“A poem is not led by a subject, it leads to all subjects.” — Jayne Cortez
Suffering from jazzheimer’s, I find it increasingly difficult to cite my first encounters with certain folks, music, etc., but to the best of my knowledge the first time I saw/met/heard Jayne Cortez was at St. Mark’s Poetry Project when she read with Ted Joans, a mutual friend. Her visceral, bold, in-your-face approach floored me, though much of her work put me off due to the rawness of its images, externalizing the internal as in real BLOOD and GUTS—something I had heard Cecil Taylor do, but in an entirely different manner. After getting to know Jayne better I found out that she was Ornette Coleman’s wife early on (1954 – 1964), and the mother of Denardo Coleman, a drummer who had played on such Ornette LPs as The Empty Foxhole and Ornette at 12 when Denardo actually was 12, and who still plays with Ornette. We’d meet often at gigs and talk more and more, particularly about one of our favorite subjects, jazz. Since 1975 she’d been married to one of my favorite sculptors, Melvin Edwards. Jayne and Melvin met in the late ’60s or early ’70s in Southern California, and were both part of the all-important Black Arts Movement that further grew out of the Watts riots. One early collaboration between the two was Jayne’s second book of poems, Festivals and Funerals, in 1971. They’ve been collaborating ever since.
In 1979 Jayne started a band called the Firespitters, and she gave me copies of their CDs whenever they were released. She read fiercely, and the band, in which Denardo also appeared, played heavily behind her. Her poems ranged from social protest to feminism to jazz; one of the first I heard that solidified my admiration for her work was a poem about the great Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, who helped in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz and came to a tragic end. Jayne’s work was timely and timeless. If the boys in Washington lied about the debt ceiling there’d be a poem about the edge of the cliff at her next reading.
We met several times in Paris as well as New York, and for Mel, Jayne, me, and my wife, Yuko, Ted Joans and jazz were two constants that kept our relationship fresh.
Around ten years ago Jayne and Mel moved to their home away from home, Senegal, where they would live a good part of every year. Before moving to an N.Y.U. complex a few blocks from my apartment, they lived around the corner, and we shared the same numerical address.
In recent years Jayne, Yuko, and I would often have lunch or dinner together. Mel would join when he could. I had turned them on to a Dominican rice-and-beans joint I loved on the Lower East Side and turned Jayne on to a dish I particularly enjoyed, squid and black rice. After she passed away Mel called to relay the news and informed me that while in the hospital, where she abhorred the food, she would ask him to go to that restaurant and take food out for her. This both heartened and saddened me.
Jayne’s involvement with jazz, activism, and feminism was extreme, and permeated all her work. Selected CDs to listen to are Everywhere Drums (Bola Press—Jayne’s own imprint), Find Your Own Voice (Bola Press), and Taking the Blues Back Home (Harmolodic/Verve). One famous example of how she could combine her causes and loves is the highly charged poem “If the Drum is a Woman,” where she riffs off the Duke Ellington suite “The Drum is a Woman,” combining the jazz idiom and her feminist consciousness. This piece, in a way, encapsulates her ideals.
Jayne was a force for good on the poetry, music, and life scene who will be sorely missed and impossible to replace.
If the drum is a woman, that woman was Jayne Cortez, someone who always searched for the fountain of truth amongst those who lost themselves on that long road that leads to the BIG WHITE HOUSE. Jayne paid her dues, and if we listen to her words they will sustain us, maintain us, and remain with us while helping us unlock all doors and see. We must find our voices and use them.