So many worlds lost a strong voice when Jayne Cortez died on December 28, 2012. An activist through and through, Jayne had passion and passions. Jazz and poetry were where she was often found, but if a group was marching for justice anywhere, Jayne or her inspiration was always on the scene. Our friend, Patricia Spears Jones was at Jayne Cortez’s memorial last week. We are so lucky to spend this Poetry Sunday there with her. —Ed.
“I Am New York City” by Jayne Cortez
Cortez was a jazzhead who grew up on swing bands, cool jazz, bebop, and popular music. She studied music, theater, and dance, and her artistic career began in theaters she helped develop in Watts, the black community of Los Angeles. Her stagecraft and musicality are reflected in her literary works and performance style; Cortez performances were daring, funny, timely, and well-timed, especially when she was working with the Firespitters, the band organized by her only child, Denardo Coleman. While she is known for her bold imagery and political acuity, she was also a nuanced wordsmith, honing her craft with delicate precision, offering the careful reader a glimpse of the shimmering complexity of life lived in the African Diaspora.
Cortez started Bola Press because she wanted to have control of her output, but her later volumes were published by larger small presses. Many of her volumes are illustrated by her second husband, Melvin Edwards, the internationally acclaimed sculptor, who survives her along with her son and her sister. Her first husband was Ornette Coleman.
At the Cooper Union celebration, where her voice rang across the moldy expanse of the Great Hall, speakers as diverse as Danny Glover, the actor; poets Quincy Troupe, Eugene Redmond (who sang her home in his own way), and Amiri Baraka; scholars Robin D.G. Kelley, and Genna Rae McNeil made presentations that were heartfelt, considerate, and emotional. But it was Rashidah Ismaili who reminded the audience that while Jayne was a great poet, she was also a committed organizer. In her travels she hooked up with Ghanaian novelist Ama Ata Aidoo and created the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. With OWWA and her connections to New York University she organized two major conferences bringing women of the African Diaspora to New York City—no easy task, and she did this with more moxie than money. Committment to women, to Africa, to living a life full enough to include the creation of a new and necessary organization seems to be Cortez’s true legacy.
Jayne Cortez was New York City, but also Dakar, Senegal, where she had a second home. She was a staunch feminist who was married twice—the second marriage a very happy one. She was a mother of one son, but also the mother to many young poets, writers, and musicians. And she was as deeply committed to freedom, justice and joy. She died in New York City after a brief illness on December 28, 2012.
From “Jazz Fan Looks Back”
by Jayne Cortez
I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang “Don’t Blame Me” with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted “How High the Moon” with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Patricia Spears Jones is a poet’s poet– a true master. Arkansas-born and raised, resident of New York City for more than three decades, Jones is author of the poetry collections Painkiller and Femme du Monde (Tia Chucha Press) and The Weather That Kills (Coffee House Press). She is also editor and contributor to Think: Poems for Aretha Franklin’s Inauguration Day Hat and co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology Ordinary Women: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women from the late 1970s. Her website is www.psjones.com.