Compelling US blues poet who used her gift to confront and celebrate
Jayne Cortez, Born: May 10th, 1934; Died: December 28th, 2012The poet Jayne Cortez, who has died aged 78, was unambiguous about her craft: “Words are musical – there’s nothing more to say about it. That’s it! . . . There is the sound of the voice . . . and your attitude you put on top of it.”
A passionate cultural activist, both on page and platform, Cortez transformed elements of her personal history and that of the African diaspora into cutting-edge blues poetry. “No ravine is too perilous, no abyss too threatening for Jayne Cortez,” said Maya Angelou.
In a lecture in 2011, Cortez stated her guiding belief: “The arts are just a part of the weapons . . . of life ...... Art is revelation. Art is hard work. Art is a part of protest.”
She made her most indelible impact in public performances of sometimes confrontational intensity, captured on recordings with music, including Celebrations and Solitudes (1974), Unsubmissive Blues (1979), There It Is (1982), Maintain Control (1986), Cheerful and Optimistic (1994) and Taking the Blues Back Home (1996).
Born Sallie Jayne Richardson in Arizona, she moved at the age of seven to Los Angeles, where she grew up in the Watts district, enthralled by her parents’ jazz and blues record collection. She played bass at school.
In 1954, she married the avant garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Their son, Denardo, was born in 1956; as a child he began drumming with his father and he later collaborated with both parents in their separate careers. They divorced in 1964.
Assuming her maternal grandmother’s maiden name, Cortez began writing down thoughts that turned into poems, and became involved in the civil rights movement.
In 1975 she married sculptor and visual artist Melvin Edwards, whose work appeared on some of her book covers.
She spoke compellingly of social and environmental issues in a global context; fought injustice wherever she found it; was in the frontline struggle for racial and gender equality; and celebrated the all-pervading power of music.
Her husband and son survive her.