Authors: Jayne Cortez

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American

Author Works


Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, 1969

Festivals and Funerals, 1971

Scarifications, 1973, 2d ed. 1978

Mouth on Paper, 1977

Firespitter, 1982

Merveilleux Coup de Foudre: Poetry of Jayne Cortez and Ted Joans, 1982 (with Ted Joans)

Coagulations: New and Selected Poems, 1984

Poetic Magnetic, 1991

Fragments, 1994 (with Melvin Edwards)

Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, 1996

Jazz Fan Looks Back, 2002


Jayne Cortez moved with her family from Arizona to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. There she attended Compton Junior College and in 1954 married the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. In addition to a professional interest in acting, she became involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, while participating in the voter registration drive in Mississippi, she met the activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who became an acknowledged influence. When Cortez returned to Los Angeles in 1964 she began directing the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. She moved to New York in 1967.{$I[AN]9810002021}{$I[A]Cortez, Jayne}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Cortez, Jayne}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Cortez, Jayne}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Cortez, Jayne}{$I[tim]1936;Cortez, Jayne}

During the 1960’s Cortez’s primary cultural influences were the blues, jazz, and African culture. Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, her first collection of poems, includes drawings by Melvin Edwards and contains tributes to such musical artists as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. “Theodore” depicts the legendary Fats Navarro and the 52nd-Street scene; “Dinah’s Back in Town” recreates the voice of Dinah Washington.

Cortez’s poetry of the early 1970’s reflects jazz themes, pan-Africanism, political protest, and urbanism. In Festivals and Funerals she explores African identity and ritual in such poems as “Initiation,” “Pearl Sheba,” and “African Night Suite.” The signature poem is a tribute to such pan-African figures as Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba. Images of New York are contained in “I’m a Worker” and “Watching a Parade in Harlem 1970.” Scarifications, Cortez’s third collection, was brought out by her own company, Bola Press. The collection examines the urban landscape and a variety of sociopolitical issues. “I Am New York City” is a visceral evocation of the urban environment. The antiwar poem “A New Cologne” implies the devastation wrought by napalm in Vietnam. Cortez criticizes American justice in “Law and Order” and challenges international exploitation in Latin America and South Africa in “When I Think.” “Ife Night,” “Remembrance,” and “Song for Kwame” are tributes to African leadership.

In the mid-1970’s Cortez released her first major recording of jazz poetry, Celebrations and Solitudes, which featured the bassist Richard Davis. Pan-Africanism is again evident in Mouth on Paper, her fourth collection, dedicated to the poets Christopher Okigbo and Henry Dumas. There are allusions to Yoruba cosmology in “Ogun’s Friend” and blues themes in “Grinding Vibrato.” “Alberta Alberta,” a tribute to the slain mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., also recognizes black women. “Rose Solitude,” a song of praise for Duke Ellington, returns to jazz motifs. “For Brave Young Students in Soweto” is concerned with the South African struggle.

Cortez’s poetic art became increasingly “supersurrealistic” in the 1980’s. Firespitter, referring to an African mask, uses highly imaginative, politically charged clusters of visceral images. The poet recalls FESTAC 77 and the Second World African Festival of the Arts. The collection contains tributes to the jazz musicians Charles Mingus and Count Basie, as well as a portrait of Fannie Lou Hamer in “Big Fine Woman from Ruleville.” In “Nigerian/American Relations” and “There It Is” Cortez focuses on international exploitation.

Cortez was a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University from 1977 to 1983. During the 1980’s she produced recordings that featured her son, the drummer Denardo Coleman. She also republished poems from her earlier collections in Coagulations: New and Selected Poems. The new poems in the volume, collectively titled “On All Fronts,” emphasize global issues, especially environmental contamination, military aggression, and international exploitation. “Stockpiling” and “Tell Me” address the issue of a world polluted by industrial detritus. Cortez also includes praise for the Jamaican poet Michael Smith and the anti-apartheid freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu.

In the 1990’s Cortez continued her international touring, and in 1991 she cofounded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. Accompanied by the group “The Firespitters” she performed and recorded her poetry. Poetic Magnetic contains poems from the recordings Maintain Control (1986) and Everywhere Drums (1991), a release that features tributes to the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen and the Yoruba scholar Fela Sowande. The recording of the title piece, “Everywhere Drums,” an example of “poetry music technology,” integrates drum rhythms with supersurreal images. The recording also features a rap poem “Everybody Wants to Be Somebody” and a condemnation of environmental destruction, “Push Back the Catastrophes.”

In 1992 Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters: Women in (E)motion Festival was recorded live in Bremen, Germany. Two years later saw the appearance of Fragments, a publication combining sculpture and drawings by Cortez’s second husband, Melvin Edwards with poems by Cortez (including “Cheerful and Optimistic,” which satirizes environmental apathy). In 1994 Cortez received the Fannie Lou Hamer Award, and that same year she edited a Drumvoices Revue edition that featured African women writers. She was a featured participant at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere in 1996 and Jazz Fan Looks Back in 2002 continued Cortez’s evocation of jazz rhythms and urban experience.

BibliographyBolden, Tony. “All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez.” African American Review 35, no. 1 (2001). Urges a reassessment of Cortez’s poetry by the black literary establishment, which has ignored her, and analyzes several poem in depth.Boyd, Herb. Review of Everywhere Drums, by Jayne Cortez. Black Scholar 21, no. 4 (1991). Analyzes oral characteristics in Cortez’s poetry.Boyd, Melba J. Review of Coagulations, by Jayne Cortez. Black Scholar 16 (July, 1985). Boyd addresses imagery and anti-imperialism.Chrisman, Robert. Review of Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters’ Taking the Blues Back Home. Black Scholar 27, no. 1 (1997). Reviews Cortez’s recordings, noting the interplay of music and poetry in her work.Christian, Barbara. “Jayne Cortez.” In The Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology, Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980-1990, compiled by T. T. Phillips. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. Introduces Cortez’s body of work.Christian, Barbara. “There It Is: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez.” Callaloo 9 (Winter, 1986). Considers realism and political continuity.De Veaux, Alexis. “Poet’s World: Jayne Cortez Discusses Her Life and Her Work.” Essence 8 (March, 1978). Connects Cortez to celebrated poets such as Federico García Lorca.Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Devotes a chapter to Cortez, giving a substantial overview of her poetry.Redmond, Eugene. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1976. Suggests the relevance of Festivals and Funerals to the 1960’s.
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