Poet Jayne Cortez has not been gone that long. She died three years ago of heart failure at 78, but memories of her were unavoidable last Saturday in the memorial services for Ornette Coleman, her first husband. With her second husband at the services recalling his days with Coleman and the presence of her son, Denardo Coleman, it was hard not to think of Cortez and how she would have captured this moment in one of her poems.
She was born Jayne Richardson May 10, 1934 or 1936, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where her father was in the Army. Cortez took her maternal grandmother’s maiden name. At the age of 7, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, later coming of age in the Watts district. The blues and jazz were a constant sound in her home. She relished her parents collection of records.
When she was 14, she saw the great Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. At this concert, her passion for music was enhanced. “I took piano lessons and harmony … and hung out in the record shop after school,” she recalled in the preface to one of her books.
In school, along with her growing penchant for words, she played the bass. She had begun to write poems when she met and married Coleman in 1954. Two years later, Denardo was born. By 1964, she and Coleman were divorced.
The same year she and Coleman parted, Cortez founded and directed the Watts Repertory Company, where aspiring writers honed their craft, among them Stanley Crouch. She began publishing her own books in 1969. “Festivals and Funerals,” her second collection of poetry, was published in 1971. The following year, she officially formed her own publishing company, Bola Press. Then came a number of books, including “Firespitter” in 1977.
From 1977 to 1983, she was writer-in-residence at Livingston College of Rutgers University. Always a powerful and passionate reciter of her poems with a deep and abiding affinity for jazz, she soon had a group of musicians backing her during a performance. They were called the Firespitters, the group often including her son on drums.
“If the drum is a woman,” reads a poem from her “Firespitter” collection, and continues, “Why are you pounding your drums into an insane babble/why are you pistol-whipping your drum at dawn/why are you shooting through the head of your drum/and making a drum tragedy of drums/if the drum is a woman/don’t abuse your drum.”
In 1975, Cortez married Melvin Edwards, a sculptor and visual artist. His paintings often appeared on the covers of her books, particularly “Jazz Fan Looks Back” (2002) and “On the Imperial Highway” (2009), both published by Hanging Loose Press.
Among the recognition she received were awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, the International African Festival Award and the American Book Award. A global traveler, she lived for a while in Dakar, Senegal, but she eventually settled in New York City for the rest of her life.
During a memorial tribute to her in 2013 at the Cooper Union, professor Manthia Diawara saluted Cortez for her tireless advocacy and creation of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa and her commitment to the Yari Yari conference at New York University, where he served as head of the African studies department.
At this same event, historian Genna Rae McNeil recounted that Cortez “was never encouraged by her teachers to write poetry … she acquired this by reading the works of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.”
Amina Baraka recited her poem in honor of Cortez, noting, “I like the sound of your name.” Baraka said that when she thought of Cortez, “I think of the blues … revolution … and I’ll see you in the spirit world.”
Her connection with Africa was poignantly underscored by the presence of kora player Saliueu Suso from Gambia and singer Tapani Damba, and all of this was given added depth and significance in the words and lyrics of poet Rashidah Ismaili, who opened and closed her presentation with lines from “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
One of her most popular poems is “There It Is,” from “Firespitter”:
A lasting tribute to her name is her leadership of Yari Yari. In 1997, more than 2,000 women and men gathered for the conference at New York University. Some 150 female writers made presentations, including poetry by Cortez. She recited “Find Your Own Voice,” which is like a signature poem for her. “The slash of a barracuda is not like the bark on an eagle fish/the scent of a gardenia is not like the scent of tangerine. Find your own voice & use it/use your own voice & find it.”
Cortez certainly found her own voice and used it for others who could not speak.
Her work can be found in a number of world-class anthologies and compendiums. Three of her poems are featured in “The New Cavalcade—African American Writing From 1790 to the Present, Volume II,” edited by Arthur Davis, J. Saunders Redding and Joyce Ann Joyce. She is also a riveting presence in Ron Mann’s documentary “Poetry in Motion” (1982).