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Cortez, Jayne 1936–

Jayne Cortez 1936


Influenced by Jazz and Politics

Developed Own Brand of Poetry

Selected works


Acclaimed as original, versatile, and multifaceted, Jayne Cortez is a poet whose extraordinary career includes literary success and impassioned activism inspired by the ideals of human dignity and social justice. Cortez is considered to be the primary link between the creative sound-based poetics of the Black Arts Movement and what became synonymous with poetry in the last years of the twentieth century: hip hop and performance poetry. Cortez has been writing and performing her poetry for over 40 years at museums, universities, and festivals throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Her poetry, which has been translated into twenty-eight languages, fuses politics with surrealism, and blends traditional poetry with the African oral and aural traditions, American black culture, jazz, and blues. Cortez, who has described her work as a mix of art and politics, as well as confrontational, has been included in several anthologies, journals, and magazines. Cortez has published ten volumes of poetry, recorded nine albums, and she has received numerous awards. In addition, she has appeared in the Canadian film, Poetry In Motion and in the film Women in Jazz. She also participated in the music video Nelson Mandela is Coming and her poem, I Am New York City, was featured in an episode of Tribeca, the Fox television network series.

Her career as a social activist is impressive. Cortez traveled to Mississippi in 1963 to help register black voters. In 1964 Cortez organized writing and drama workshops in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, ultimately co-founding the Watts Repertory Theater Company. Like many other black artists who wanted control over their work, Cortez established her own publishing company, Bola Press, in 1972. She co-founded, and is president of, the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. A tireless organizer, she coordinated the Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent as well as directed the film Van Yari. She also helped to organize the international symposium, Slave Routes: The Long Memory and was a participant in a round table discussion at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000.

Influenced by Jazz and Politics

Cortez was born on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She grew up in Los Angeles, where she attended an arts-based high school where she focused on painting and she studied the cello. She also loved to write and was an avid journal keeper. Playing the cello, Cortez became acquainted with classical music but in the Cortez household, she was exposed to Spanish and Native American music as well as blues and jazz. After high school she attended Compton Junior College and also studied drama at Ebony Showcase. Unfortunately, she interrupted her studies due to financial constraints. She did not, however, put down her pen and continued to write.

Many critics define Cortez as a jazz poet. Most of what Cortez has written is best experienced when heard, rather than read from a page. Her voice and choice of words are her instruments. As an artistic young woman living in Los Angeles during the 1950s, Cortez was

At a Glance

Born Jayne Cortez on May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, AZ; married Ornette Coleman, 1954 (divorced 1964); married Melvin Edwards, 1975; children: (first marriage) Denardo Coleman. Education: Attended Compton Junior College; studied drama at Ebony Showcase.

Career: Watts Repertory Theater, co-founder, 1964; poet and performance artist, 1969; Bola Press, founder, 1972s Livingston College of Rutgers University, writer-in-residence, 197783; Dartmouth College, lecturer; Howard University, lecturer; Queens College, lecturer; Wesleyan University, lecturer; Eastern Michigan University, M. Thelma McAndless Distinguished Professor in Humanities, 2003.

Memberships: Organization of Women Writers of Africa, co-founder, president; Poetry Society of America.

Awards: New York State Council on the Arts Poetry Award, 1973, 1981; National Endowment for the Arts, 197986; American Book Award, I980; Before Columbus Foundation Award, 1987; Afrikan Poetry Theater tribute and award, 1994; Fannie Lou Hammer Award, 1994.

Addresses: Office Bola Press, P.O. Box 96, Village Station, New York, NY 10014.

attracted to the exciting jazz scene that was evolving in California during that time. In 1954, when she was eighteen, Cortez married jazz saxophonist, Ornette Coleman; the marriage lasted until 1964. Because Cortez had a musical background and lived in a musical environment, her writing gravitated toward lyrical verse, and at a further point she began to interweave her poetry with music. While fusing jazz and poetry was nothing new, Cortez, who learned from various arts movements and absorbed the experimental spirit exemplified by such writers as Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), developed her own style.

Critics have also described Cortez as a political poet. It is important to note that during the 1960s, many black artists, including Cortez, were influenced by the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement, considered to be the artistic branch of the Black Power Movement, has been criticized by several black scholars, including the esteemed Henry Louis Gates, Jr. However, many critics consider the Black Arts Movement the most important movement in American literature precisely because it effected a paradigm shift whereby the meaning and function of literature were redefined. Essentially, the artist had a responsibility to his or her community, and this responsibility included the duty to redefine the world on the basis of culture-specific symbols and terms. Writing for Chicken Bones, Kalamu ya Salaam explained, [T]he effort of the black arts movement was to make art based on the speech and music of black people, drawn from the everyday lives of our people and returned to them in an inspiring and potent form. The Black Arts Movement environment encouraged black artists to join this new frontier, but unfortunately, not many of the initially recognized poets remained active.

