Jayne Cortez moved with her family from Arizona to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. There she attended Compton Junior College and in 1954 married the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. In addition to a professional interest in acting, she became involved in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, while participating in the voter registration drive in Mississippi, she met the activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who became an acknowledged influence. When Cortez returned to Los Angeles in 1964 she began directing the Watts Repertory Theatre Company. She moved to New York in 1967.
During the 1960’s Cortez’s primary cultural influences were the blues, jazz, and African culture. Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, her first collection of poems, includes drawings by Melvin Edwards and contains tributes to such musical artists as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. “Theodore” depicts the legendary Fats Navarro and the 52nd-Street scene; “Dinah’s Back in Town” recreates the voice of Dinah Washington.
Cortez’s poetry of the early 1970’s reflects jazz themes, pan-Africanism, political protest, and urbanism. In Festivals and Funerals she explores African identity and ritual in such poems as “Initiation,” “Pearl Sheba,” and “African Night Suite.” The signature poem is a tribute to such pan-African figures as Malcolm X and Patrice Lumumba. Images of New York are contained in “I’m a Worker” and “Watching a Parade in Harlem 1970.” Scarifications, Cortez’s third collection, was brought out by her own company, Bola Press. The collection examines the urban landscape and a variety of sociopolitical issues. “I Am New York City” is a visceral evocation of the urban environment. The antiwar poem “A New Cologne” implies the devastation wrought by napalm in Vietnam. Cortez criticizes American justice in “Law and Order”...
(The entire section is 798 words.)