St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church Celebrates 50th Anniversary

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PHOTO: Percussionist Lucky Busalachi and saxophonists David Bird and Archbishop Franzo W. King jamming at the St, John Coltrane African Orthodox Church 

"I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people."

-St. John Coltrane

  Long before you enter the doors of the St. John Coltrane Church African Orthodox Church (SJCAOC), way on the top of Turk Street in the Fillmore district of San Francisco, the sense of being on a religious pilgrimage sets in quick while walking up one rolling hill after another. 

  Once your there, winded and lightheaded from the uphill climb, it starts. After a short, quiet prayer, the saxophones begin to honk and squeal from all corners of the alter. Uplifting notes and harmonies from the Coltrane musical songbook fill the church, as the bass, drums and piano start to flow between the woodwinds. 

  A groove sets in and the spirit is awoken. The church band plays a hybrid-blend of different Coltrane periods of "classic quartet" and Free jazz. Soon it is indelibly embedded in your brain- whether you are an avid Coltrane listener or not- that the remarkably dynamic, soulful, intimate, emotionally vulnerable and personable music of John William Coltrane -even if the late saxophonist and composer did not realize it- truly belongs and should be heard (at least once) in church. And afterwords, when you go home and listen to a Trane record- 50's be-bop or 60's free- on youtube, the holiness you experienced that morning in church will come forever to life wherever you and your smartphone, tablet or laptop happen to be.

  However you are exposed to the powerful, spiritual music of John Coltrane, it is a transforming experience, particularly for musicians. For me, it happened in the fall of 1991. After listening to a recently released CD box-set of James Brown at a friends apartment over early morning bong hits and strongly brewed coffee, our host switched gears and played John Coltrane's record OM.  As the cliche goes, long before I heard about a Coltrane Church, I was never the same afterwards. 

  Millions of people around the world have had similar experiences, transformed by Coltrane's music almost from the instant they hear it. For trumpeter Arthur Brooks it was Coltrane's "Out Of This World."  At the Coltrane church, this is called a "sound baptism." 

 But Fanzo W. King's baptism in the musical world John Coltrane cut much deeper. For in 1965, Mr. King saw John Coltrane live at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach and briefly met him. Coming out of the back of the club to the stage, King has testified that a "light" illuminated around Coltrane. Soon after, it was revealed to him, that the music of John Coltrane was the "divine sounds from the throne of heaven and the mind of God."

  King had grown up in the Pentecostal church and was groomed to become a preacher. He began preaching at five years old. Not fond of the strictness of the Pentecostal faith, he rebelled and opted out of it altogether. "But when I saw John Coltrane I knew that call was on my life to be a minister of the gospel. I felt the transference of the Holy Ghost and that anointing coming through the saturating sound of John Coltrane and it began to turn my life around God," 

  It was then that he and Reverend Mother Marina King began to create what would ultimately become, what many refer to as "the Coltrane Church."

  The SJCAOC went through several evolutionary stages in the 1960's and 70's. It began in King's Potrero Hill apartment as a cultural space for listening and learning about jazz and African American culture, eventually turning into the Yardbird Club in the Fillmore district known as the "Harlem of the West" for its rich African-American culture and jazz roots. 

  The Yardbird Club became a place where jazz players from in and out of town could experiment and jam out late into the night. As other black owners began being pushed out of jazz club ownership in the Fillmore, the Yardbird Club became a viable alternative outside the orbit of the market place. The Yarbird Club eventually became the Yardbird Temple, then the One Mind Temple. As One Mind Temple, the church was deeply involved in community service and partnered with the Black Panther Party to provide food, clothes and shelter programs for the poor. One Mind Templealso began to discover the binding truths of all religions and how Coltrane's music transcended traditional barriers of language, culture and religious dogma.  This was reinforced as more and more pilgrims of many faiths from all over the world would show up for worship services. 

  In 1978, John Coltrane's wife, Alice began working with One Mind and through her involvement was renamed the Vedantic Center. The meteoric rise of One Mind Temple/Vedantic Center caught the attention His Eminence Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson of the African Orthodox Church through Bishop Ajaril and in 1981, Hinkson asked the "Coltrane congregation" to join the African Orthodox Church. 

  The following year, after the ordination of King and the canonization of John Coltrane into sainthood, the transformation of what we now know as the Saint John Coltrane Church African Orthodox Church was complete.

  Their address has changed over time, but the Coltrane church's popularity has steadily grown over the decades in a time when larger denominations are downsizing, even closing down large church structures that don't fill up pews anymore. Even Coltrane's band mate, drummer, Rashied Ali attended Sunday services before his passing in 2009.

  The SJCAOC's latest incarnation at 2097 Turk St., home of the Saint Cyprian’s Episcopal Church , is a great space for the music and the "global spiritual movement." Lead by Pastor Wanika Stephens, with guidance from the dynamic Bishop King, SJCAOC's future could not be in better hands. Having been raised in SJCAOC, almost no one on the planet has as much grace, humility, empathy and wisdom as Pastor Stephens who is truly living the life of A Love Supreme.

  Living A Love Supreme Pastor Stephens says is not just about jamming on Sundays, but being involved in social issues as well. "SJCAOC is a social justice church,' she said. In between the music, you may a catch a sermon on police brutality or how the existence of poverty around the world is not accidental, but of design. Another unique aspect of SJCAOC service is when they turn the mike around (being that their are so many first time visitors each Sunday) and ask church goers where they are from and why they came. The services I attended, there was people from all over America and the world; Congo, Norway even as far off as Australia making the pilgrimage to the house of Trane. Sometimes, they bring instruments of their own to demonstrate, like one young musician from Germany, who played a "Hang," a UFO shaped metallic drum invented in Germany in 2000.  

  After attending several worship services, it became plainly apparent why this small, "schismatic" denomination has continued ministering in the Fillmore district of San Francisco for going on half a century. It is because the SJCAOC is the true house of worship on this planet. This reporter has attended many worship services of almost every religion, denomination- you name it. There is one thing all those other groups do not have: The undeniable spiritual force of John Coltrane's music. A force that both unifies and transcends our antiquated dogmas and creeds of yesteryear, bringing humanity to a higher, universal plain , closer to the source of our Mother and Creator in the Universe. And no church, temple of mosque I have been to has more welcoming to outsiders than SJCAOC. It is utterly dismaying, that with all the millions of dollars recently spent renovating the Fillmore St. "Jazz district," that a space could not be made this preeminent cultural Jazz cornerstone in San Francisco? What could be better for any jazz district than Coltrane every Sunday afternoon, no cover charge?

  As the 50th anniversary of SJCAOC comes closer(Feb-2019), one can only hope, that SJCAOC will start live streaming Sunday's Trane Masses, unifying the "global spiritual movement' around the world. As climate temperatures rise and the oceans begin to pour over the world's coastlines and islands, as the Holocene extinction unfolds and the fascist politics of "us vs. them" continues to spread, what could be more important than the entire creation of Earth to listen and receive the music and message of Saint John Coltrane?


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