Cortez drew inspiration from the Black Arts Movement, but she considerably expanded the movements intellectual horizons. While the black poets of the 1960s forged a new type of literaturereplacing traditional literary forms by modes of discourse informed by artistic creation in reaction to the dominant cultural paradigmCortez went a step further. As a black female, Cortez sought to create a literary discourse that was free of both the traditional white poetical aesthetic and the sexism that was evident in all cultures. Writing for Modern American Poetry, Karen Ford asserted, For most women who came of age artistically during the Black Arts movement and who were tutored in the Black Aesthetic, the struggle to create a place for themselves in the literary environment was arduous. Giovanni, Sanchez, Rodgers, frequently retreated to some form of conventional femininity that was almost as disabling as the over bearing masculinity they sought to escape. An exception to this pattern and a harbinger of future development in African American poetry is Jayne Cortez.

Developed Own Brand of Poetry

Cortez was of her time. According to Salaam, [T]he black arts movement proper covers the time period of 1965 to 1976. Yet, Cortezs life choices reflected many of the Black Arts Movement ideologies before the movement formally began. While Cortez may have come of age during the height of the Black Arts Movement, she seems to have been able to be both immersed in, and able to circumvent, the movement, continuing to evolve into the twenty-first century. The controversial and unsentimental columnist and critic, Stanley Crouch, claimed that Jayne Cortez was the only female poet that was interesting during the Black Arts Movementinterestingly, this was the same Stanley Crouch who learned to play the drums so that he could accompany Cortez while she performed her poetry in the mid-1960s. In an interview with Robert Boynton (posted on his website), Crouch stated, Id never met anyone with that kind of aesthetic commitment, whod drawn a line in the dirt and said, I am an artist.

Tony Bolden wrote a critical essay for African American Review, where he discussed Cortezs work at length. Bolden declared, Black Aesthetic poetic theories are best exemplified in the poetry of Jayne Cortez, whose work demonstrates the full potentiality of what I call a blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African American Resistance poetry. Bolden further explained Black Arts poets, who were attuned to the impact of Malcolm X and James Brown on black audiences, realized that the sermon and song/shout could be utilized to create a popular peoples poetry as reading material, poets attempted to incarnatethat is, becomethe black performer and thereby blur the distinction between poetry and song by using the voice as an instrument. In the essay, Bolden explained the term, tonal semantics, which is an African-American form of paralinguistics, a term that performance scholars use to describe a mode of communication that cannot be conveyed adequately in print. Comparing Cortez with other poets, including Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Askia Toure, who all employ tonal semantics, asserted that her work is unique largely because she rehearsed with her own band, which allows her to fine-tune her use of tonal semantics in her interaction with band members. Her band, The Fire-spitters, has a distinct sound, yet it is clear to listeners that the band has been structured around her voice and the rhythms of her poetry. Cortez often employs vocal techniques that simulate those of blues singers and/or instrumentalists. She also uses what I call terms of rememory: allusions, words, and/or images that recall important aspects of the black cultural experience. Cortez, who maintains that her poetry swings with or without music, emphasized to Luke Woods, writer for the Eastern Echo, The most important part of poetry and art is that youve got to find your own way, otherwise youre not in it.

The early 1960s were extremely challenging for Cortez. Not only had she become a political activist and had established herself as a poet, she traveled to Africa, Asia, and Europe. In 1967 she moved to New York City and began to get more recognition for her work. Since 1969, when she published her first book, Pis-stained Stairs and the Monkey Mans Wares, Cortez has published a book every few years, most of which have been illustrated by Melvin Edwards, whom she wed in 1975. It is interesting to note that in 1956 Cortez and Ornette Coleman had a son, Denardo who, at a young age became a proficient drummer. Denardo often accompanied his father, and later became a member of The Firespitters and has played on all of his mothers albums. In 2003, at the age of 67, Cortez and the Firespitters released Borders of Disorderly Time. Most people think about retiring at that age, but Cortez continues to perform, lecture, and teach. While Cortez was the M. Thelma McAndless Distinguished Professor in Humanities at Eastern Michigan University in 2003, she told Carol Anderson of Focus EMU, I look at my work today, then tomorrow it looks different. I say, That pretty good, but tomorrow Ill write a new masterpiece.

