San Francisco’s jazz church fights to keep music alive


Jeff Chiu, The Associated Press

By Jason Dearen

SAN FRANCISCO – On Sundays, the sound of a saxophone marries murmuring voices and drifts out of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane Church.

Two dozen or so parishioners arrive and wriggle into their seats as Archbishop Franzo Wayne King blows his horn in a soft, welcoming solo before the more bombastic “sound baptism,” the term King coined for the religious experience he and his wife had at a Coltrane concert in 1965 that eventually led the church’s founding.

The small storefront space fills with the musky smell of incense as King’s wife, the Rev. Mother Marina King, and the Sisters of Compassion begin with an opening prayer: “Cleanse us, oh Lord, and keep us undefiled that we may be numbered among those blessed ones.” Parishioners – some dreadlocked, others dressed in their Sunday best; some black, some white – sing along or clasp their hands and hang their heads in prayer.

For decades the church had a growing following and has been profiled in The New York Times, Life magazine and the BBC. Ten years ago it was common for a passerby to see the famous storefront church’s Sunday congregation spilling out onto the sidewalk. These days they are more likely to see empty chairs between the dancing congregation members.

To make matters worse, earlier this year one of its principal funders, the New College of California, collapsed financially, leaving the church without a vital income source. The school had paid two-thirds of the church’s rent, so now King and his retinue are again asking its members and the community to help the church.

King founded the church in 1971, about four years after Coltrane died of liver cancer. As the “One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ,” the musical church was inspired by Coltrane’s life and music, especially his landmark 1964 nondenominational mediation on faith, “A Love Supreme.”

A tenor and soprano saxophonist, Coltrane played with equal parts squawking abandon and smooth control that still inspires a rapt, devoted following.

King, a Pentacostal minister’s son, said his first listening of Coltrane’s music was like a religious experience. “My brother brought it home from high school and I was like ‘Whoa! What is that?'” King remembered.

King, a saxophonist himself, had found a calling. The music, Coltrane’s fight against addiction and his subsequent quest for spiritual strength through music was the foundation on which King built his church.

“We didn’t want freedom of religion – we wanted freedom from religion,” said King, standing beneath a gilded painting of his patron saint.

The Coltrane Church uses elements of traditional Christianity in its services. In between jam improvisations, the Sisters sing the Lord’s Prayer, an epistle and gospel readings.

In the 1982, King’s congregation joined the African Orthodox Church, a Christian sect that formed in the 1920s as a place for African American Episcopalians who wanted a separate church. While Coltrane is not a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition, the African Orthodox Church beatified him after King’s group joined in 1982.

The church sits in the heart of the Western Addition – once a neighborhood of jazz joints on the West Coast before most of the buildings were razed under the mantle of urban renewal in the 1960s. The city recently created a “jazz preservation district” on Fillmore Street to honor the history that was destroyed by redevelopment, and the Coltrane Church is a key part of it.

This is not the first time the church has fallen on hard times. While its approach to faith through music has been well chronicled in the press, news reports of its demise over the past decade have been just as common.

The music almost died in 2000, when the church was evicted from its longtime home in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood, a victim of rising rents during the area’s technology boom.

“God has allowed us to survive and serve the community,” said King. “But if the church is going to live beyond this generation, we can’t just leave them with a storefront and a lease.”

Trouble arose again recently when the church lost the revenue it once received from the now-defunct New College of California. Shortly after getting the bad news, the church’s landlord threatened to raise the rent. King was able to broker temporary solution, and negotiated a new three-year lease at the same rent.

But the church hasn’t replaced its lost revenue. King has asked his membership to donate money, but realizes a larger benefactor will have to come forward to help pay the bills. That hasn’t happened yet.

For the long term, King realizes his only hope for survival is to grow the church out of its storefront. He is looking to his daughter, bass player and deacon Wanika King-Stephens, who was ordained a priest this year by the African Orthodox Church.

King hopes his daughter can help get younger people and more women in the community involved in the church. “I think as a church we ought to see ourselves on the cutting edge like our founding patriarch, who was dealing with the racism and limitations of the people of color,” King said. “Well, there are still limitations on the church in terms of women.”

Another way King hopes to attract more people to the church, and to Coltrane’s music, is the establishment of an annual Coltrane music festival that would move to a new city each year in a roving celebration of the spirituality and music of their founding father.

Regardless of the struggles, on Sundays when the music starts, it all appears to melt away when the band plays, sweating and gyrating to the sound with abandon.

Church members Toes Tiranoff, 57, and his wife Megan Haungs, 56, sit in the front row and put on black and white tap shoes.

As the band plays, Tiranoff steps onto a small wooden platform next to his chair and dances to the music while Haungs beats a tambourine. Tiranoff and Haungs, who live part-time in New York, also attend the jazz ministry, where music is also a central part of its liturgy, at Saint Peter’s Church there.

“There’s a whole spirituality of jazz that you feel even when listening to the music,” says Tiranoff. “It seems to me to make sense to have it as part of the church.”