Little Known Black History Fact: Jayne Cortez, Poet

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    There It Is by Jayne Cortez (1982)

    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…

    Jayne Cortez was a jazz poet whose work was performed all over the world. She has graced the stages of Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art and the Schomburg Research Center in New York. Cortez began composing her poetry to music in the 1960’s. One of her most memorable pieces is “If the Drum Is a Woman,” written in response to Duke Ellington’s “A Drum is a Woman” in 1956.

    Hear Cortez’ poem below.

    Born Sallie Jayne Richardson, Jayne Cortez was born on the Army base at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She was raised in a military environment, as her father was a veteran of both world wars. As she began to perform her jazz poetry, she took her maternal grandmother’s maiden name of Cortez as her own surnamer. Upon receiving her education, Cortez became a respected professor at Rutgers and other major universities. She wrote 12 books of poetry and released 11 recordings.

    During the 1960’s, Cortez formed her own band called The Firespitters. One of the members was her son, Denardo, from her first marriage to musician Ornette Coleman.

    In 1963 and 1964, Cortez used her vocal and writing talent to help register voters in Mississippi. She started the Watts Repertory Theater Company in Los Angeles and gave her first public poetry reading. She traveled throughout Europe and Africa, taking a home in Dakar, Senegal. She settled in New York in 1967. Cortez worked with sculptor Melvin Edwards to illustrate many of her works. The two married in 1975.

    In 1991, Cortez co-founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa with writer Ama Ata Aidoo.

    Among her many works of poetry were “Festivals and Funerals” (1971), “Coagulations” (1984) and “Jazz Fan Looks Back” (2002).

    Cortez received many awards for her work in jazz poetry. Among them were the Langston Hughes Award and the New York Foundation for the Arts award.

    Jayne Cortez passed away of heart failure on December 28, 2012 at her Manhattan, N.Y. home. She was remembered at a tribute at the Cooper Union Foundation Building. At her request, her ashes were taken to Benin, Nigeria by her family, where she was given a traditional ceremony.

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