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Jayne Cortez, revolutionary poet, dies at 78

RON SCOTT Special to the AmNews | 1/11/2013, 4:39 p.m.
Jayne Cortez, revolutionary poet, dies at 78

Jayne Cortez, a poet whose fiery words sparked political activism and covered the Black diaspora from Africa to New York City mixed with her jazz performances, died on Dec. 28. She was 78.

The Organization of Women Writers of Africa noted Cortez died of heart failure at Beth Israel Medical Center. She was the president and one of the founding members of the organization and was planning a symposium of women writers in Ghana in May.

Cortez was one of the few political activists and performance artists remaining whose words hit with a spontaneous feeling of urgency swinging in the truth. When she wasn't performing, her work as an activist and organizer took over; she also served as the coordinator of the Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent at New York University. The Organization of Women Writers of Africa was started in 1991.

In 1999, she organized the international symposium "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," and a year later she participated in the United Nations' millennium summit, "The Round Table: Dialogue Among Civilizations."

"Jayne Cortez was one of the most important poets of the last half century--a bold, impassioned, singular voice in the grand tradition of revolutionary poets around the world," Amiri Baraka said.

Cortez was active in the Black Power movement during 1963-64, when she registered Black voters in Mississippi while working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee headed by Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).

Also in 1964, Cortez offered her first poetry reading in Los Angeles at the Watts Repertory Theater Company, an ensemble she organized. From early on, Cortez performed her words of social change and African oral tradition with the backdrop of jazz and blues musicians.

For over 30 years, she performed and recorded with her own band the Firespitters; members included drummer Denardo Coleman, her son from her first marriage with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, as well as guitarist Bern Nix and bassist Al McDowell, also members of Ornette's Prime Time Band.

"I'm very much a jazz poet," Cortez said in a 1997 interview with The Weekly Journal, a Black British newspaper.

Cortez's revolutionary performances have been experienced throughout the world in such places as the Museum of Modern Art; UNESCO Paris; the Berlin Jazz Festival; the Fourth World Congress on Women in Beijing; the Arts Alive International Festival, Johannesburg, South Africa; Banlieues Bleues Festival, France; Tampere Happening, Finland; New York University; and the Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

"Jayne was what I would call a musician's poet," stated Herb Boyd, author and educator. "Not only did she possess an intimate intelligence of their craft, she found the right words, the imaginative metaphors that often touched the very essences they sought."

Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson on the Army base at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., on May 10, 1934. Her father was a career soldier and her mother a secretary. The family moved to Los Angeles when she was 7. 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, during the beginning of her career.

Her poems that inspired members of the Black Power and Black Arts movements have been translated into 28 languages and widely published in anthologies, journals and magazines. She is the recipient of several awards: Arts International, New York Foundation on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the International African Festival Award, the Langston Hughes Award and the American Book Award.

Cortez appears in the Canadian film "Poetry in Motion" and the music video "Nelson Mandela is Coming," produced by Globalvision. Her poem "I Am New York City" was used as the theme for "Honor," an episode of the Fox Television series "TriBeCa."

She is also on screen in the film "Women in Jazz." A few of her 12 published poetry books include: "Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere" (Serpent's Tail / High Risk Books, 1997) and "Jazz Fan Looks Back" (Hanging Loose Press, 2002). She has recorded 11 albums with jazz accompaniments.

Cortez is survived by her second husband, sculptor Melvin Edwards; a sister, Shawn Smith; three stepdaughters, Ana, Margit and Alma Edwards; and a grandson.