Selected works


Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Mans Wares, Phrase Text, 1969.

Festivals and Funerals, Bola Press, 1971.

Scarifications, Bola Press, 1973.

Mouth on Paper, Bola Press, 1977.

Firespitter, Bola Press, 1982.

Coagulations: New and Selected Poems, Thunders Mouth Press, 1984.

Poetic Magnetic, Bola Press, 1991.

Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, Serpents Tail, 1997.

Jazz Fan Looks Back, Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2002.


Poetry in Motion, 1982.

Nelson Mandela is Coming (music video), 1991.

Women in Jazz, 2000.


Celebrations and Solitudes, Strata East, 1975.

Unsubmissive Blues, Bola Press, 1980.

There It Is, Bola Press, 1982.

Maintain Control, Bola Press, 1986.

Everywhere Drums, Bola Press, 1991.

Mandela is Coming, Globalvision, 1991.

Taking the Blues Back Home, Harmolodic/Verve, 1997.

Borders of Disorderly Time, 2003.



African American Review, Spring 2001, p. 61.

Billboard, March 2, 1991, p. 62.

Eastern Echo, October 1, 2003.

Focus EMU, October 14, 2003, p. 4.

Publishers Weekly, April 29, 2002, p. 66.


Biography, Jayne Cortez Official Website, (October 19, 2003).

Black Poetry Text & Sound: Two Trains Running Black Poetry 19652000 (notes towards a discussion & dialogue), Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, (November 11, 2003).

Inside the River of Poetry, In Motion, (November 11, 2003).

Jayne Cortez, Poet, Jazz Artist, Black Voices: Black History Month, (November 6, 2003).

Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters, Philadelphia City Paper, (October 19, 2003).

On Cortezs Poetry, Modern American Poetry, (October 27, 2003).

The Professor of Connection: A Profile of Stanley Crouch, Robert Boynton Official Website, (November 30, 2003).

Voices From the Gaps: Women Writers of Color, Jayne Cortez, University of Minnesota, (October 27, 2003).

Christine Miner Minderovic

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"Cortez, Jayne 1936–." Contemporary Black Biography. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Cortez, Jayne

Cortez, Jayne

May 10, 1936

The poet Jayne Cortez was born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and she moved with her family to Watts in Los Angeles when she was seven. Jazz was one of her earliest and most significant artistic influences. In 1954 she married the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The two were divorced in 1960, and Cortez soon began to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. She studied drama and attended acting workshops, and it was around this time that she began to write poetry.

In 1963 she met James Forman, the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who persuaded her to go to Mississippi to help register voters. After spending the summer of 1963 in Greenwood and the summer of 1964 in Jackson, she was, by her own account, transformed: "I saw history being made."

Upon her return to California, Cortez founded the Watts Repertory Theater Company, a writers' and actors' workshop, and she began public readings of her poetry there. In 1967 she moved to New York City, where she founded Bola Press. Two years later she published her first collection of poetry, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (1969). In 1975 she married the artist Melvin Edwards, and from 1977 to 1983 she served as writer-inresidence at Livingston College of Rutgers University.

African imagery, poetic forms, and language are important facets of Cortez's work, which is collected in the volume Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (1984). However, it is music that most permeates Cortez's poetry. She abruptly changes line lengths and frequently repeats words and lines, establishing rhythms evocative of the spectrum of the African-American musical tradition, from the blues to experimental jazz. She often performs with her own jazz band, the Firespitters, which includes her son Denardo Coleman on drums. She has released several CDs of her poetry set to music, including Borders of Disorderly Time (2003). This interest in music also pervades her latest collection of poetry, Jazz Fan Looks Back (2002), which celebrates such artists as Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.

In addition to her poetry, Cortez and Ghanian writer Ama Ata Aidoo founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, and in 1999 and 2004 she coordinated the "Yari Yari International Conference of Women Writers of African Descent." She also helped to organize "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," an international symposium that took place in New York City in 1999. Cortez continues to be a highly political poet, and she has traveled widely, reading her poetry in North America, Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean.

See also Poetry, U.S.


Bolden, Tony. "All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez." African American Review 35, no. 1 (2001): 6171.

Brown, Kimberly N. "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology Behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez." In Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color, edited by Sandra Kumamoto Stanley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Melhem, D. H. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Nielson, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

louis j. parascandola(1996)
Updated by author 2005

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