A Love Supreme
IF I HAVE my calendars straight, it was on February 17 a great many years ago that Noah hustled the family into a boat to weather 40 days and 40 nights. If you read the fine print, you'll find the travail lasted much longer: The ark didn't hit ground until that July, and things didn't really dry out until the following year. When the crew went packing, word from on high warned them to bring plenty of food. (Eating the animals, of course, would fuck things up.) There is no mention in Genesis of music, but I hope someone had the sense to bring along a flute or a hand drum or something. It would've soothed the savage beasts onboard, and helped keep everyone's eyes on the forthcoming spiritual prize, as it were--the way music does in so many traditions.
I'm thinking about this just as Northern California is slowly but surely being washed into the sea under some of the heaviest rainfall ever recorded. Music has been just about the only thing that's kept me sane through the recent weeks; among other things, it serves to erase or at least punctuate the endless, droning patter outside. (Minnesota winters, for all their gusty winds and freezer burn, are sepulchrally silent by comparison.) One rainy-day musical encounter was especially remarkable: It happened on a recent Sunday morning, when a friend and I braved the torrents to attend services at the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco's Haight district.
The church is a tiny storefront affair on Divisadero Street with a poster-sized black-and-white photo of Trane in the window. While there is a small service and the occasional gathering during the week, the main event is Sunday, when musical seekers and jazzbos from all over the world jam the six pews and what little room there is around them. Some come with instruments; others are simply curious fans on vacation. Laying our umbrellas on the floor near the entrance, we join the damp congregation beneath a pair of spectacularly neo-Byzantine gold-leaf-and-oil portraits of The Artist, alternately holding a soprano and a tenor, both with flames licking out of their bells.
The service begins with a casual introduction by the charming and impressively dreadlocked Sister Mary Deborah (who also hosts the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane Uplift broadcast Tuesday afternoons from noon to 4 p.m. on KPOO radio, 89.5 FM). She explains the church's history: its progression from the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Body of Christ in the '70s; its formal affiliation with the African Orthodox Church in the '80s; its deification of a brilliant if flawed human artist; and Coltrane's shift in the church's pantheon from godhead to saint. (Coltrane's image shares wall space with a dreadlocked depiction of another J.C.) There is nothing here that seems any odder than what's found in other religious congregations, except maybe the church's plainspoken rhetoric. Sister Mary Deborah ties their freestyle tradition to the spirit of improvisation: "We're all just kinda wingin' it," she laughs.
Still, I'd come to the church with one obvious fear: How will a group of amateur players channel the music of a jazz titan? My fear was unfounded. In this room, the collective voice of good players achieves a jaw-dropping greatness. To start the service, a chain of variations on the theme of "Africa" (from Africa/Brass) begins unspooling along a simple but well-rooted electric bass line played by Sister Wanika King. She locks into the open rhythms of a fleet, T-shirted drummer who looks to be in his midteens.
And then the horns rise up: first Father De Haven, a Caucasian tenor man who resembles Joe Lovano, and Bishop Franzo Wayne King, the church's leader, who switches between tenor, sopranos, and hand drums. In the pew in front of me, a guy works an alto sax unobtrusively; two rows up, a trombonist swings more aggressively. Percussion instruments are passed around; someone sits down at the old upright piano and starts laying into some chords. Members of the congregation sing and shout praises, clap, and dance like they're at some funkified, post-bop Baptist revival meeting, or on a journey toward some deep inner space. New players arrive to stir things up further. The theme to A Love Supreme emerges from the free-blowing and people chant along. It is wholly transporting and transportingly holy.
After 90 minutes have passed by without notice, the music subsides and the bishop makes a serious pitch for money: Big Money. The Church is hard-pressed to continue its community outreach work, which includes serving meals to the homeless, and it is in need of a larger space. Feeling a bit strapped, my friend and I pony up a five-spot each and slip out into the rain. As we walked, we talked about the nearly nonexistent place of music in our respective Christian traditions, as well as our attachment to music as a spiritual vehicle--how nightclubs can feel like church just the way this church kinda felt like a nightclub. Slouching toward a breakfast joint on Fillmore, our ears were ringing. But the rain felt like a benediction.
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