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Jayne Cortez

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Title: Jayne Cortez  
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Subject: Jazz poetry, Abraham Kobena Adzenyah, Bern Nix, Sulfur (magazine), Cortez
Collection: 1934 Births, 2012 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Poets, 20Th-Century Women Writers, 21St-Century American Poets, 21St-Century Women Writers, African-American Musicians, African-American Poets, American Activists, American Poets, American Spoken Word Artists, American Women Poets, American Women Writers, Avant-Garde Art, Jazz Poetry, Musicians from Arizona, Musicians from Los Angeles, California, Poets from Arizona, Small Press Publishing Companies, Spoken Word Artists, Strata-East Records Artists, Verve Records Artists, Writers from Los Angeles, California
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Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez
Birth name Sallie Jayne Richardson
Born (1934-05-10)May 10, 1934
Fort Huachuca, Arizona
Died December 28, 2012(2012-12-28) (aged 78)
Manhattan, New York
Genres Avant-garde jazz, Free jazz
Occupation(s) Jazz poet, spoken word artist, writer, small press publisher
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1964–2012
Labels Bola Press, Strata-East Records, Verve Records, Giorno Poetry Systems
Associated acts The Firespitters, Ornette Coleman, Denardo Coleman, Bern Nix, Bobby Bradford, Ron Carter, James Blood Ulmer, Al MacDowell

Jayne Cortez (May 10, 1934[1] – December 28, 2012) was an African-American poet, activist, small press publisher and spoken-word performance artist[2] whose voice is celebrated for its political, surrealistic and dynamic innovations in lyricism and visceral sound. Her writing is part of the canon of the Black Arts Movement.


  • Biography 1
  • Career 2
  • Selected awards 3
  • Poetry books 4
  • Discography 5
  • Videos 6
  • Filmography 7
  • References 8
    • Critical reviews, interviews, and scholarly references 8.1
  • External links 9


Jayne Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson on the Army base at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on May 10, 1934. Her father was a career soldier who would serve in both world wars; her mother was a secretary.

At the age of seven, she moved to Los Angeles, where she grew up in the Watts district.[3] Young Jayne Richardson reveled in the jazz and Latin recordings that her parents collected. She studied art, music and drama in high school and later attended Compton Community College. She took the surname Cortez, the maiden name of her maternal grandmother, early in her artistic career.

Cortez was the author of 12 books of poems and performed her poetry with music on nine recordings. She presented her work and ideas at universities, museums, and festivals in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Her poems have been translated into 28 languages and widely published in anthologies, journals and magazines, including Postmodern American Poetry, Daughters of Africa, Poems for the Millennium, Mother Jones, and The Jazz Poetry Anthology.

In 1991, along with Ghanaian writer New York University. She appeared on screen in the films Women in Jazz and Poetry in Motion.[6]

She married Ornette Coleman in 1954 and divorced him in 1964. She was the mother of jazz drummer Denardo Coleman.

In 1975 she married sculptor Melvin Edwards.[7] She lived in Dakar, Senegal, and New York City, where she died.


Jayne Cortez wrote and performed with an uncompromising intensity all her own. Acerbic, hard-hitting, unsentimental and scathingly honest, her take on reality is so potent – and even pungent – that many poets may seem benign, or even superficial, by comparison.

The musicians with whom Jayne Cortez aligned herself reflected the sociopolitical and cultural elements to which she attached the greatest importance. Born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 1934, she grew up near Los Angeles under the spell of her parents' jazz and blues record collection, which also included examples of Latin American dance bands and field recordings of indigenous American music. Early exposure to the recordings of Bessie Smith instilled in Cortez a deeply etched sense of female identity, which, combined with a strong will, shaped her into an uncommonly outspoken individual. She became transformed by the sounds of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and no-nonsense vocalist Dinah Washington, whose visceral approach to self-expression clearly encouraged the poet not to pull any punches.

