Political poetry in Bed-Stuy

“They want the oil/but they don’t want the people,” Jayne Cortez declaimed over and over again, her inflections expressing frank assessment, sheer disbelief, scathing cynicism and many nuances in between, without ever stipulating who “they” or “the people” are. She didn’t have to, we all knew. It was Saturday night at Sistas’ Place, a storefront coffeehouse in the black Brooklyn neighborhood Bedford-Stuyvesant, where poetry reflects the inseparability of the personal and the political.

Managed for the past 11 years by trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, formerly of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and a bandleader in his own right, Sista’s place is an underfinanced defacto community art center which fulfills a special niche in a reputedly hard neighborhood by offering a warm and respectable platform to some arguably radical ideas. Situated at Nostrand and Jefferson Street, a broadside on Sistas’ window denounces Thomas Jefferson as a racist child abuser. Upcoming programs include a screening of The Battle of Algiers and an appearance by writers Amina and Amiri Baraka, who to my mind sometimes overdoes polemics in pursuit of “social justice.”
I heard Amiri Baraka — author of the invaluable book Blues People in the 1963 when he was known as Leroi Jones — at the Guelph Jazz Festival last September, and was not convinced by his rants. Jayne Cortez’s work strikes me as truer poetry, her fierce analysis cutting to the bone on many significant issues.
Not particularly physically imposing and typically dressed in colorful but comfortably conservative multikulti mufti, Ms. Cortez doesn’t “sing,” if singing means aiming for tonal pitches and melodic phrasing. However, with piercing diction, a penetrating gaze and her still body taut with energy, she wrings words for their juice and clarity. Among her tools are relentless repetition and microtonal variations (“Where are you going? Where have you been? Where are you going? Where have you been?”), sharp metaphor (“Jazz is the African heart-transplant/that keeps on keeping Western music alive”), subtly profound musicality (in reference to Rwanda: “the sound of dying/and the song of not-knowing”), and/or extreme but not illogical logic (“Violence, violence, violence — give it up if you don’t really want it”).
At Sistas’, her son Denardo Coleman drummed hard ’round’n’bout the beat, while alto saxophonist T.K. Blue keened gleaming complementary phrases. Jayne Cortez is as strong-voiced on the page (see her collection ?tag=howardmacom-20″/” target=”_blank”>Jazz Fan Looks Back, for instance) as she is onstage with Ornette Coleman. She is a poet, yes, an intense worker of words, but her uncompromising vision would be resonant even if it were delivered more prosaically.
Thirty-five or so people are a crowd as Sistas’, and there were about that many attendees to hear Ms. Cortez. At the handful of small tables were newly-wed bassist Henry Grimes and Art Attack! editor-publisher Margaret Davis (I’ve profiled them in the April issue of The Wire), publisher-editor JoAnn Cheatham of the fledgling magazine Pure Jazz (headlined: “African American Classical Music”), a woman who introduced herself as reedsman James Spaulding’s wife of 45 years and at least one 20-something couple on a date. Abdullah hung in back with his wife at the small water-soda-wine bar, and mentioned their six-year-old daughter often runs through the coffeehouse, at ease with the people and thoughts expressed. The operation persists on a shoestring, with occasional grants from funders such as the cable station BET (Black Entertainment Television).
“I’m taking the blues back home/to where the blues stealers won’t go,” Jayne Cortez intoned. It was good to visit a place where the blues is at home with jazz, poetry, the personal and political, too.
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