Cortez, Jayne 1936-

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CORTEZ, Jayne 1936-

PERSONAL: Born May 10, 1936, in Fort Huachuca, AZ; married Ornette Coleman (a jazz musician), 1954 (divorced, 1964); married Melvin Edwards (a sculptor), 1975; children: (first marriage) Denardo Coleman. Ethnicity: "African American." Education: Compton Junior College, Los Angeles, CA; studied drama at Ebony Showcase, Los Angeles.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Bola Press, Box 96, Village Station, New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Poet and performance artist. Watts Repertory Theatre Company, Los Angeles, CA, cofounder, 1964, artistic director, 1964-70; Bola Press, New York, NY, founder, 1972; Livingston College of Rutgers, writer-in-residence, 1977-83. Was active in black voter registration drives in Mississippi, 1963-64; has lectured and read her poetry alone and with musical accompaniment at universities, including Dartmouth College, Howard University, Queens College, Wesleyan University, University of Ibadan, and throughout Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean at UNESCO and other events; appeared at Berlin Jazz Festival; appeared at Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China; has released several recordings with band the Firespitters; poem "I Am New York City" appeared in episode of Fox Television series Tribeca.

MEMBER: Poetry Society of America (board member), PEN American Center, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (board member), Organization of Women Writers of Africa (cofounder), Poet's House (board member).

AWARDS, HONORS: Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1970; Creative Artists Public Service poetry award, New York State Council on the Arts, 1973, 1981; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in creative writing, 1979-80, 1986; American Book Award, 1980, for Mouth on Paper; New York Foundation for the Arts Award, 1987; Fannie Lou Hamer Award, 1994; Afrikan Poetry Theatre tribute and award, 1994; International African Festival Award; Arts International award, 1996; Langston Hughes Medal, City College of New York, 2001.



Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, Phrase Text (New York, NY), 1969.

Festivals and Funerals, drawings by husband, Mel Edwards, Bola Press (New York, NY), 1971.

Scarifications, drawings by Mel Edwards, Bola Press (New York, NY), 1973.

Mouth on Paper, Bola Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Firespitter, drawings by Mel Edwards, Bola Press (New York, NY), 1982.

Coagulations: New and Selected Poems, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1984.

Poetic Magnetic, drawings by Mel Edwards, Bola Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, Serpent's Tail (London, England), 1997.

A Jazz Fan Looks Back, Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2002.


Celebrations and Solitudes: The Poetry of Jayne Cortez (sound recording), Strata-East Records, 1975.

Unsubmissive Blues (sound recording), Bola Press (New York, NY), 1980.

There It Is (sound recording), Bola Press (New York, NY), 1982.

War against War (performance piece), UNESCO (Paris, France), 1982.

Poetry in Motion (film), Sphinx Productions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983.

Maintain Control (sound recording), Bola Press (New York, NY), 1986.

Everywhere Drums (sound recording), Bola Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Mandela Is Coming (music video), Globalvision, 1991.

Cheerful & Optimistic (sounding recording), with band the Firespitters, 1994.

Taking the Blues Back Home (sound recording), with band the Firespitters, Harmolodic/Verve, 1997.

Borders of Disorderly Time (sound recording), with band the Firespitters, Bola Press (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to anthologies, including We Speak As Liberators, edited by Orde Coombs, Dodd, 1970; The Poetry of Black America, edited by Arnold Adoff, Harper, 1972; Hommage à Leon Gontran Damas, Présence Africaine, 1979; Black Sister, edited by Erlene Stedson, Indiana University Press, 1981; Women on War, edited by Daniela Gioseffi, Simon & Schuster, 1988; and Daughters of Africa, Pantheon, 1992.

Contributor to numerous periodicals, including Free Spirits, Mother Jones, UNESCO Courier, Black Scholar, Heresies, Mundus Artium, Post Modern American Poetry, Surrealist Women, and Women on War. Guest editor, Black Scholar, 1988, and Drumvoices Revue, 1994; contributor to Poetry in Motion, 1983, a video anthology of contemporary avant-garde American poets. Director of film, Yari Yari: Black Women Writers and the Future, 1999. Author's works have been translated into numerous languages.

SIDELIGHTS: Poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez began her creative explorations as an actress, publishing her first volume of poetry, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, in 1969. Her work, which reflects the politics and culture of African Americans, has been translated into twenty-eight languages and is characterized by a dramatic intensity. D. H. Melhem noted in an introduction to an interview with Cortez published in Heroism in the New Black Poetry: "Her fine ear for music, her dynamic imagery, and her disposition to orchestrate in a broad cultural span, both African and American, have led her social and political concerns into unique and risk-taking forms." She records and performs her poetry around the world, often accompanied by jazz musicians, including her own band, the Firespitters, in which her son, Denardo Coleman, plays drums. Barbara T. Christian, writing in Callaloo, commented: "Cortez has forged connections . . . that help us see how our histories . . . whether we live in Chile, Harlem or Nigeria, are related. The result is a poetry as wide in its scope as it is compelling in its craft."

