HBW Home

Poet Jayne Cortez
May 10, 1936–December 28, 2012

Jayne CortezThere It Is
by Jayne Cortez

And if we don't fight
if we don't resist
if we don't organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it

Photo by Aldon Nielsen


Reflections by Tony Bolden

FB friends, I have sad news. The great poet Jayne Cortez (1936-2012) made her transition this morning. Although scholars today tend to downplay her connection with the Black Arts Movement, the fact of the matter is that Ms. Cortez was one of the most important writers of the BAM. She developed her approach to surrealism, which was always dipped in blues, during the early 1970s when she was living in New York. She was extremely important to my development. I doubt that I would have ever become a literary critic if I had not seen her perform at a black writers' conference in New Orleans back in 1981. There were a number of highly regarded poets at that reading, and at least one of them had achieved international acclaim. Most of the poets read a lot of poems that night, but Ms. Cortez only read two. I still remember them: "Rape" and "You Know." That reading changed my life. She had more impact with those two poems on most people in that audience than all the rest of the writers combined. I left there wondering how to write about that. It took me about 20 years to figure it out. One of the crowning moments of my life was when we talked on the telephone. She mentioned her poem "In the Morning," and said she was in Africa when she wrote it. I said, "could you talk about that poem?" And she said, "That's why we have great young critics like you!"


From E-NOTES: WHEN THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. E. Ethelbert Miller's view of the world.
For the Poet Jayne Cortez


I first met Jayne Cortez in 1973. We read together at Dingane’s Den located on 18th Street in Washington, D.C. She signed a copy of her chapbook Pisstained Stairs and The Monkey Man’s Wares and gave it to me. This was back in the day when a book was just $2.00.Cortez was one of the established writers at that time who were very supportive of my early work, the others were Eugene Redmond, Lance Jeffers, Haki Madhubuti, Stephen Henderson, Sterling A. Brown and Leon Damas. What Cortez gave me was poetry ears. Maybe this is why I could listen to Ornette Coleman after listening to her. Cortez made me listen to the music (again). My favorite John Coltrane poem will always be “How Long Has Trane Been Gone.” But who will ever forget how she ended her poem “Theodore” with that classic Cortez slap against consciousness:

Yes remember
the name was
T. Navarro
they called him
Fats for short
and his life
was snuffed by
inadequate people
whose minds was
Dry as chicken-shit-slime

Jayne Cortez had a fan club consisting of other writers. I’ll always associate her with Quincy Troupe. I suggest we honor Cortez by finding a copy of Yardbird Reader, Volume 5 that was published in 1976. Here one will find Charles Davis, Eugene B. Redmond, Stanley Crouch, Deborah A. Gilliam, Charles C. Thomas, Verta Mae Grosvenor, and Clyde Taylor writing about her. Troupe however is the first to give testimony. His words seem to resonate tonight as I think about Jayne Cortez:

Many times we recoil in horror from what we hear and feel in the poetry of Jayne Cortez; sometimes many of her poems make us want to weep, not for her, but for ourselves, our own transgressions, our own particular weaknesses, as well as the weaknesses of the world; then there are the poems that makes us angry, both at Ms. Cortez, for telling us a particularly, penetrating truth, and at ourselves for committing the acts that the poem is addressing itself to; but at no time in listening to and reading the poetry of Jayne Cortez, are we failed to be moved by the power of her impact.

I hope as we remember Jayne Cortez we also remember the men in her life. When I met her in 1973, I also met her partner Mel Edwards. One thing that should be celebrated more in the African American community are those “cultural love couples.” Edwards designed many of Cortez’s books that she released through her own Bola Press. He took her pictures. He was always there when she came to DC to give a reading. It was several years after 1973 that learned more about the stature of Edwards; he was that humble. It was Jayne Cortez who was always talking about Leon Damas and Christopher Okigbo. She was at the center of all those poets one finds in the landmark anthology Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings compiled and edited by Quincy Troupe & Rainer Schulte. Cortez’s life touched the entire black world. Too often only gravity or a life like Walter Rodney will accomplish this. I hope we have not seen the last of the Firespitters. I kiss these words by Cortez one more time:

Ask me
Essence of Rose Solitude
chickadee from Arkansas that’s me
i sleep on cotton bones
cotton tails
and mellow myself in empty ballrooms
i’m no fly by night
look at my resume
i walk through the eyesof staring lizards
i throw my neck back to floorshow on bumping goat
in front of my stage fright
i cover the hands of Duke who like Satchmo
like Nat (King) Cole will never die
because love they say
never dies

E-Note by E. Ethelbert Miller


Passing of Jayne Cortez
by Toni Medina

Jayne Cortez (May 10, 1936–7 December 28, 2012) was a poet, and performance artist. Cortez was born May 10, 1936 in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and grew up in California. She is the author of ten books of poems and performer of her poetry with music on nine recordings. Cortez has presented her work and ideas at universities, museums, and festivals in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States.

