On John Coltrane, and San Francisco

It’s Sunday morning in San Francisco, and the sun is blazing. I have “Sunday Morning” by the Velvet Underground stuck in my head as I bound down Fillmore Street, up and down hills. It’s 10 a.m., and the couple next to me is having a romantic discussion about apps and push notifications. “I’ve got a feeling — I don’t want to know…”

I’m walking to Sunday services at the Church of John Coltrane, which is facing imminent eviction. I’m not Christian, but I am a pretty serious music fan, and the news of the eviction fills me with dread. San Francisco these days is a dispiriting place. The Church of John Coltrane is on a stretch of Fillmore that used to be known as the San Francisco Jazz District, but there’s not a whole lot of jazz here anymore. In the 1940s and 1950s, from what I’ve read, this stretch of Fillmore Street was a happening spot, the “Harlem of the West,” where you could see Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday throw down. These days, Fillmore Street resembles a long outdoor mall — a mall that would probably keep stretching inexorably into oblivion if there wasn’t a body of water in the way.

The Church of Coltrane is a modest place. High white ceilings, grey commercial carpet, simple chairs. Massive, colorful paintings of the Church’s saints line the walls — including Saint Coltrane himself, wielding his saxophone. There’s a drum kit, and a small shrine in the center of the room with a vinyl copy of A Love Supreme and one burning white candle. The scent of burning sage fills the air.

Every Sunday morning, a congregation assembles at the Church to silently listen to all 33 minutes of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, eyes closed. A Love Supreme is one of those records that you’ve probably heard, even if you’re not into jazz; if you’re like me, you’ve probably heard A Love Supreme a few hundred times, so much so that it becomes a part of the wallpaper of your life. It’s one of those records you probably feel you don’t need to play anymore because it’s already engraved on your neurons. If you’re a nerd like me, you had long ago switched over to collecting records like Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda.

But at the Church of John Coltrane, A Love Supreme is more than just a classic jazz record. It is a holy talisman, imbued with deep power. It is vast and unknowable. There, I found myself listening to A Love Supreme with fresh ears, as if I had never heard it before. There were no distractions. Nothing to do except close your eyes and listen closely, in a room where everyone else was listening, too.

When the album finally finished playing, I thought about hearing versus listening, and control versus surrender. I often notice, when I’m busy doing other things while listening to music, that I’m hearing instead of listening. For instance, I’ve never really liked listening to streaming music from my phone. It makes sense when you think about it: the music is emanating from the same device you use to send invoices, book flights, and check weather forecasts. Music can feel dull and prosaic that way, like it’s just another app, sandwiched between Yelp and Tinder.

Brian Eno, one of my favorite people, often talks about the concept of ‘control’ versus ‘surrender.’ “In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically,” Eno once said. “We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.” Control is click-click-click — using your phone, multitasking, going to the office, running the show. Control is all that stuff you cram into your poor overstuffed brain. But most of the time, what we really want to do is surrender — to lose ourselves in an experience that is greater than us. On Sunday morning at the Church of Coltrane, I surrendered to A Love Supreme. I learned how to be lost in music again, to tap into its rich, abundant mystery.

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Arts journalist and critic. Author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno.

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