Jayne Cortez: 1934-2012, Okunyin
In May this year, Jayne Cortez and I were going to organize Yari Yari Ntoaso, a conference here in Accra as co-founders of the Organization of Women Writers Africa [OWWA], a non-governmental based in New York, and in collaboration with Mbaasem Foundation. However, in the face of bone-fatigue, challenges with funding for the conference, and a host of other problems, I tried in September 2012 to get Jayne to agree that we postpone the conference to 2014. Jayne’s response? No way, we won’t. According to her, ‘Everything is on track. I think..the experience of continuing the dialogue of Yari Yari Ntoaso in Accra will set the stage for the next Yari Yari…There's not much to do until Jan. or Feb. so go slow and take care of your health.’
What I did not know, or get, is that at the time Jayne was writing to advise me to go slow and take care of my health, she was not only characteristically not taking it easy, but in fact, she was also struggling with health problems that would eventually overwhelm her system! That was Jayne. That was our warrior sister.
An African-American, Jayne Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson in 1934, but she later took her grandmother’s surname of Cortez. From very early, she demonstrated a love for the arts in a way that would define her entire life: as an activist, working person, wife, and mother. We speak especially of drama, music and poetry: written and spoken. It should not be a matter of surprise that her only child, the jazz drummer Denardo Coleman was also the son of Ornette Coleman the world famous jazz musician, from their marriage of ten years.
Jayne Cortez was not only one of the best known Civil Rights activists of her generation, she was an activist throughout her life: unapologetic, feminist, Pan-Africanist. She was against any form of political and social discrimination, marginalization, and oppression. Whereas so many writers cringe at being described as political, Jayne was not fazed by any such interrogations of her work and performance. As someone who took her African heritage very seriously, she believed that even though a US citizen, she should spend part of her time in Africa: which she did with characteristic single-mindedness. Every year around December, except December 2012, Jayne came to Africa to live. Indeed, in the weeks leading to the end of her life, she was heard lamenting that she might not see Africa again.
Jayne Cortez was the kind of pioneer who believed that if you want to cross a stream and you don’t see a boat around, you take time to build one! In 1964, she co-founded Watts Repertory Theater. In 1972, she established a publishing company, Bola Press, and around the same time, she founded Firespitters, ‘an electro-funk modern jazz group, built around a core of guitarist Bern Nix, bassist Al McDowell, and drummer Denardo Coleman’ In 1991, she co-founded OWWA.
As a result of her sharp mind and incredible wit, Jayne Cortez is credited with legendary observations and lyrical lines like "If the drum Is a woman…Don’t abuse your drum" from the poem of that title. Again as an indictment of the fraught nature of "US/Nigerian relations," she gave the world the bold lines "They want the oil/but they don't want the people”, which she used to chant ‘dervish-like over an escalating, electrified free jazz blowout…’ Jayne Cortez was nothing if not a fearless, irrepressible, in-your-face, yet winsome, sober, seriously funny imp: qualities she kept straight into her late 70s.
Cortez authored 12 books of poetry, and recorded 9 albums from performances backed by Firespitters. She challenged audiences with her work globally. Her poems have been translated into 28 languages and been widely published in anthologies, journals and magazines, including, Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby: a publication she particularly treasured and delighted in her inclusion.
The online African-American Registry asserts that "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 [people] occupy.’ She was irrepressible, and tireless. Quite clearly, only death could have stopped Jayne Cortez. Ammbo-annto-ho Jayne, we salute you. We miss you already.
With her husband the well-known sculptor and visual artist Melvin Edwards, Jayne Cortez lived in New York City where she died, and Dakar, Senegal.
Ama Ata Aidoo