jazz world. Record companies have rereleased all of his albums, including several boxed-set collections, and bootlegs continue to circulate. He is the subject of a dozen biographies. Relatives have opened up the family home in Philadelphia as a John Coltrane Cultural Society. A memorial Coltrane concert is held each year in Boston. Rock musicians who acknowledge his influence include U2's Bono, Carlos Santana, and the late Jerry Garcia. Surviving members of the original quartet Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner still play the occasional Coltrane composition in their live shows. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, a mere toddler when his famous father passed away, is a well-respected musician in his own right.

San Francisco sax player David Boyce, of the Broun Fellinis jazz trio, still listens to A Love Supreme every December 9, the day it was recorded.

"I have to treat that stuff with kid gloves," Boyce says. "There's so much of it. Trane is just heavy. He did nothing light. Nobody went for it like that. He could play 9 million things on an F-minor chord. Bird had an effect on people, but Trane is probably the only one you could start a church from."

John Coltrane returned to San Francisco in 1966, and Franzo King again brought his wife to the Jazz Workshop, but Marina was refused admission because she didn't have identification. The following year they looked forward to Coltrane appearing again at the Workshop, but he canceled the gig, and died a few months later. King admits that his life had changed by that time. He was still trying to run jazz clubs and parties, but saw very clearly that he couldn't get Coltrane out of his head. A quote from the sax player kept coming back to him: "Yes, I think the music is rising. In my estimation, it's rising into something else, and so will have to find this kind of place to be played in."

"I think that was the key thing for me," King says. "'Ah, church. That's where we have to do it. To the church.' That's where it changed."

When A Love Supreme was released in 1964, King didn't even bother giving it a listen. All the stuff about God -- it looked like Coltrane had been snatched up by the Jesus freaks. But that was then. Now, King set about converting a downstairs apartment of his house into a chapel. People came over every Tuesday at midnight, listened to the Love Supreme album, and prayed and fasted for 24 hours. King didn't have a great desire to be the leader; he just wanted to supply people with information. But as the circle evolved, he eventually ended up leading the service. The group called itself the Yardbird Temple.

As the idea grew, King realized they needed a larger space. He moved the group into a storefront space on Divisadero, just across the street from the Both/And jazz club. The church was told that the space was once the home of the Theater of Madmen Only, a community that was one of the first to experiment with LSD in San Francisco. Rent was $225 a month.

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