Of course, not all praise can go to God; you need to save some praise for the men and beasts who reveal the work and glory of God here on Earth. If you see God in a mealworm, then praise the mealworm, and if you see the face of God's son in a soiled tunic, then praise the cloth. And if it's 1965 and you are listening to John Coltrane play live in San Francisco and you had lost your religion, and suddenly the one true eternal God starts speaking to you personally from the bell of Coltrane's horn, then you should listen. And praise. Praise God, of course, but praise John Coltrane as well, for singing the words of God through his tenor saxophone.
That's how it happened to Franzo Wayne King. Raised by Pentecostals, he had left the faith, and was making a living as a hairdresser and a saxophonist when he had what he calls his "baptism in sound": At a jazz club in San Francisco, he listened to hour after hour of Coltrane's notes coming down like sheets of rain, and was compelled to love God again.
Thirty-four years later, as the light wanes in a low-income crevice of central San Francisco, Wednesday night services begin at Bishop Franzo Wayne King's church. In the 1990s, his church became famous, drawing press and visitors from the States, Europe, and beyond. And yet there's no big sign and no big door--only the sound of a fitful cowbell points out which of the dilapidated storefronts is the right one. Behind the correct door is a tall man in a lavender suit and a skullcap, clocking a cowbell and grinning like he's just had a baby.
"Praise God," he beams, "Welcome to the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church."
The smile on the lavender-suited worshipper is instantly recognizable as the smile of the born again--the kind of smile that incessantly indicates a level of happiness that the rest of us experience once a year, at most. But for whom is this man born again? God? Coltrane? Christ? They are all depicted as icons on the walls of the tiny windowless church, in full splendor--Christ with dreadlocks, Coltrane with halos and saxophones, and God, the Father of them both.
The truth is that Bishop King and his flock are reborn into a one-of-a-kind combination of Christ and Coltrane. Alongside the custom-made iconography is a collection of framed black-and-white photographs of classic Coltrane--playing in a smoky bar, sweating profusely, and probably on heroin, as he usually was before he was born again. The dominant text visible on the walls is a huge enlargement of Coltrane's sole religious text, the Love Supreme liner notes quoted above.
But Coltrane was not a man of words, and Bishop King has to single-handedly reconcile all the theological conflicts of having an ex-junkie jazzer for a patron saint. Because of this, the church has gone through a number of phases in its 30-year history. It started not long after the Coltrane concert, as a small meeting in King's home. For the first decade or so, the church not only considered Coltrane a god, but they also thought that listening to his music devotionally would lift them up to Christ-like status. That was apparently a mistake, because by the time the '80s came around, they were all still mortals. So they decided to link up with the respected African Orthodox Church. Coltrane, in the deal, was demoted to saint.
What makes this fanaticism work, however, is the music. Even though you may not choose to beatify your favorite musician, it is hard not to respect the determination the church shows in recreating the "holiness" of Coltrane's music. The house band, which is anchored by King's son (John Coltrane King!) on drums, tours internationally and really rips the Coltrane covers. Likewise, even the sparsely attended midweek service degenerates into a somewhat heated vocal and instrumental jam.
At the end of the evening, Bishop King closes the Bible and jumps behind the kit. He thrashes out double-time rhythms while his daughter and wife lead the congregation in chanting, over and over, "Thank God Almighty for John Coltrane, Thank God Almighty for John Coltrane." Instruments switch, and Bishop King is playing soprano. Lavender-suit starts giving bear hugs to friend and stranger alike, and even the most detached observer can feel the sincerity and strength of the Coltrane conversion experience. The listener is left wanting something more from his religion: Yes, Christ can heal lepers and raise the dead, but can he blow?