Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Distinctively American Syncretism Still Alive and Well

When its web site disappeared several months ago, SWNID was worried that San Francisco's Church of St. John Coltrane, our nomination for the syncretistic religious institution most distinctly American, had ceased to exist.

But gentle reader Rustypants has directed our bloggish attention to the Washington Post's recent article chronicling the church's ongoing existence as a haven of American improvised music and eclectic, individualistic "spirituality."

If any jazz musician deserves to have a church named for him, it is 'Trane. Besides his utter virtuosity and scathing creativity, he also in his later music expressed a consciousness of things beyond the music and beyond the visible world, most clearly expressed in his epochal album, A Love Supreme. In the Ken Burns series on jazz on PBS, Branford Marsalis said that he wanted that recording playing as he dies. Such expresses the impact of John Coltrane.

Adding to the Coltrane case for sainthood are his overcoming of heroin addiction, his gentle and humble demeanor toward fellow musicians, his eschewing of commercial concerns, and especially his tragic death to liver cancer in middle adulthood.

But let's be honest. Coltrane is one if the half dozen or so most important jazz musicians ever. But he would not rank high on many lists for religious thought. His significance in that area should not be exaggerated.

But neither should it be dismissed.

As a Christian who listens to jazz, SWNID sees 'Trane as an exemplar of the deep need humans have to know God. His music moves me because in it I hear the desperate longing of the human soul that wants a home. When John Coltrane blew, he gave an eloquent offering to the Unknown God, a poignant question mark to which the gospel of Jesus is the exclamation point.


bryan dove said...

Trane's music, his comments on what he was doing in his music, lead me to realize the greater metaphor that Jazz provides for our lives. We are given a progression of chords and told to play. Every note we play and how we enunciate it becomes itself a creation—the creation is the creation of self. Will we play in harmony with the progression? How well do we know the progression? Will we play in a way that highlights the other players or seeks to maintain the spotlight on ourselves? If we know the song will we venture out and demonstrate our full relationship to it by expressing our own voice creatively or will we cling to the familiar notes of the melody as to a lifeline? These things make me say "hmm." But as soon as I start to hmm it turns into humming, and what do I humm but the familiar words that the Trane spoke to reverently to the Duke—"In a Sentimental Mood."

Rustypants said...

the african orthodox church's standard for canonization must be pretty lax, but who am i to quibble?

there is very little documentation on the AOC. st. john coltrane church seems to be the only active parish in the states.

i wonder if i could get redd foxx canonized and start a church...