The Strength of Jayne Cortez


by Elizabeth Hoover

Born in 1934, the interdisciplinary artist Jayne Cortez grew up in Watts, Los Angeles. There she fell in love with jazz listening to her parents’ record collection and playing bass in high school. As a teenager, she was attracted to bebop, especially the music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell.

Her development as a writer and musician happened alongside the growing unrest in Watts, a largely black working-class community that experienced constant discrimination and police intimidation. In 1965, outrage over police brutality and endemic poverty grew into riots.

By the time of the riots, Cortez had built an interdisciplinary art practice that included poetry, printmaking, and music. What defined her as an artist was not the medium in which she worked, but rather her deep commitment to using art to voice outrage at oppression and broadcast revolutionary ideas about social justice.

In 1967, she moved to New York City and established Bola Press to skirt the racism of the white publishing establishment. As she told Graham Lock in Giving Voice: “You can’t stop working … because so-and-so doesn’t like it or because someone feels threatened because you are black and your work is strong.”

Bola press published all 12 of her books of poetry and as well as her recordings. She recorded both solo and with her band, The Firespitters.

Cortez’s performance style has been called confrontational and discordant, but it is also innovative in its experimental and improvisational approach. Like her work in poetry and art, her music was rooted in a global understanding of oppression and a call for social justice.

Like her fellow Black Arts Movement artists, Cortez’s aesthetic was meant to awaken her audience into a new political consciousness. Barbara Christian writes in the Before Columbus Foundation Poetry Anthology, “Cortez’s sound is not just sound, in the Western sense; … rather it is sound flowering through meaning-spirit-fire that challenges us sleepwalkers.”

In 2006, Cortez performed at James Madison University with The Firespitters. While her performance wasn’t recorded, these photos give a sense of what she was like on stage: her voice rang out, but her performances were also democratic; each member of the band was able to shine in solos or contribute to the overall sound with improvisation.

Cortez died in December of 2012 and left behind and indelible legacy and an original body of work. Reflecting on her life in the New York Amsterdam News in 2013, Amiri Baraka remarked “Jayne Cortez was one of the most important poets of the last half century—a bold, impassioned singular voice in the grand tradition of revolutionary poets around the world.”

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Last Updated: Sunday, March 4, 2018

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