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Bebop Spoken There

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Wednesday January 27



12,399 (and counting) posts since we started blogging 12 years ago. 118 of them this year alone and, so far, 118 this month (Jan. 25).

Friday, July 05, 2019

Meditatin’ with Trane in San Francisco

(Report by Dave/Photos courtesy of Pam)

It took a trip to California and to a church dedicated to John Coltrane to get Pam and myself into a place of worship and meditation.
The church in question, the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Turk Street, San Francisco, was founded half a century ago by Marina and Franzo King following a visit on their first wedding anniversary to the city’s Jazz Workshop to hear Coltrane play A Love Supreme. They underwent a religious experience not dissimilar to Coltrane’s in 1957 and were inspired to launch a jazz-based church under a succession of names including the Yardbird Temple (they viewed Charlie Parker as John the Baptist to John Coltrane) in a succession of different locations mostly close to Fillmore Street, known in the ‘40s and ‘50s as the Harlem of the West for its dozens of jazz clubs.
Though dedicated to matters spiritual and cultural, the church has always worked on food, clothing and shelter programmes for the poor and in its early years partnered the Black Panther Party on these areas.

In 1981 they were invited to join the national fellowship of the (Episcopalian) African Orthodox Church and with the granting of sainthood to John Coltrane by the national church adopted the name they have today. It appears that not only the Roman Catholic Church has the power to bestow sainthood.

We attended the monthly guided meditation on the music of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme rather than a normal service. The church was decorated with images of Coltrane painted in the style of icons by Rev. Mark Dukes, a deacon of the church. The air was filled with incense and a recording of Coltrane’s My Favorite Things.

A nearly full house ranging from teenaged skate-boarders through to retirees, a fairly typical jazz audience plus the added youth element, listened to a young female cleric, Rev. Wanika Stevens, talk about Coltrane’s religious philosophy as expressed in A Love Supreme. The record was played and in the first movement, Acknowledgement, we chanted the words “A Love Supreme” nineteen times in unison with Coltrane. In the fourth and final movement, we spoke in unison with Rev Stevens.

The music, from Messrs Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison and Jones was as magnificent as ever and listening, eyes-closed, together with a large group of people did add something to the experience. Not I admit the intense experiences reported by some of the younger people when Rev. Stevens talked us down but she should have asked me back in the ‘60s when I bought the album.

Next to address us was a tall slim black man in a smart black suit, very much present around the church all afternoon, and now  introduced by Rev Wanika as Archbishop Franzo King, one of the church’s joint founders, who introduced his wife’s sister, Ann Mack, to sing an unaccompanied Body and Soul.  The two sisters, he told us, were daughters of an Armstrong Hot 5 trombonist (Kid Ory?)

Deep voiced and full of feeling; secular rather than spiritual was how Ms Mack’s voice and her performance struck us. Even given the traditions of black church music this version of Body and Soul came as quite a surprise. The names on her CV fitted with the performance: Teddy Edwards, Blue Mitchell, “Cleanhead” Vinson and Ray Brown.
With the end of Ann Mack’s song came the return of the Archbishop who, despite his official title of His Eminence The Most Reverend Archbishop F.W. King D.D. Archbishop Jurisdiction of the West, absolutely exemplified the delightful informality of this church, in that his serious message was expressed rather in the throw-away style of a hip stand-up comedian. He also had a lot to say about how, as a boy and a young man he learned to differentiate the styles of different jazz musicians.

After serving us chunks of freshly baked communion bread (and he stressed: not the pathetic biscuits as in most churches) and substantial cups of wine, he took out his tenor and invited any musicians present to come and join him and play.

We can’t say it was up to the standards of the Tuesday Jam at the Black Swan, with definitely no A-list House Trio along the lines of the Swan to provide a rock-solid rhythm section for the gig’s front line of two tenors, one alto and three women vocalists. But enthusiastic backing came from a conga drummer, a snare drum, a pianist and sundry hand percussionists.

I guess you’d have to leave pretty early for your bus Lance, so to make the trip worthwhile I suggest you aim for the church’s 50th birthday service at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral when all St John’s clergy – the majority of who are musicians – should be present, and if they’re all as good as the Archbishop the event should be worth reviewing.
Pam and Dave
P.S. Rev. Wanika Stevens was very interested to hear from Pam and I that quite a number of US musicians have made the trip to Newcastle. The musicians within the church already travel within the US to play. Anyone fancy hosting a visit?


Steve H said...

Fantastic! Must pay a visit sometime.

Russell said...


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