Holy Music: San Francisco's Church of Saint John Coltrane

Getty Images, Google Street View composite
Getty Images, Google Street View composite / Getty Images, Google Street View composite

San Francisco is home to lots of offbeat things, and the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church is no exception. Every Sunday, you can head to 1286 Fillmore Street to attend the church’s weekly service, which runs from noon to 2:30 p.m. The church’s mission is to promote peace, unity, and knowledge of God—by sharing with the world the message of John Coltrane’s 1965 album, A Love Supreme.

How did a church dedicated to the jazz saxophonist come to be? In 1965, Franzo King took his wife, Marina, on a date to see the John Coltrane Quartet perform at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Franzo grew up in St. Louis and Los Angeles with parents and grandparents who were Pentecostal ministers, and he felt a deep, spiritual connection to Coltrane’s music. The couple said they saw a vision of the Holy Ghost when Coltrane came on stage, and they refer to that moment as their “Sound Baptism.”

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Inspired by that feeling of divine sound, the Kings founded a small congregation that focused on meditation, prayer, and fasting. Their group underwent multiple iterations from the late 1960s to the 1970s, changing in name from Yardbird Temple to the Yardbird Vanguard Revolutionary Church of the Hour to One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ. Based out of 351 Divisadero Street until 2006, the church proclaimed that Coltrane was God. Their small congregation was involved with community organizing groups and the Black Panthers, and people viewed them as one of many cults in San Francisco.

Coltrane himself, whose grandfathers were both reverends at churches in North Carolina, was raised Christian. In 1957, after years of heroin and alcohol addictions, he experienced a spiritual awakening that changed his life. He became sober, declared God’s healing power, and aimed to use music to make people happy, starting with his landmark album A Love Supreme. He went on to study world religions and recorded an album called Om in 1965, which featured Hindu and Buddhist chants. He died two years later in 1967 at age 40.

The church went through an “Alice Coltrane period” from 1974 to 1981, when Coltrane’s widow, Alice, became involved with the Kings’ congregation. She brought to the church a focus on Hinduism, leading meditations and Hindu chanting against a backdrop of African-American gospel music. The congregation worshipped her as the wife of God, and the Kings adopted Indian names. In 1981, though, a falling out between Alice and the Kings led Alice to sue the church for $7.5 million for illegally selling merchandise (clothes, incense, and bread) with Coltrane’s name and likeness. Alice lost the lawsuit.

Leaders in the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in Chicago heard about the Kings via media stories about the lawsuit. Founded in 1921, the AOC is an African-American denomination of Christianity. In 1982, Franzo studied in Chicago under Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson, the leader of the AOC, to earn a Doctor of Divinity degree. Now that the Kings were part of a more legitimate religious group, they demoted Coltrane from God to a saint, and the AOC officially canonized Coltrane as Saint John William Coltrane.

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Today, the Coltrane Church, sometimes stylized as The Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church, features a house band called Ohnedaruth, which is led by the "Ministers of Sound." Services consist of Christian liturgy (reading Bible passages and hearing sermons) interspersed with performances from A Love Supreme. Devoted to sharing “Coltrane Consciousness,” Ohnedaruth plays music during the services to celebrate how their saint used sound to achieve union with God. The church encourages worshippers to sing along, dance, and clap to the music. The church walls display Byzantine-style portraits of Saint John Coltrane, dressed in a white robe with a golden halo around his head, holding a saxophone, as well as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Moses.

Attracting visitors from all over the world, the Coltrane Church is one of a kind: it’s the only member of the AOC that uses Coltrane’s music to celebrate God. Besides its weekly Sunday services, the Coltrane Church runs a food pantry for the hungry, gives clothing to the homeless, and hosts Uplift, a radio show on San Francisco’s KPOO-FM that plays Coltrane’s music. Amen!