Her poems have been translated into many languages and widely published in anthologies, journals and magazines, including Postmodern American Poetry, Daughters of Africa, Poems for the Millennium, Mother Jones, and The Jazz Poetry Anthology. She was organizer of "Slave Routes the Long Memory" and "Yari Yari Pamberi: Black Women Writer Dissecting Globalization", both conferences held at New York University.

She is president of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, and appears on screen in the films Women In Jazz and Poetry in Motion. She married Ornette Coleman in 1954 and divorced him in 1964. She is the mother of jazz drummer Denardo Coleman. In 1976 she married sculptor Mel Edwards. She lived in Dakar, Senegal, and New York City where she died.
*   *   *   *   *

Passing of Jayne Cortez
(May 10, 1936 - December 28, 2012)

This has been a devastating year for me personally with regard to losing poet friends and a former student. It opened with a phone call from Black Arts Poet Ted Wilson about the passing of Poet Louis Reyes Rivera and it closes with a phone call from Ted about the passing of Poet Jayne Cortez.

In between that we lost four other artist-activist who have played a major role in advancing a poetics and literature of resistance to global oppression, particularly that which manifests in our own country. A tremendous void has been left with the passing of Brenda Connor-Bey, Lynette Velasco, Jan Carew and Marlene Hawthrone. These were not merely poets, writers and artists; they were lovers of the people. Their work and life exemplified that. Most were pioneers working in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and many others whose life and work were about being what the great James Baldwin charged us with, a Witness.

In an age when so much distracting and degrading by-products of capitalism disguised as art is geared toward making someone rich while undermining our humanity, these artists have been the counter to that, forging what the great Larry Neal would call a "vision for a liberated future." Jayne Cortez was a MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR Voice in that tradition. She was important to me personally and as a poet whose work fed me boundlessly as I nourished my soul with her many books and CDs. She was generous and loving toward the younger poets she saw were moving and operating in that selfsame radical tradition.

She had me read in her program at NYU along with the great South African Poet-Activist Dennis Brutus and my comrade in poetry Suheir Hammad. She also provided me with a powerful blurb for my book, "Committed to Breathing." I was at the Schomburg Center in Harlem when we honored her with the Langston Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award. And the last time I saw Jayne, I brought a couple of van loads of my students at Howard to see her perform with her son and Firespitter band at James Madison University where she was honored by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center.

At a dinner in her honor, I, along with critic Meta Jones, paid tribute to Jayne with personal toasts. She had the most infectious smile and red-brown undertones that emanated a powerful energy that gave you a strong sense that she was protected by some powerful spirits. Jayne Cortez was a true revolutionary poet, both in style and content. Her work blended heavy mojo surrealism with the sharpest and most astute of cultural-social-political analysis that jumped off the page with such force as it charged you up from the stage. I always looked forward to her latest work and snatched it up when ever I saw her, running home to read it as soon as possible.

I'll be re-reading her books and listening to her CDs as I mourn her untimely passing, because for me, Jayne will never be gone. Nor will Louis and Brenda and Lynette and Jan and Marlene, for they left an astounding body of work that will live on to breathe new life into newer readers and generations to come. It is our charge to keep their legacy alive, for it is our legacy, as well.

I send my sincere, heartfelt condolences to her son, her husband the great artist Mel Edwards and her family, friends, associates, colleagues and legions of fans. Jayne Cortez was the most necessary poet there is for these precarious and careless times.

As the late great Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about her seminal collection, "Coagulations,": "Jayne Cortez is an energy, a nourishment, a Black Nation song."

And there it is.— Tony Medina

"Pissstained Stair and the Monkey Man's Wares" is Jayne Cortez's first book. Published by Phrase Text in 1969, this priceless treasure was priced at $2.00! It was reviewed by Nikki Giovanni in one of the premier Black Arts publications at the time (perhaps "Negro Digest" or "The Journal of Black Poetry," the exact title escapes me at the moment). The book features paintings by her husband artist Mel Edwards (Jayne was first married to jazz great Ornette Coleman; they have a son together, Denardo Coleman, who is also a great musician in his own right and a member of her Firespitters band). Jayne Cortez is a prime example that you don't need an MFA to be a poet and you don't need the establishment to recognize you to be relevant. She will always be relevant because her poetry matters. .— Tony Medina


Pissstained Stair and the Monkey Man's Wares Reviewed by Sonia Sanchez
Black World December 1969