In a review for Negro Digest of Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, the poet Nikki Giovanni remarked: "We haven't had many jazz poets who got inside the music and the people who created it. We poet about them, but not of them. And this is Cortez's strength. She can wail from Theodore Navarro and Leadbelly to Ornette [Coleman, Cortez's first husband] and never lose a beat and never make a mistake. She's a genius and all lovers of jazz will need this book—lovers of poetry will want it." The book phonically portrays the love lives of such great jazz performers as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Bessie Smith.

Cortez's second book of poetry, Festivals and Funerals, reaches out through the jazz theme into ideology and political concerns for African Americans, with poems like "I Am a Worker," which is written in the voice of an oppressed garment worker. These poems also deal with the themes of colonialism, African nationalism, and the artist as revolutionary. In an in-depth study of Cortez's work for African American Review, Tony Bolden commented that her poetry "operates as a sort of antibiotic that attacks the false consciousness in the colonized psyche," encouraging readers who have been victims of colonization "to revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from margin to center."

Her third work, Scarifications, whose title refers to the African practice of ritual scarring, takes up the cause of peace during the Vietnam War and digs deeply into urban strife. Tom Lavazzi, writing in the Encyclopedia of World Literature, said the poems "are a praxis, a performed knowledge of the relationship among beauty, social status, and pain."

Cortez's 1977 work, Mouth on Paper, winner of a 1980 American Book Award, continues to follow the jazz and African-American themes of her first three books, but these poems are much more performance pieces, or "linguistic improvisations," as Lavazzi called them. They honor the work of such jazz masters as Duke Ellington (with the poem "Rose Solitude") and Miles Davis (with "A Miles Davis Trumpet"), re-creating the moods that these artists were able to evoke and contributing to what Leon Lewis, writing in the Encyclopedia of American Literature, called "an ethos evocative of their playing." Cortez owes some of her rhythms here to the Beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman. Jon Woodson, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography about the jazz elements threaded throughout Cortez's body of work, remarked that she remains "a creative artist uniquely able to reach audiences for whom books of poetry have little appeal."

Although the influence of music is readily evident in Cortez's work, the poet also pointedly seeks to convey a message. She does so, beginning with her second book; her 1982 collection, Firespitter (named for a type of African mask), continues this trend, further developing the surreal qualities introduced in Pissstained Stairs, with an emphasis on feminism. Her poem "If the Drum Is a Woman" conveys an African folk custom of castigating men who are abusive to women they supposedly love. Others, such as "Rape" and "He Got She Got," draw on the fiery strength gained from women's experiences. Bolden found that "If the Drum Is a Woman" also evokes Ellington when Cortez and her band perform the piece. An answer to Ellington's suite titled "A Drum Is a Woman," the poem "challenges male listeners to question their conceptualizations of gender roles," according to Bolden. At the same time, it shows how the colonized become a reflection of the colonizer and in turn victimize others, said Bolden.

Reviewing the 1984 collection Coagulations, Barbara Christian stated: "it is eminently clear . . . that Jayne Cortez is a blatantly political poet—that her work intends to help us identify those who control our lives and the devastating effects such control has on our lives, and she rouses us to do something about it. . . . Like the poets and warriors whose words and actions it celebrates, Jayne Cortez's Coagulations is a work of resistance."

Bolden said the poem "In the Morning," which draws upon African rhythms brought by early slaves to America, "reenacts the rocking emotional energy reflected in the syncopation, hand clapping, foot stomping, and suggestive gyrations of the ring shout." He thought the poem "You Know," the counterpart to "In the Morning," is perhaps her best. Patterned on the familiar phrase "you know," repeated in conversation by working-class African Americans, the poem "does not concern music so much as it does blues poetics. . . . [It] both describes and exemplifies Cortez's ability to merge script and sound and thereby incarnate secular priesthood," observed Bolden.

Citing influences such as Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, and Pablo Neruda, John F. Roche noted in an essay in Contemporary Women Poets that Cortez's free verse is characterized by its "impassioned crescendo," as well as the use of anaphora, repetition, alliteration, and modulated spoken tones. "She often combines African iconology, American colloquialisms, and leftist political themes with surrealist body imagery," explained Roche, adding that her more recent verse explores the patterned typesetting characteristic of the concrete poetry of the 1960s. Lewis commented on Cortez's fascination with surrealism, on her "intertwining of elaborate, unusual juxtapositions of objects, ideas, emotions and graphic images with the rhythms and sonic effects of blues variants."

Cortez's 1991 book Poetic Magnetic, one of several illustrated by her husband, Melvin Edwards, creates what Lavazzi called a "verbal-visual collage." The collaboration is characteristic of Cortez's need to "get beyond the page to reach the largest possible audience and keep in touch with the increasingly audio-visual rhythms of African-American culture," Lavazzi observed.

