Jayne Cortez, poet

February 15, 2013

The late Jayne Cortez was a major figure of the Black Arts Movement. She was a poet, musician and creative force unto herself. Born in Arizona, she was raised in Los Angeles’ Watts district. She married the great saxophonist Ornette Coleman in 1954.

Her work held “Free” at its center, its heart, as the great generation of artists and musicians she was a part of—Coleman, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and the rest. Contemporaries of Fanon and Malcolm X, they developed Free as new forms of perception and expression. Her art related equally to Langston Hughes and Captain Beefheart, Chano Pozo and Audre Lorde. Where the demotic becomes the truly democratic.

Jayne Cortez’ vision was revolutionary in the best sense, all about self-determination; her words delivered with a fire that seldom lost contact with humor and compassion. Her work stayed rooted in the common life of her people, as it asserted the absolute right of everyone to self-determination as plain common sense. She said, “Being unemployed and without food can make you very sad. But you weren’t the problem. The problem existed before you knew there was a problem. The problem is the system, and you can organize, unify, and do something about the system.”

As she wrote in her poem, “I’m a Worker”:

I got the landlord gas lights
the union telephone department store
subways buses & 4 human beings
to feed
so tell me tell me tell me
do you think a revolution is what I need

Cortez published many books, recorded some great music with her group The Firespitters, which included son Denardo Coleman, and won numerous literary awards. With Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo she founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. She is survived by her son and her husband, artist Melvin Edwards.

—Tim Finnigan

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