Last week was a holy one in segments of the music community, a time to celebrate the passing of a giant to whom followers have pledged loyalty for decades. It was a moment for them to reflect on their personal relationships to this artist and his message. For once in recent days, the performer being praised for his omnipresence wasn't Michael Jackson (although fanatics claimed to see the King of Pop's ghost in tree stumps and car hoods). This time it was jazz legend — and to many, spiritual leader — John Coltrane.
Coltrane was, of course, a master musician. In his relatively short but prolific career, the tenor saxophonist held his own against other icons (Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington), crafted romantic ballads and brazen compositional experiments, and elevated songbook standards ("My Favorite Things") into his own signature tunes.
He was the grandson of a reverend, but Coltrane didn't become a holy man himself until the mid-'60s, when he kicked heroin, found God, and released the revered album A Love Supreme, his classic four-part suite dedicated to religious awakening that encouraged, in turn, a religious awakening toward him. Forty-five years later, Coltrane's oeuvre has inspired countless musicians, the respected San Francisco institution St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, and, for the past two years, an annual tribute night at Amnesia that brings a unique musical holiday to the heart of the Mission.
The Valencia Street dive bar became a spiritual crossroads of lowbrow and higher power on July 16, the night before the anniversary of Coltrane's death. Where else could you sip Korean vodka as a saxophonist delivered a sermon about Coltrane vs. Obama, and a Peachy's Puffs vendor pitched a lighter-vibrator by rubbing you with its plastic flesh? It was an unusual mix of typical bar banter and truncated church service. But it was nonetheless a grounding experience, contemplating higher-power musicianship from a barstool pew, especially in the presence of performers radiating such supreme affection for their setlist.
The middle of July is a special time for St. Coltrane devotees. Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967, at 4 a.m. — an hour acknowledged as his "ascension" to heaven by his faithful. The annual recognition of this event makes for a busy week at St. John Coltrane's house of worship in the heart of the Fillmore. Archbishop Franzo King answers a call on July 16 with an apology — he wasn't able to come to the phone earlier, because "for us this is a holy week. We're either playing John Coltrane's recorded works or we're playing instruments every day," he says cheerily, a saxophone melody filtering in from the background.
Archbishop King is the founder, along with Reverend Mother Marina King, of the singular St. John Coltrane church. As the story goes, the couple was inspired by a "sound baptism" they experienced at a 1965 performance by the man himself in San Francisco. It is the only church in honor of the musician, with three-hour services involving the merger of spiritual music and message; its associates are regularly invited to perform around the world.
King discourages the public from showing up to his Sunday services "naked" (i.e., if you're a musician, bring your instrument). At Amnesia, he took the stage fully clothed with his saxophone, jumping in on a lineup led by a San Francisco great in his own right, Coltrane tribute organizer and bassist Marcus Shelby, alongside other Bay Area heavies — tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, drummer Jaz Sawyer, and pianist Adam Shulman. King wore the uniform of the cloth onstage — black suit, white collar — while his peers sported the classic look of cool jazzmen. Shelby stepped into the dimmed spotlights in a dapper suit and cocked hat. Wiley never removed his thick black sunglasses, his face stoic save for his animated, arched eyebrows flexing rapidly as he delivered an incredible cacophony of notes.
The group covered many Coltrane favorites in the course of two sets — "Take the Coltrane," off Duke Ellington & John Coltrane; "What's New," off Ballads; the title track and "Syeeda's Song Flute" off Giant Steps; and, of course, suites from Love Supreme ("Acknowledgment" and "Pursuance"). In between, Shelby casually educated the small gathering with information about the honoree's life.
The room wasn't as packed as you'd expect for a holy remembrance of a well-known musician, but it has been many years since Coltrane's death. His fans lined the barstools and tables, and there was plenty of room at the center of the bar. Then again, the church would be hosting its own tribute the following night, the official date of the "transition of Coltrane's soul." Those who were at Amnesia paid proper attention, though, especially the members of St. John Coltrane's church, lined up by the stage and led off by a man in a cane and thick glasses snapping his fingers insistently to the beat.
King's brief sermon came midway through the night, an acknowledgment of the occasion that gathered these players together. He touched on God, but didn't linger in religious tangents long enough to scare off us heathens. His words, like Coltrane's music, were loaded with more universal aphorisms. "They're trying to tell us this music is dead," the archbishop explained with a frown. His solution was to "go in like Lazarus" and prove them wrong. "Music is the instrument that can change the thinking of the people," he continued, to the affirmations of his parishioners. "Listen to John Coltrane and your mind will be right," he said, adding, "Obama might let you down, but John Coltrane will keep you powerful."
Unlike with Michael Jackson, no one left Amnesia with claims of Coltrane's image surfacing in car hoods. The San Francisco tribute to sainthood offered reflections of a different sort, investigations into the bonds connecting the trinity of melody, harmony, and rhythm with the lasting power of a music deity.