Commenting on Cortez's 1997 collection, Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, a Publishers Weekly contributor praised Cortez's ability to write in a manner that remains rhythmic while providing "an unflinching glimpse at life's ugliness" that nonetheless ends with the ability to survive. "This resilience animates Cortez's work and supports the unwavering and compelling directness with which she confronts the world," the reviewer added. Leon Lewis found that the last poem in the collection contains lines that might be indicative of the values Cortez supports: "Find your own voice & use it / use your own voice & find it."

In an interview with Melhem in Heroism in the New Black Poetry, Cortez outlined what she believes to be the responsibilities inherent in her craft: "I think that poets have the responsibility to be aware of the meaning of human rights, to be familiar with history, to point out distortions, and to bring their thinking and their writing to higher levels of illumination." An acknowledgement of Cortez's success at meeting these standards was made in 1994, when she received the Fannie Lou Hamer award for her "outstanding contribution through her poetry to the struggle for justice, equality, and the freedom of the human spirit."

In addition to her work as a published author, Cortez has distinguished herself as an internationally acclaimed performance artist. She has several recorded performances to her credit, including Everywhere Drums, Cheerful & Optimistic, and Taking the Blues Back Home. Commenting on Unsubmissive Blues, a 1980 recording of the poet reading her works accompanied by jazz musicians Bill Cole, Joe Daley, Bern Nix, and Cortez's son, Denardo Coleman, Warren Woessner wrote in the Small Press Review that the record "is the most accomplished collaboration between a poet and jazz group that I've listened to in recent years." He continued: "Unsubmissive Blues is an unqualified success. The sum of this collaboration is always greater than its individual pieces."

Tony Bolden wrote that Cortez's ability to rehearse and perform with her own band "allows her to finetune her use of tonal semantics in her interactions with band members," often employing "vocal techniques that simulate those of blues singers and/or instrumentalists." Bolden also commented, "Cortez's poetic style exemplifies blues music's propensity for syncretism. She often blends surrealistic imagery with rhythms that riff on—that is, revise—the black sermon form," particularly the "call and response," which originated in Africa.

With her 2002 book of poetry, A Jazz Fan Looks Back, Cortez makes what a Publishers Weekly contributor called "an erudite and sensual homage to global jazz culture" as she touches on African, Brazilian, American, and Afro-Spanish jazz in her sixty-six poems, in progress since the 1960s.

Bolden concluded in his study that "Cortez's version of blues poetry constitutes a profound challenge to literary conventions, and demonstrates the eloquence of contemporary blues poetics. As such, it affirms Raymond Williams's suggestion that it is possible to create literature for a colonized audience. Yet the hallmark of her achievement is her production of a syncretized form that blends oral forms like blues music and the sermon with the notion of literature as script. While many African-American poets have experimented with vernacular forms, Cortez adds a new dimension to literary history by incarnating the black performer." Leon Lewis wrote that, while Cortez's blend of blues and surrealism has perhaps kept her work at the fringes of American literary awareness, it has also led to a remarkable collection that "will remain striking when more conventional writing has begun to seem bland and muted."



American Women Writers: From Colonial Times to the Present, Volume 5, Continuum (New York, NY) 1994.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.

Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers, 2001-2002 edition, Poets & Writers (New York, NY), 2001.

Encyclopedia of American Literature, Continuum (New York, NY), 1999.

Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Melhem, D. H., Heroism in the New Black Poetry, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.


African American Review, spring, 2001, Tony Bolden, "All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez," p. 61.

American Book Review, May, 1985, review of Coagulations: New and Selected Poems, p. 11.

Black Scholar, March, 1981, review of Scarifications, p. 88, review of Mouth on Paper, p. 87; July, 1985, review of Coagulations, p. 65.

Black World, March, 1975.

Callaloo, winter, 1986, Barbara T. Christian, review of Coagulations, pp. 235-39.

Choice, January, 1985, review of Coagulations, p. 679.

Essence, October, 1984, review of Coagulations, p. 62.

Georgia Review, spring, 1985, review of Coagulations, p. 169.

Greenfield Review, summer-fall, 1983.

Library Journal, July, 1984, review of Coagulations, p. 1330.

MELUS, spring, 1996, pp. 71-79.

Nation, December, 25, 1982, review of Firespitter, p. 694.

Negro Digest, December, 1969, Nikki Giovanni, review of Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares.

Publishers Weekly, June 8, 1984, review of Coagulations, p. 61; June 3, 1996, review of Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, p. 74; April 29, 2002, review of A Jazz Fan Looks Back, p. 66.

Small Press Review, March, 1981, Warren Woessner, review of Unsubmissive Blues.

Sulfur, fall, 1997, review of Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere, p. 199.


Academy of American Poets Web site, (August 4, 2002), "Jayne Cortez."