Jayne Cortez, a no-nonsense poet who often declaimed her incisive lines of vivid imagery tying fierce social criticism to imperatives of personal responsibility with backing by her band the Firespitters, died Dec. 28 at age 76 (according to NYT obit, age 78). Her deep appreciation of American blues and jazz was another of her constant themes; her son Denardo Coleman played drums in the Firespitters, with whom she recorded six albums.
An activist in the Civil Rights movement, organizer of Watts writing and drama workshops, founder of the Watts Repertory Theater, Bola Press and co-founder of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Ms. Cortez was also taught at Rutgers, Howard, Wesleyan and Eastern Michigan universities, Dartmouth and Queens colleges and was a muse to the avant garde. Her husband sculptor Melvin Edwards is well known for his series “Lynch Fragments” and “Rockers.” When Ms. Cortez was a teenager in California, musicians including Don Cherry hung out at her family’s home because she had (as Cherry said) “the best record collection,” and through them she met Ornette Coleman, to whom she was married from 1954 to ’64 and with whom she kept in contact. Members of the Firespitters such as guitarist Bern Nix and bassist Jamaaldeen Tacuma, besides Denardo, played in Ornette’s electrically amplified band Prime Time.
Born in Arizon, raised in Los Angeles, Ms. Cortez was drawn to the arts at an early age. She painted and played cello besides keeping journals, graduated from an arts high school but was unable to go to college due to financial problems. She is sometimes said to have inspired Coleman’s composition “Lonely Woman,” originally titled “Angry Woman” — but the adjectives that seem (in my limited experience) to best describe Jayne Cortez are independent, inquisitive, precise and determined. Rhythm, repetition and pointed rhetoric characterize her poetry, as when she asked, “If the drum is a woman/Why do you beat your woman?”
If the drum is a woman
then understand your drum
. . . your drum is not invisible
your drum is not inferior to you
your drum is a woman
so don’t reject your drum
don’t try to dominate your drum
. . . don’t be forced into the position
as an oppressor of drums
and make a drum tragedy of drums
if your drum is a woman
don’t abuse your drum.
In 2000, I was honored to be invited by Jayne Cortez to sit on a panel for an international symposium she was helping to organize at New York University titled “Slave Routes: The Long Memory.” Sometime later, while writing Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz, I ran into her coming out a Manhattan drug store and we chatted briefly. I mentioned that my topic was the avant-garde, and she immediately responded that “the avant-garde is that in art which didn’t exist before. It’s always hard to introduce, because the avant-garde has to make a place for itself where there wasn’t one, where there wasn’t anything.”
Deeper, deeper, deeper/Higher, higher, higher. Always reaching and urging us to, too, intending encouragement as much as challenge. Thanks, Jayne Cortez, for ideas, spirit, words and music.