Cortez, who respected the memory of independent performing artist Josephine Baker, preferred to name inspirations rather than influences, especially when discussing writers. Those with whom she identified included Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, Christopher Okigbo, Henry Dumas, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Wright. Parallels with the ugly/beautiful poetics of Federico García Lorca also suggest themselves. Her words were usually written, chanted, and spoken in rhythmic repetition that resembled the intricate, tactile language of African and Caribbean drumming.

In 1954, Cortez married jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman when she was 18 years old. Their son Denardo was born in 1956; he began drumming with his father while still a child and devoted his adult life to collaborating with both parents in their respective careers.[8] In 1964, Cortez divorced Coleman and founded the Watts Repertory Theater Company, for which she served as artistic director until 1970. Active in the struggle for Civil Rights, she strongly advocated using art as a vehicle to push political causes, with her work being used to register black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s.[9] Ms Cortez traveled through Europe and Africa, and moved to New York City in 1967.

Most of her recordings have been issued under the auspices of Bola Press, a publishing company that Cortez founded in 1972. She cut her first album, Celebrations and Solitudes, at White Plains, New York, in 1974. A set of duets with bassist Richard Davis, it was released on the Strata-East label. The first Bola Press recording, taped in October 1979, was called Unsubmissive Blues and included a piece "For the Brave Young Students in Soweto." Cortez commenced delivering her poetry backed by an electro-funk modern jazz group called the Firespitters, built around a core of guitarist Bern Nix, bassist Al McDowell, and drummer Denardo Coleman. For years, the Firespitters and Ornette Coleman's Prime Time coexisted with Denardo as the axis and various players participating in both units.

In 1975, Cortez married painter, sculptor, and printmaker Melvin Edwards. His work has appeared in her publications as well as on some of her album covers.

During the summer of 1982, Cortez delivered There It Is, an earthshaking album containing several pieces that truly define her artistry. These include: "I See Chano Pozo," a joyously evocative salute to Dizzy Gillespie's legendary Cuban percussionist; a searing indictment of patriarchal violence called "If the Drum Is a Woman"; and, "US/Nigerian Relations," which consists of the sentence "They want the oil/but they don't want the people" chanted dervish-like over an escalating, electrified free jazz blowout. Recorded in 1986, her next album, Maintain Control, is especially memorable for Ornette Coleman's profoundly emotive saxophone on "No Simple Explanations," the unsettling "Deadly Radiation Blues," and the harshly gyrating "Economic Love Song," which is another of her tantrum-like repetition rituals, this time built around the words "Military spending, huge profits and death." Among several subsequent albums Cheerful & Optimistic (1994) stands out for the use of an African kora player and poignant currents of wistfulness during "Sacred Trees" and "I Wonder Who." Additionally, this album contains a convincing ode to anti-militarism in "War Devoted to War" and the close-to-the-marrow mini-manifestos "Samba Is Power" and "Find Your Own Voice." In 1996, her album Taking the Blues Back Home was released on Harmolodic/Verve; Borders of Disorderly Time, which appeared in 2002, featured guest artists Bobby Bradford, Ron Carter, and James Blood Ulmer.

In 1991, Cortez co-founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa with Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, and served as its president for many years thereafter. Cortez was planning a symposium of women writers to be held in Ghana, May 2013.[10]

An educator, publisher, and internationally acclaimed writer whose works have been translated into many languages, Cortez appeared in the films Poetry in Motion by Ron Mann and Women in Jazz.

Her impact upon the development of spoken-word performance art during the late 20th century has yet to be intelligently recognized. In some ways her confrontational political outspokenness and dead-serious cathartic performance technique place Cortez in league with Judith Malina and The Living Theater. According to the online African-American Registry, "Her...ability to push the acceptable limits of expression to address issues of race, sex and homophobia place her in a category that few other women occupy."

She maintained two residences, one in New York City and one in Dakar, Senegal, which she said "really feels like home."