Push Back the Catastrophes

I don't want a drought to feed on itself
through the tattooed holes in my belly
I don't want a spectacular desert of
... charred stems & rabbit hairs
in my throat of accumulated matter
I don't want to burn and cut through the forest
like a greedy mercenary drilling into
the sugar cane of the bones

Push back the advancing sands
the polluted sewage
the dust demons the dying timber
the upper atmosphere of nitrogen
push back the catastrophes

Enough of the missiles
the submarines
the aircraft carriers
the biological weapons
No more sickness sadness poverty
exploitation destabilization
illiteracy and bombing
Let's move toward peace
toward equality and justice
that's what I want

To breathe clean air
to drink pure water to plant new crops
to soak up the rain to wash off the stink
to hold this body and soul together in peace
that's it
Push back the catastrophes

Jayne Cortez, from "Coagulations"

This is my favorite poem of *all* time. It was written by Jayne Cortez who I just got word from Yaa Asantewaa Nzingha has made her Transition in New York City. May the Ancestors receive her with open arms.

The last stanza of this poem is the most quoted, but it is presented here in its entirety.

She will be missed...

There It Is
by Jayne Cortez

My friend
They don’t care
If you’re an individualist
A leftist a rightist
A shithead or a snake
They will try to exploit you
Absorb you confine you
Disconnect you isolate you
Or kill you

And you will disappear into your own rage
Into your own insanity
Into you own poverty
Into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
And then ashes

The ruling class will tell you that
There is no ruling class
As the organize their liberal supporters into
White supremacist lynch mobs
Organize their children into
Ku Klux Klan gangs
Organize their children into
Killer cops
Organize their propaganda into
A device to ossify us with angel dust
Pre-occupy us with western symbols in
African hair styles
Inoculate us with hate
Institutionalize us with ignorance
Hypnotize us with a monotonous sound designed
To make us evade reality and stomp our lives away
And we are programmed to self destruct
To fragment
To get buried under covert intelligence operations of
Unintelligent committees impulsed toward death
And there it is
The enemies polishing their penises between
Oil wells at the pentagon
The bulldozers leaping into demolition dances
The old folks dying of starvation
The informers wearing out shoes looking for crumbs
The life blood of the earth almost dead in
The greedy mouth of imperialism

And my friend
They don’t care
If you’re an individualist
A leftist a rightist
A shithead or a snake

They will spray you with
A virus of legionnaires disease
Fill your nostrils with
The swine flu of their arrogance
Stuff your body into a tampon of
Toxic shock syndrome
Try to pump all the resources of the world
Into their own veins
And fly off into the wild blue yonder to
Pollute another planet

And if we don’t fight
If we don’t resist
If we don’t organize and unify and
Get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
The exaggerated look of captivity
The stylized look of submission
The bizarre look of suicide
The dehumanized look of fear
And the decomposed look of repression
Forever and ever and ever
And there it is.

It is with the most profound and personal sadness that i share with u the news of the passing of the incomparable ...queen mother of firespittin, jayne cortez!...
she went to the 'land of the ancestors' last night after a very difficult confrontation with a vicious viral infection that robbed of her of her precious pointed energy...we accept and respect the wisdom of the god of our ancestors in calling this great woman artist and humanitarian home where there is no pain and suffering!...we know she will be embraced heartily by our ancestors!...
my heart is heavy beyond words, missing her terribly already...but supremely grateful am i to have been blessed to be touched by her sculpting marvellous eyes...her work will live on for many more students of our struggle and our traditions for years and years to come...and in the best efforts of our own work!
long live jayne cortez!...carry on the tradition!...
baba zayid muhammad, natl min of culture, yr new black panther party

I have been dreading the news all week because I knew that Jayne Cortez was in hospice. And now Jayne has left us. She leaves us with a revolution in sound: her poems; her musicality; her intense advocacy of African women in the Diaspora through Yari Yari and African people and culture. Also her partnerships with two amazing artists: Ornette Coleman, the father of her only child and Mel Edwards. A life in fullness lived amazingly well. But I so wish I was writing something about a miracle cure or just a miracle. But I am so grateful for Jayne Cortez and how she made a path that poets of African descent, particularly women can walk. Gratitude for her poetry, her art, her life. May she meet the ancestors with that amazing smile on her face.—Patricia Spears Jones

Youtube videos featuring Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez—Maintain Control/Economic Love Song I

Artists on the Cutting Edge: Jayne Cortez

jayne cortez and the firespitters—there it is

Jayne Cortez, Poet and Performance Artist, Dies at 78
By MARGALIT FOX - Arts - Article - Print Headline: "Jayne Cortez, Jazz Poet, Dies at 78"
the New York Times

back to top