The four musicians, and the audience of 20 or so people in the pews in front of them, were playing special homage this night to their patron saint, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, the "St. John" after whom their church is named.
The saxophone rose in the series of arpeggios that herald the opening of "Acknowledgement," the first section of Coltrane's 1964 composition A Love Supreme. As the music continued, the Rev. Bishop Franzo W. King placed a stack of Coltrane albums before the candlelit altar, below a painting of an African-American Jesus.
It was a most holy occasion at St. John's; it was the 30th anniversary of the "ascension of St. John Coltrane," or for those outside the church, 30 years from the day John Coltrane died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967, at age 40.
This ceremony was an abridged version of St. John's regular Sunday services, with only a fraction of the weekend congregation in attendance. But among those present, passions ran high. The worshipers were on their feet, many clapping and swaying and nodding with eyes closed, as the music crescendoed. From the front, a woman shouted, "Somebody, praise the Lord!"
Parishioners at St. John's celebrate the spirit of their patron saint every Sunday morning. The weekly liturgy for the congregation, whose members reflect a mix of races and ethnic groups, centers around three to four hours of music written and inspired by John Coltrane. Understandably, many of the congregants are musicians themselves. King plays the saxophone and piano, among other instruments.
The church is founded on a simple, overarching premise: the belief that the words and music of John Coltrane carry the spirit of God. The church focuses especially on Coltrane's A Love Supreme, which is the musical centerpiece of the Sunday liturgy. Its sections, "Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm," suggest Coltrane was trying to express some sort of religious experience with the work.
King says A Love Supreme makes it "quite clear Coltrane was on a spiritual quest." He refers to the album's liner notes; Coltrane writes that in 1957, he experienced "by the Grace of God," a spiritual awakening that led him to "lead a richer, fuller and more productive life."
Portraits of John Coltrane, Jesus, and Mary adorn the walls of the church. In one picture, the musician wears a green jacket and white shirt, holding a saxophone in one hand and an excerpt from the words to A Love Supreme in the other. Flames, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, burn in the bell of the sax.
King and his congregation point to the genius of Coltrane's music and his victory over drug and alcohol addictions as evidence of Coltrane's sanctified status. To further promote Coltrane's sainthood, the church has published quotations from "The Master," as they call him, in a small volume titled John Coltrane Speaks.
King first heard Coltrane "speak" to him directly in 1962, when the bishop was 17. That was when he first heard Coltrane's 1960 album My Favorite Things, which King's brother brought home. Raised in a Pentecostal household, King had experienced the fusion of music and religion. But the spirituality of Coltrane's music "crystallized" for him, as he puts it, a few years later when he went to see Coltrane perform at the now-defunct Jazz Workshop on Broadway.
At first, King and his wife, Marina, would hold what they called "listening clinics," with a couple of dozen other people once a week in the basement of their Visitacion Valley home. Along with playing Coltrane's records, they would read about Coltrane's life, as well as sacred writings from various religions.
By 1971, interest in "St. John" had grown enough to support a storefront church, and King opened the present location on Divisadero. He originally founded it as the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ Church, which wasn't affiliated with any other group. Since then, St. John's ministry has since expanded to include a radio show every Tuesday from noon to 4 p.m. on KPOO-FM 89.5. It also offers free services such as music lessons and hot vegetarian meals at the church three times a week. Like many other churches, St. John's is supported by tithes and offerings.
In 1982, the church came under the aegis of the African Orthodox Church (a body that is not officially recognized by the historical Eastern Orthodox churches), which acknowledged Coltrane as a saint and added his name to a list that includes Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey.
Members now total about 150 people locally, and 300 nationally, says the 52-year-old King. Some are attracted to the spiritual message; some come for the music; others are drawn to the combination of both.
"The most musically and spiritually exalting feeling of my life," is how musician Ira Levin describes playing at St. John's. Levin, who plays the alto sax and flute, has been coming to the church for about six years.
"Being in this church has opened up my music in a very big way. It's enabled me to get beyond the ego, and recognize that it's not about 'poor me,' " says Levin, 34. "It's about service and upliftment."
"Upliftment" was palpable during the special ascension ceremony last week. As the vocal and instrumental energy mounted, the weathered wood floors reverberated with the "sound praise."
From the front of the church, Sister Deborah, the woman leading the choir that evening, smiled and took the mike: "Hallelujah! Coltrane in the house!