Jayne Cortez died of heart failure in Manhattan, New York, on December 28, 2012.[11] A memorial celebration of her life, organised by her family on February 6, 2013, at the Eugene Redmond, Rashidah Ishmaili, and Manthia Diawara, as well as musical contributions by Randy Weston, T. K. Blue and The Firespitters.[12] The Spring 2013 issue of The Black Scholar (Vol. 43, No. 1/2) was dedicated to her memory and work.[13]

Selected awards

Poetry books

  • On the Imperial Highway: New and Selected Poems. Hanging Loose Press. 2008.  
  • The Beautiful Book. Bola Press. 2007.  
  • Jazz Fan Looks Back. Hanging Loose Press. 2002.  
  • Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere. Serpent's Tail/High Risk Books. 1997.  
  • Fragments: Sculpture and Drawings from the "Lynch Fragment" Series by Melvin Edwards, with the Poetry of Jayne Cortez. Bola Press. 1994.  
  • Poetic Magnetic: Poems from Everywhere Drums & Maintain Control. Bola Press. 1991.  
  • Coagulations: New and Selected Poems. Pluto. 1984.  
  • Firespitter, Bola Press (1982)
  • Mouth on Paper, Bola Press (1977)
  • Scarifications, Bola Press (1973)
  • Festivals and Funerals, Bola Press (1971)
  • Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, Phrase Text (1969)


  • As If You Knew (Bola Press, 2011)
  • Find Your Own Voice: Poetry and Music, 1982–2003 (Bola Press, 2004)
  • Borders of Disorderly Time (Bola Press, 2002)
  • Taking the Blues Back Home (Harmolodic/Verve, 1996)[14]
  • Cheerful & Optimistic (Bola Press, 1994)
  • Poetry & Music: Women in (E)Motion Festival (Tradition & Moderne Musikproducktion, Germany, 1992)
  • Everywhere Drums (Bola Press, 1990)
  • Maintain Control (Bola Press, 1986)
  • There It Is (Bola Press, 1982)
  • Life is a Killer (compilation on Giorno Poetry Systems, 1982)
  • Poets Read their Contemporary Poetry: Before Columbus Foundation (Smithsonian Folkways, 1980)
  • Unsubmissive Blues (Bola Press, 1979)
  • Celebrations & Solitudes: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez & Richard Davis, Bassist (Strata-East, 1974)


  • Find Your Own Voice (Sanctuary TV, 2010)[15]
  • She Got He Got (Sanctuary TV, 2010)[16]
  • I'm Gonna Shake (Sanctuary TV, 2010)[17]
  • Tribeca TV Series (David J. Burke, 1993)


  • Femmes du Jazz/Women in Jazz (2000)[18]
  • Yari Yari: Black Women Writers and the Future (1999)
  • Ornette: Made in America (1985)
  • Poetry in Motion (1982)


  1. ^ Fox, Margalit. "Jayne Cortez, Jazz Poet, Dies at 78", New York Times. January 3, 2013.
  2. ^ "Jayne Cortez",
  3. ^ Busby, Margaret. "Jayne Cortez obituary: Poet whose incantatory performances could be militant, lyrical and surreal", The Guardian. Friday, January 4, 2013.
  4. ^ The Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Inc. on Facebook.
  5. ^ Lena Williams, "Literary Women With Roots In Africa", The New York Times, October 16, 1997.
  6. ^ "Jayne Cortez (1934–2012)", IMDb.
  7. ^ Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, vol. 1, p. 121.
  8. ^ Rubien, David. "Poet Jayne Cortez makes heady music with Ornette Coleman sidemen", San Francisco Chronicle. Friday, October 26, 2007.
  9. ^ "Jayne Cortez Dies: Poet And Activist Passes Away At 78", The Inquisitr. January 5, 2012.
  10. ^ "Poet-performer Jayne Cortez dies in NY at age 78", The Wall Street Journal. Saturday, January 5, 2012.
  11. ^ "Jayne Cortez Dead: Poet-Performer Dies At 78", HuffPost Celebrity, January 5, 2013.
  12. ^ DooBeeDooBeeDoo, February 7, 2012.
  13. ^ Norman Otis Richmond aka Jalali, "Diasporic Music: Don Drummond, Jayne Cortez and more!" Uhuru News, November 8, 2013.
  14. ^ Taking the Blues Back Home at AllMusic. Retrieved August 10, 2012.
  15. ^ Jayne Cortez, "Find Your Own Voice." on YouTube
  16. ^ Jayne Cortez, "She Got He Got." on YouTube
  17. ^ Jayne Cortez, "I'm Gonna Shake." on YouTube
  18. ^ (2000), FMP.Femmes du Jazz/Women in Jazz

