Taking Notes by Lisa Ladd-Wilson Late 'Trane on Sunday
by Lisa Ladd-Wilson
We went to church on Sunday, and now I think I understand what John Coltrane's music was all about.
John Coltrane played tenor sax. Sometimes he played it pretty and sweet, and it sounded like some sort of exotic bird singing to the moonlight; sometimes he played it like a Jackson Pollock painting, disjointed and crazy and so far out there that it wasn't even on the map.
Coltrane played a lot of bird music early in his career, which spanned the '50s until his death in 1967; but the later it got, the crazier his music got. For me, late 'Trane always was confusion. It was inaccessible, inexplicable.
Until that Sunday this past May when we went to St. John's African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. I think I get it now. It's still crazy, it's still inaccessible, but now late 'Trane no longer is inexplicable.
"Sept. 23rd is the anniversary of the birthday of our now Patron Saint John Coltrane. John Coltrane proclaims in his thesis, as found on the recording `A Love Supreme,' the omnipotence of God and our need for and dependence upon him," says the church's bishop, the Most Rev. F.W. King.
"(Coltrane) acknowledged (his) desire to be used of God to be a blessing to others, (and it) was granted through God's grace. It is the dedicated triumph of John Coltrane's life over many obstacles, his music and this testimony that inspired us to be led by the Holy Spirit in organizing a religious community ..."
St. John's African Orthodox Church is easily dismissed as just another storefront on Divisadero Street. It's small and unheralded, and its handful of pews fill up quickly.
On the walls are painted icons: the Madonna with baby Jesus on her lap, the adult Jesus with surrounding halo - and they're all black. Right next to them is an equally haloed John Coltrane, sporting a green jacket and white shirt, holding forth his saxophone, its bell filled with fire. "St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane."
"We celebrate God through the perfect music of John Coltrane," said a middle-aged white woman, and she noted the smallness of the church and the efforts to expand. Donations are accepted, she said; T-shirts, prayer shawls and full-color copies of the Coltrane icon are available.
She acknowledged a young member of the congregation who has been missing for several years - a small boy who in a photo on the wall looks out happily at his fellow worshippers - and asked that we pray for his return. And as she talked, the pews and aisles were filling with people.
A young man took his seat on the drums to our left. A woman in dreadlocks fingered her bass guitar. A white man in his early 20s we dubbed "Rasta Boy" stood at the end of our pew, eyes closed, lips moistening his saxophone's reed. An older black man wearing an earring and knit cap slid his two conga drums along the floor. (We later found out he was a preacher.)
They started with Coltrane's "Africa," and what turned out to be an hour-plus jam session quickly hit full stride. A metallic-blue electric violin screamed to the forefront. Rasta Boy ended his sax solo and grabbed a tambourine - he had yet to open his eyes.
Another saxophone roared at the altar, and another joined him. The violinist by now was shredding his bow in a frenzy of noise. The people behind us began chanting, and the sound of their voices, the drums, the saxophones and violin - all of it - was overwhelming and deafening.
And that's when I got it. Just as some Christians begin "speaking in tongues" or racing about pews when in a religious state, these people play Coltrane. And Coltrane was speaking in tongues through his saxophone. In his masterpiece "A Love Supreme," Coltrane composed a love letter of sorts to God, which said in part: "Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions - time - all related - all made from one, all made in one. Blessed be His name."
Late 'Trane. It's still crazy, it's still so far out there it's not even on the map. But now at least I know where it was headed. -end-
Lisa Ladd-Wilson is a Eureka free-lance writer.
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