Jayne Cortez: A Poet’s Guide to the World

Jayne Cortez, 1997. Archive of Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez, 1997. Archive of Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez
A Poet’s Guide to the World

Jayne Cortez (1934–2012) was an African American poet, performing artist, publisher, and activist who remains widely celebrated for her political, surrealist, and dynamic innovations in language, lyricism, and visceral sound. Taking a stand against discrimination, exploitation, and ecological devastation, Cortez’s work and life probed those issues poetically and politically. As a multifaceted artist, she authored twelve books of poetry, performed her own poems with music on ten recordings, and was the driving force behind several international conferences that combined her artistic and political concerns. Cortez was also involved with education, presenting her poems and ideas at universities, museums, and festivals around the world.

Without following a chronological structure, this exhibition establishes a series of key subjects in Cortez’s work, exploring her books, personal letters, articles, as well as her performances, recordings, and conferences. In addition to Cortez’s personal creative legacy, this project will examine her collaborations with artists and activists, exhibiting her capacity to bring people together for the common good. Within the context of the exhibition, several artists of different generations will embark on a series of live performances based on Cortez’s work to emphasize its importance and relevance in our time. A publication and a recording based on Cortez’s work and her legacy of activism will accompany the exhibition.

About Jayne Cortez
Sallie Jayne Richardson was born to Sgt. Rance Richardson and Ada Kiser at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona army base, home to Buffalo Soldiers, in 1934. Cortez majored in liberal arts at Compton Junior College in Los Angeles, California, which she attended for a year. She was married to musician Ornette Coleman from 1954 to approximately 1965. Assuming her Filipino maternal grandmother’s maiden name, Jayne entered the world of professional poets and spoken word performers as Jayne Cortez. Cortez moved to New York City in 1967 with her son, Denardo. She remarried in March of 1975 to sculptor Melvin Edwards, with whom she lived until her passing in 2012. On her arrival in New York City, Cortez connected with Maya Angelou, who she originally met in Los Angeles, and joined poets like Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, Ted Joans, Joyce Mansour, and The Last Poets in contributing to the vibrant arts community we now call the Black Arts Movement. Cortez brought a poetic thoughtfulness woven through with deep musical knowledge and global vision to this community of artists breaking new ground in the literary, performance, and art worlds of the civil rights era.

The music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, as well as quotations from Shakespeare, influenced Cortez’s young life. As a teenager in the early 1950s, Cortez was surrounded by the burgeoning Black music scene in Los Angeles. She took piano lessons and studied harmony and theory while playing cello and bass with her high school orchestra at Manual Arts High School. Poems such as “Rose Solitude (for Ellington),” “I See Chano Pozo,” and “Miles Davis’ Trumpet” express not just her appreciation of these artists but an awareness of the dynamics of sound in her own work, both with and without music. Tonal dynamics of words were basic concepts inflected and manipulated to enhance form and content in her work.

Live performance in collaboration with musicians from the jazz world, traditional musicians from the African continent, and the diaspora became central to Cortez’s artistic development and output. Cortez studied theatre and acting with the African American actor Davis Roberts. Later, with Jim Woods, she established Studio Watts, an African American arts center that included the Watts Repertory Theatre, where she began to develop as a writer and performer. She first performed her poetry with music in 1964, collaborating with pianist Horace Tapscott and his orchestra. This early interest in performance led to the 1980 formation of The Firespitters Band in New York with her son, Denardo Coleman. The Firespitters Band produced nine albums and performed concerts around the world. Cortez’s 1982 book of poetry titled The Firespitters included the poem “There it is,” a politically charged call to awareness and action.

Throughout her career, Cortez combined her artistic work with her political sensitivities and organizing. During the summers of 1963 and 1964, Cortez ventured into the South with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where she surveyed voter registration projects in Mississippi. In Los Angeles, Cortez was a member of a SNCC support group held in the studio of designer and lifelong friend Bob Rogers. In the 1970s, she would fully express her political and social concerns about the legacies of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and independence that impacted people of the African continent and the African diaspora: from the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, to the persecution of the students in Soweto, to the brutality of police and systematic criminalization of African American people in the US. Seeds of the politically active engagement of her work can be seen in her first book of poetry, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkeyman’s Wares (1969).

Jayne Cortez cultivated an international aspect in all of her endeavors—especially within her poetry, where she responded to the cultural richness that reflected her own history of growing up in an African American and Filipino household. She participated in numerous international jazz, literary, and cultural festivals throughout the world that contributed to her expansive network of artists, intellectuals, political actors, and revolutionaries, including Léon Damas (co-founder of Négritude) and Marietta Damas; French philosopher Édouard Glissant; Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe; Nigerian architect Demas Nwoko; Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara; Cuban artist Ana Mendieta; Cuban poet Nancy Morejón; Jamaican poets Michael Smith, Jean Binta Breeze, and Linton Kwesi Johnson; South African poet Keorapetse William Kgositsile; and Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo. Aidoo would become Cortez’s collaborator in a groundbreaking initiative for women writers of African descent (OWWA). The Yari Yari Pamberi literary and cultural conferences organized by OWWA provided a network of international women artists, activists, and intellectuals that continues to grow to this day. In addition, Cortez organized the 2008 Slave Routes: Resistance, Abolition, and Creative Progress, an international conference, initiated and sponsored by UNESCO with the support of NYU’s Institute of African American Affairs and directed by Manthia Diawara. Cortez’s poems have been translated into many languages and widely published in anthologies, journals, and magazines.

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