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Today would've been jazz giant John Coltrane's 94th birthday. Two years before his untimely death at age 40 in 1967, a young San Francisco couple heard him play, and their experience was religious. They founded a spiritual community inspired by Coltrane's music, and 50 years later, they're still preaching his gospel. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas made the trip to the St. John Coltrane Church.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Franzo and Marina King were already jazz fans on the night that changed their lives. This was back when San Francisco was the Harlem of the West and the Fillmore District was packed with places to hear jazz. On the couple's first wedding anniversary, they went to hear John Coltrane play.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "COMPASSION")
TSIOULCAS: That night, they say, the Holy Spirit walked out with Coltrane onto the stage of the Jazz Workshop.
FRANZO KING: I think we were both slain in the spirit. It was like getting caught up in a rainstorm. And we didn't know if it was going to bring flood or flowers.
TSIOULCAS: They both came from families of preachers. But that night, they say, they experienced an awakening, thanks to Coltrane's horn. They call it their sound baptism. John Coltrane became their Christ, their God. And his album "A Love Supreme" became their central text.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.
TSIOULCAS: This was the 1960s, after all, and it was San Francisco. They drew upon elements of Hinduism and Sufi Islam, as well as Christianity. But these days, when King preaches, it's with the cadences of his Pentecostal background.
F KING: I wouldn't have known who John Coltrane was if I hadn't had that Holy Ghost experience in the Pentecostal church. And I would be remiss, as we give thanks to God for John Coltrane, to not do what he did and point us to Christ, who points us to God, who points us into the oneness of this universe.
TSIOULCAS: In the early days, the church's practice was austere, with long periods of fasting and silence. Marina King, who now goes by Supreme Mother Reverend Marina, says the message was also about social activism.
MARINA KING: We started feeding the people. We also knew that to be right with God was to be right with the people. And so we began free vegetarian meals, counseling. Sisters would come together, baking bread and giving it out free.
TSIOULCAS: The Kings eventually met Coltrane's widow, the musician Alice Coltrane. They came to regard her as their guru and became members of Alice Coltrane's own religious community, the Vedantic Center, which was based on her interpretation of Hindu beliefs. They even recorded Hindu devotional songs with her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOVINDA JAI JAI")
ALICE COLTRANE: (Singing in non-English language).
TSIOULCAS: That oneness began to unravel. There were theological splinters. In 1981, Coltrane sued the Kings for using her late husband's name and likeness. The lawsuit was later dropped, but the publicity pushed the Kings' church to join the African Orthodox Church. As a condition, they had to reduce John Coltrane's rank from God incarnate to patron saint. Franzo King, now known as Archbishop F.W. King, agreed.
F KING: We recognize that John Coltrane is a saint 'cause we have been born anew in the spirit of the Lord and baptized in that anointed sound.
TSIOULCAS: Today, the church is called the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church. It holds services at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church in San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood after years of moving from storefront to storefront, pushed out repeatedly by gentrification. Reverend Wanika Stephens, the Kings' daughter and the church's pastor, says their financial struggles mirror those of Black San Francisco.
WANIKA STEPHENS: It's a lonely feeling because the people that you used to know for the most part are not here. They're just gone, can't afford to live here. I don't even know how I'm still here, honestly.
TSIOULCAS: But the Church of St. John Coltrane continues to share its beliefs with the community and spread the message of a love supreme.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.
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