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Sun, 05.10.1936

Jayne Cortez, Poet, and Musician born

Jayne Cortez

This date in 1936 marks the birth of Jayne Cortez. She was a Black poet, musician, activist, and entrepreneur.

Cortez was born in Fort Huachuca, AZ, and raised in Los Angeles. From an early age, Cortez was heavily influenced by jazz artists from the Los Angeles area. After graduating from an arts high school, Cortez enrolled in college but was forced to drop out due to financial problems.

In 1954, at 18, Cortez married jazz musician Ornette Coleman. The two had a son, Denardo Coleman, two years later.  In the 1960s, Cortez participated in the American Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, traveled to Europe and Africa, organized writing workshops in the Watts community of Los Angeles, and in 1964 founded the Watts Repertory Theater. Cortez moved to New York City in 1967, wherein in 1972, she established her own publishing company, Bola Press.

Cortez wrote ten books of poetry.  Black contemporary artists such as Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka have highly praised her work. Cortez has taught and presented throughout the world over, her work has been translated into 28 different languages, and she has been published in well-known journals such as "Presence Africaine," "Black Scholar," "Daughters of Africa," and "Mother Jones."

She married artist Melvin Edwards  in 1976.  Cortez received the Langston Hughes Award for excellence in the arts and letters, the American Book Award, and the International African Festival Award, among others. Cortez also served as the president of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, which she founded in 1991 with Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana.

With her band, the Firespitters, Cortez has recorded nine albums. The group's eight members, including Cortez's son, create a unique sound of jazz/funk beats that accompany Cortez's spoken word poems. Many of Cortez's poems embrace the values of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Her excrescent language and her ability to push the acceptable limits of expression to address issues of race, sex, and homophobia place her in a category that few other women occupy.

Some of her material includes: "Coagulations: New and Selected Poems" (1984) and her most recent, "Jazz Fan Looks Back"(2002). She cites poets Christopher Okigbo and Henry Dumas, teenager Claude Reece, Jr., dancer and singer Josephine Baker, jazz musician Duke Ellington, the students in Soweto, and all the silent masses of Black people who add to the racial conundrum that is the United States as points of her inspiration.

Poet, musician, activist, and entrepreneur, Cortez was an accomplished woman who uses her work to address social problems in the U.S. and around the world. Over the last 30 years, she has contributed significantly to the struggle for racial and gender equality.  Jayne Cortez lived in Dakar, Senegal, and New York City.  She died on December 28, 2012.

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