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Saint Coltrane

A #VQRTrueStory Essay


[clock] 8-MINUTE READ PUBLISHED: October 3, 2016


1.

A painted portrait of Coltrane—robed, with halo—hangs on the wall. Reverend Marlee-I Mystic welcomes the congregation, many of whom are here for the first time, hoping to catch this San Francisco institution (forty-eight years in the Fillmore district) before it’s too late. “Come on in and be comfortable,” she tells them. “Let’s just get close. We’re all one global community. We’re here, we love the Lord, we love St. John Coltrane, and we came to have a good time. I want you all to be aware that this is a worship service. That’s what we came to do. We are not here to put on a show. So I really want you to take this time to become present. John Coltrane said, ‘Let us sing all songs to God / To whom all praise is due,’ and that’s what we’re here to do. If you’re a musician and you have your instrument, we want you to feel welcome to join us in praise, we want you to feel the ever-gifting talent and add that fuel to the Holy Ghost fire that we’re calling to be amongst us today. That means you can clap your hands—Hallelujah! We can stomp the devil out. You can stomp your feet if you want, if the spirit calls you to do so. You can dance in your space, whatever space you can find. I know I’m gonna find my space, and it might be next to you—so, you know, just be all right with that, because we’re here together to lift up and give all thanks and praises to the Most High. We understand the Holy Ghost may call and we may be here for longer than you intend to be here, and you may have other things to do. And that’s okay, we understand. But make sure to see the doorman on the way out, if you can leave a donation. We are going through a transition. Next week will be our last service in this space. We will be moving on, so we’re glad you’re able to be here in this sacred space that has been set aside for the praise and glory of God. Praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” The musical benediction begins: A gong bangs, a cymbal washes the room in baptism. Then the signature incantatory four-note bass line, which forms the foundation over which Coltrane chants: “A-Love-Su-preme.”

 

2.

San Francisco was once known as the Harlem of the West. Now, instead of music on every corner, plaques on the sidewalk mark the jazz legends who once roamed these streets. The jazz clubs of the Fillmore district are mostly gone.

Beginning in the 1930s, and extending into the sixties, the Fillmore was a thriving mecca for jazz and blues, a wild nightlife scene: clubs like the New Orleans Swing Club, Club Alabam, Jackson’s Nook, Jimbo’s Bop City (in the back of Jimbo’s Waffle Shop). Archbishop Franzo King recalls being able to leave the house on Friday and not come home till Monday. Prior to World War II, San Francisco’s black population was less than 5,000. The boom in war production drew thousands of black people, largely from the South, and the city’s black population blossomed to more than 40,000.

After the war, the neighborhood began to undergo “redevelopment”; in 1953, the first of many neighborhood homes was torn down as part of the urban renewal program. As the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency demolished homes, it issued “certificates of preference” to families and business owners, giving them the option to return after the area was rebuilt. Some of these homecomings took nearly twenty years to complete (according to Jordan Klein, the city of Berkeley’s Economic Development Coordinator, only 4 percent of all certificates had been used by 2008).

The black population of San Francisco peaked at around 100,000 in the early 1970s, and has declined since then—from 13.4 percent to less than 6 percent. You can feel it in Fillmore. It has, more than any other San Francisco neighborhood, the feeling of a ghost self.

In 1995, the same redevelopment agency that spearheaded the urban renewal program created the “Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District,” a lame homage to a once-thriving area. And while there are still positive, thriving black-led businesses and organizations in the neighborhood, it is a dimmed version of its past.

This church, soon to be evicted, buzzes with live jazz. Soon it will likely be replaced with something much more silent. 

 

3.

Tap dancer Savion Glover’s favorite music is that of John Coltrane. In an interview with the Guardian, he said that if he had to pick a soundtrack to his life it would be Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. “Those four movements just speak volumes: They cover the whole of a life, from birth to resolution,” Glover said. When asked what work of art he’d most like to own: “Every handwritten piece of music of John Coltrane’s. I would make it my wallpaper.”

Here at the Coltrane Church, there are two ministers of tap, Megan Haungs and Toes Tiranoff. Before service, they tape down the wooden dancing platform, put on their shoes, and kneel. During service, they tap in conversation with the instruments. Their feet shuffle and rain-beat pitter-patter across the small wooden board. A saxophone bleats in praise. It’s not just that the jazz gives them room to improvise, but that their bodies are instruments. “While hundreds of tap dance steps were improvised to the music of jazz, there were also new combinations of jazz steps created which enlarged tap’s lexicon of step patterns,” writes Constance Valis Hill in her book Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History.

When Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music premiered at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965, legendary tap dancer Bunny Briggs performed as soloist. Briggs had reservations about performing in a house of worship. “When I first heard the song, I thought it was pretty. But I didn’t want to do dance it [sic] in the church, because in the church, you can’t go for laughs, you can’t go for applause.” Briggs prayed and asked God to give him the routine. He danced to “David Danced Before the Lord,” and, according to Hill, the “sonic elements combined to (literally) float Briggs across the stage, his paddling shuffles making him look as if he were walking on water.”

Jazz and tap both share the ability to blur the line between making art and showing it. In this church, according to the virtues of the medium, people create—speak and dance and play—as the spirit moves them.

 

4.

Proof that a church isn’t confined to a particular space comes at the end of this morning’s service. Today marks the fourth day of a hunger strike at the Mission Police Station, where people are asking for the chief of police to resign after the latest shooting death–of Luis Gongora, a homeless man in the Mission district. Archbishop Franzo King talks about Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, two young men both gunned down by local police. While the congregation is understandably worried about losing a church, King reminds them that the church lives in the street.

Proof that a church isn’t confined to a particular space comes at the end of this morning’s service. Today marks the fourth day of a hunger strike at the Mission Police Station, where people are asking for the chief of police to resign after the latest shooting death–of Luis Gongora, a homeless man in the Mission district. Archbishop Franzo King talks about Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, two young men both gunned down by local police. While the congregation is understandably worried about losing a church, King reminds them that the church lives in the street.

  “We’ve been trying to get people to understand, it ain’t about this room. We can pray in the shower. We can pray in somebody else’s living room. It’s about the life of a community that’s being killed with impunity. Not only just killing our young men and women, but they’re killing communities—whether it’s predatory loans, illegal evictions, or criminalization of the youth. So we came here today to do a celebration of life and revolution. I heard St. John Coltrane said that change is so hard to take. But we’re moving, and we want everyone to know that we’re concerned not just about this room, but about what’s happening in the Mission, on Divisadero, in Hunters Point, and what’s happening across the nation. We have to break down some of these walls, these barriers. All of this, ‘I’m brown, I’m black’—most of you are just squares anyway. It don’t matter what color you are, because you ain’t doing anything. Sitting at home cussing the television out, talking about what the white man did. What didn’t he do? This community has been under siege since the early fifties. I hope I’m talking like I got some sense. We don’t want it to look like this is the only room the church is concerned about. We are concerned about the life, the heart, and the soul of this city.”

After its eviction, the Coltrane Church finds a new home about eight blocks over. And yet, as people here know, a single block can be a neighborhood away.


These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.

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