Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez wrote and spoke with an uncompromising intensity all her own. Acerbic, hard-hitting, unsentimental, and scathingly honest, she had a take on reality so potent -- and even pungent -- that many poets may seem benign or even superficial by comparison. The musicians with whom she aligned herself over the years invariably reflected and underscored the sociopolitical and cultural elements to which she attached the greatest importance. Born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona in 1936, she grew up near Los Angeles under the spell of her parents' jazz and blues record collection, which also included examples of Latin American dance bands and field recordings of indigenous tribal American music. Early exposure to the recordings of Bessie Smith instilled a deeply etched sense of female identity which, combined with a strong will, shaped her into an uncommonly outspoken individual. She became transformed by the sounds of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and no-nonsense vocalist Dinah Washington, whose visceral approach to self-expression clearly encouraged the poet not to pull any punches. Cortez, who markedly respected the memory of independent performing artist Josephine Baker, preferred to name inspirations rather than influences, especially when discussing writers. Those with whom she identified herself include Langston Hughes, Aime Cesaire, Léon Damas, Christopher Okigbo, Henry Dumas, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Wright. Parallels with the ugly/beautiful poetics of Federico García Lorca also suggest themselves. Her words were usually written, chanted, and spoken in rhythmic repetition patterns that closely resembled the intricate tactile language of African and Caribbean drumming.