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 church simply took Catholic prayers and married them with Coltrane compositions. The Lord's Prayer was chanted to Coltrane's "Spiritual." "The Lord Is My Shepherd" was sung to the sax line from "Acknowledgement."

"The music and the liturgy is incorporated," says King. "It's no more than what some of the European classical composers did for the church. Basically, that's what we did. The archbishop said, 'There's hundreds of liturgies. You have a Coltrane liturgy.'"

There was one catch in becoming African Orthodox: King and his church couldn't treat Coltrane like God, because, for African Orthodoxy, there is only one God. So King made Coltrane a saint.

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.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, the church received regular press attention. Travel guidebooks listed the church as one of the hidden treasures of San Francisco. Neighbors up and down Divisadero Street got to know church members and how pleasant they were. Street people knew to drop by Sunday and Wednesday afternoons for a free hot meal. Bishop King performed weddings and funerals. And core church members still listened to A Love Supreme at least three times every day.

The church band became a tight unit. Franzo and Marina's children had been taken to jazz clubs at a young age, and grew up surrounded by music. Franzo Jr. developed into a first-rate saxophonist. John Coltrane King slid behind the drum kit. Wanika King picked up the bass guitar (and also took on hosting duties of the weekly KPOO radio show). Franzo Jr.'s high school friend Fred Harris manned the church piano. And holding down the tradition of Coltrane's musical style was a saxophonist and church elder named Father James Roberto Haven. This core group now provides music for the Sunday services, featuring a regular repertoire of Coltrane compositions that mutate into long jams, allowing plenty of room for other guest musicians. Occasionally the band plays in clubs, and the French government has invited the group to perform in jazz festivals.

When David Boyce moved to the city in 1991, before forming the Broun Fellinis, he spent many memorable Sundays playing his horn at the church. "They were steppin' out," he says. "There must have been six saxes up there. Being in church, playing space music -- it was great. If they happen to believe that one of the most intense musicians of the 20th century is a saint..." He shrugs, as if to say, So be it.


Now Bishop King is pacing back and forth across the carpet. This part of the story is getting him agitated.

David Bell had been the church's landlord for some 20 years, but he passed away in 1998, leaving an unfinished negotiation on a new lease. Nothing had been finalized, but this was no big deal. In 27 years of paying rent at 531 Divisadero, the church had been through several landlords and lease agreements. It had always worked out. But that was before.

In May, a San Francisco property owner named Naseef Musleh purchased the building that houses the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The church proposed a new lease, King says, but Musleh rejected it. Then, King says, Musleh raised the rent from $1,100 to $2,250 per month; suggested that the church close down its food program because it did not have the necessary kind of kitchen; said the church needed to take out $1 million in insurance; and told King the church would not have a lease, but would rent on a month-to-month basis.

King says he went to a lawyer but received only bad news. "He tells me pretty much I don't have a leg to stand on. We'll be outta there in 90 days at the most, blah blah blah blah blah."

King acknowledges he hasn't paid rent for 90 days, because he can't afford the new, higher amount. The landlord has extended the date to vacate from September to March 15, but that's absolutely it. After 28 years, the Coltrane church has to move.

The Union Street real estate firm of Hill & Co. acts as property manager for the building. Agent Larry Stacy refuses to comment on any particulars of the current landlord-tenant negotiation, but does say that the church has had a history of delinquent rent payments and that the new owner has made considerable financial concessions because the church serves the public. But when it comes down to the bottom line, the building is now a different property, with a different relationship to the tenants. And yes, he adds, the situation is unfortunate.

Steven MacDonald, the lawyer King consulted about the rental dispute, declines to discuss his former client directly, but he does confirm that commercial space in San Francisco is treated differently than residential property. Rent control does not apply to business space. And in this case, the Coltrane church is a business.

"To the people involved, it's not simple, but from a commercial standpoint, it's very simple," MacDonald says. "Month-to-month is very difficult. When a new owner decides that they've got another use in mind, that's it."

San Francisco is experiencing an unprecedented commercial real estate boom. Spaces that once were considered disreputable are now being snatched up by high-tech firms and other companies that are benefiting from the strong economy. If a landlord buys a commercial building and the tenants are renting month-to-month, if he thinks the market will pay more rent, he has the right to do just about whatever he wants. Even if that means posting an eviction notice on a kitchen that serves the homeless.

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