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Jazz and Religion: The Church of John Coltrane

The Saint John Coltrane Church in San Francisco has always been a source of curiosity for Trane fans and jazz lovers who've heard of it, not to mention less-jazz-and-Trane-inclined skeptics sure to offer a cynical "what's that all about" smile. (Crazy jazzheads! A friend who lived in San Francisco for a few years told me that he once attended the Sunday-afternoon service and noted many congregants experiencing all sorts of, er, ascension.) Myself, I've always wanted to go there, although the only act close to a pilgrimage that I've made so far is picking up one of the T-shirts they sell (pictured at left). A recent article in the New York Times manages to paint a respectful view of the church and how Coltrane's music helps form its mission.

The connection between Coltrane's music and the tenor saxophonist's religious feelings is well known-Coltrane himself made explicit reference to the spiritual experience he'd had in 1957 and its subsequent impact upon his life and art in the liner notes to his 1964 masterpiece A Love Supreme. That one of the most popular figures in the history of jazz became a symbol of mystical faith in the service of music-or vice-versa-is somehow appropriate (even though I don't mean to sound so crudely simplistic about the forces that motivated Coltrane's career); jazz, perhaps more than any other music, has a way of invoking a religious-like fervor in its followers. I certainly went through a fiery-eyed, or fiery-eared, early-convert phase, and I've spoken to many others who had similar experiences... listening only to jazz for months or years on end, proclaiming the virtues of the true seers, denouncing the heresy of the false prophets, etc. I'm still not sure what it is about jazz that provokes such a state (Neil Leonard wrote an entire book, Jazz: Myth and Religion that makes some headway on the subject)-other than my subjective response to it as something profound, transcendent, and physical all at once. At some point its vast array of rhythms and melodic approaches began to resonate with the emotional movement of my daily life far more than the indie rock that inhabited the record player/tape-deck throughout my teens and early 20s. (Music which I still love and often listen to, I should early jazz-convert/snob phase did eventually come to an end.) Coltrane, in particular, became a beacon at times in the murky wasteland of Late Twentysomething, an example of someone who had struggled dangerously with internal demons that, if not completely defeated, were at least harnessed successfully for a better cause. (I was also obsessed with Henry Grimes, whose return may well be the greatest comeback in the history of jazz-an incredible narrative of personal and artistic resurrection that reverberates with jazz-religion overtones.)

Back in the 1970s Bill Cole wrote a Coltrane biography that's regularly been knocked by Trane scholars for certain inadequacies. What intrigues me about Cole's book, though, is how he explores the possible roots of Coltrane's artistic path in African philosophy and religion. Given that Coltrane was an African-American intensely interested in philosophy and spirituality of all kinds, such a means of inquiry hardly seems like a big stretch. Anyway, Cole writes:

Where religion is not a living force, the so-called art that emerges is, at best, no more than a mechanical contrivance which no matter how cleverly done can only succeed in substantially reducing the mind's affirmative resonance with nature. Its unrelieved dissonance is indicative of a disunified God-man-nature, an evil art. Hence, what is religion and how can it be made a living force is the first riddle the would-be artist must solve.

Yeah...what is religion? Riddle me that, indeed! The artist, more often than not, constructs a personal mythology (of which deities traditional or non-traditional may or may not play a part) that, with hard work and luck, allows him or her to successfully draw more and more often upon forces of inspiration, discipline, and liberation. Jazz, like any art form, requires a great deal of labor and skill to perform well-but good or great jazz requires passion and a story to tell...which in turn requires having done a bit of living, as well as some assimilation of said living. It also requires faith-a quality that comes in many different shapes and sizes, and might have absolutely nothing to do with anything resembling an external/supernatural force, energy field, or what have you. It might simply be the faith that this music is worth playing. That this life is worth living. That you can be grateful for the giant's steps and what they've taught you, but in the end it's where your own footprints go that matters most.

Watch a brief surviving clip of John Coltrane performing A Love Supreme live at Antibes in 1965:

Photo of Henry Grimes by Mark Sheldon

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