Critical reviews, interviews, and scholarly references

  1. Anderson III, T. J. Notes to Make the Sound Come Right: Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.
  2. Benston, Kimberly W. "Renovating blackness: Remembrance and revolution in the Coltrane Poem." Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. London: Routledge, 2000.
  3. Bolden, Tony. Afro-blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture. Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2004.
  4. Boyd, Herb. "Everywhere Drums." The Black Scholar. 21.4. (1991): 41.
  5. Brown, Kimberly N. "Return to the Flesh: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez." Writing the Black Revolutionary Diva: Women's Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  6. Clarke, Cheryl. "After Mecca": Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  7. Feinstein, Sascha. Ask Me Now: Conversations on Jazz & Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
  8. Feinstein, Sascha. Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
  9. Ford, Karen. "On Cortez’s Poetry". Modern American Poetry.
  10. Iannapollo, Robert. "Jayne Cortez/Firespitters, Cheerful & Optimistic, Bola 9401." Cadence. 21.2. (1995): 96–97.
  11. Jones, Meta D. E. The Muse Is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to Spoken Word. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
  12. Kingan, Renee M. "‘Taking It Out!’: Jayne Cortez's Collaborations with the Firespitters." in Thompson, Gordon. Black Music, Black Poetry: Blues and Jazz's Impact on African American Versification. London, Ashgate: 2014.
  13. Lavazzi, Tom. "Echoes of DuBois: The Crisis Writings and Jayne Cortez’s Earlier Poetry." Blevins, Jacob. Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning: Bakhtin and the Voices of a Genre. Selinsgrove, Pa: Susquehanna University Press, 2008.
  14. McCarthy, Albert J. "Jazz and Poetry." Jazz Monthly. 3.10 (Dec. 1957): 9–10.
  15. Melhem, D. H. "A MELUS Profile and Interview: Jayne Cortez." MELUS. 21.1 (1996): 71–79.
  16. Meehan, Kevin. "Red Pepper Poetry: Jayne Cortez and Cross-Cultural Saturation." People Get Ready: African American and Caribbean Cultural Exchange. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.
  17. Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: Kentucky University Press, 1990.
  18. Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation. Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2004.
  19. Pareles, Jon. "Setting Agitprop Poetry To the Beat of Current Jazz." New York Times March 25, 1991: C14.
  20. Rambsy, Howard. The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
  21. Richmond, Norman. "Jayne Cortez: ‘It’s What We’ve Been Doing All Our Lives.’" Fuse. 6.1–2 (1982): 73–76.
  22. Ruffin, Kimberly N. "Dispatch from a Diaspora’s Daughter: an Interview with Jayne Cortez." Abafazi. 13.1 (2005): 13–16.
  23. Ruffin, Kimberly N. "‘Freedom of Expression’ Meet Jayne Cortez." Footsteps. 7.2 (2005): 27.
  24. Ryan, Jennifer D. "Talk to Me: Ecofeminist Disruptions in the Jazz Poetry of Jayne Cortez." Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
  25. Sakolsky, Ron. "Firespitter: Jayne Cortez and the Poetics of Diasporic Resistance." LiP Magazine.
  26. Wilmer, Val. "Jayne Cortez: the Unsubmissive Blues." CODA. 230. (1990): 16–19.
  27. Wilson, John S. "Music: Poetry and Jazz." New York Times. June 9, 1970: 36.
  28. Woessner, Warren. "Unsubmissive Blues." Small Press Review. 15.3 (1981).
  29. Woods, Luke. "Cortez McAndless Distinguished Professor Poet to grace EMU with her Lyrical Stylings." Echo Online.

External links

  • Official Website
  • Academy of American Poets
  • Modern American Poetry
  • Poetry Foundation
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