It made perfect sense that music and poetry would be intimately interwoven in the celebration of Jayne Cortez’s remarkable artistic life.
A notable assembly of poets and musicians performed at Cooper Union’s Great Hall last week in lower Manhattan to pay tribute to Cortez who joined the ancestors on December 28, 2012. She was 78.
As historian Genna Rae McNeil recounted during her moment at the podium, Cortez “was never encouraged by her teachers to write poetry…she acquired this by reading the works of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.”
The program opened with an audio of Cortez reading one of her poems while the audience gazed upon huge photographs of her. During McNeil’s reading there was a montage of photos capturing milestones in Cortez’s eventful life—images of her with Maya Angelou, the printmaker Robert Blackburn, her son Denardo Coleman, her first husband, Ornette Coleman, and Mel Edwards, her second husband.
“I like the sound of your name,” recited Amina Baraka, the first of the guests, and the more informed listeners were aware that Cortez had taken that name herself. She was born Jayne Richardson at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona on May 10, 1934. Baraka said that when she thought of Cortez, “I think of the blues…revolution…and I’ll see you in the spirit world.”
Baraka had fervently extended the sweet dirge rendered by Lisette Santiago and set the stage for an ensemble fronted by trombonist Craig Harris, alto saxophonist T.K. Blue, and tenor saxophonist James Carter as they unleashed a blistering version of Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology,” a pace set by Coleman on drums and Al MacDowell on bass.
After fondly recalling the “rich moments he will keep” of his long association with Cortez, Danny Glover was the intermittent moderator introducing author/scholar Robin Kelley who “spoke of her genius…and her honesty that was often disarming.”
Of all the presenters, poet/author Quincy Troupe was perhaps Cortez’s oldest friend, and he remembered staying with her after she moved from California to New York City. Troupe read from his poem “Avalanche,” and though it was dedicated to others it could have been meant for Cortez, especially the concluding lines “This poem waits for you to cross over/to cross over the heartbeat touch of your healing/hands, touching hands, touching hearts.”
Troupe read with intense, rhythmic explosions that was in contrast to pianist/composer Randy Weston and flutist Blue’s meditative song to Cortez. But in the song’s shifting energy it was in keeping with the speakers who followed, including Daniel Inneh from Benin; Gus John from London; poet Steve Dalachinsky, and George Campbell, who was standing in for his wife, Mary Schmidt Campbell.
Poet/photographer Eugene Redmond began his remarks singing a refrain “J.C., JC” which invoked memories of John Coltrane as he recalled his relationship with Cortez that at moments resembled a “Romare Bearden collage,” to steal Redmond’s metaphor.
Cortez’s connection with Africa was poignantly underscored by the presence of kora player Saliueu Suso from Gambia and singer Tapani Damba, and all of this was given added depth and significance in the words and lyrics of poet Rashidah Ismali, who opened and closed her presentation with lines from “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
More reflections and memories were offered by Manthia Diawara who thanked Cortez for her tireless advocacy and creation of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa and her commitment to “Yari Yari” conferences at New York University where he served as head of the Africana Studies Department.
Before Amiri Baraka appeared and brought the event to a close there were family reminisces from her son Denardo and her husband Mel, the renowned sculptor. “Your work is the example of yourself,” Edwards said, “and long before I got up Jayne was up and working.”
When the Firespitters took their turn on stage they gave Coleman’s concept of harmolodics a thoroughly ebullient, uninhibited exhibition with tenor saxophonist David Murray, Bill Cole on a musette, and Bern Nix on guitar leading the way, while Denardo and MacDowell provided the furious underpinnings.
Baraka anticipated Cortez’s video that ended the program with her admonition to writers to “find your own voice & use it/use your own voice & find it.” For more than a generation Baraka’s voice has been unrelenting in its testimony for the oppressed and he used it with equal precision in a symphony of names from Cuban master drummer Chano Pozo, to the slain writer Henry Dumas, and the recent death of Louis Reyes Rivera to contextualize Cortez’s importance in the pantheon of poets—and musicians.