New York, NY — Jayne Cortez, a prominent poet, activist and performance artist in the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has died. She was 78.
According to the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Cortez died of heart failure in New York on December 28. Cortez was a founder of the group, and at the time of her death was planning a symposium of women writers to be held in Ghana in May.
Born in Arizona and raised in Los Angeles, Jayne Cortez was exposed to the arts from an early age. Throughout her early years, she painted, played cello, and reveled in the jazz and Latin recordings her parents collected. Cortez graduated from an arts high school, but financial difficulties had prevented her from attending college.
Many musicians would visit her childhood home, including African-American jazz trumpetist Don Cherry, and her first husband was Ornette Coleman, recognized as one of the world’s greatest jazz artists.
Cortez was the author of some 12 books of poems and performed her poetry with music on nine recordings. She exhibited her work across the globe, performing at universities, museums, and festivals in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Her poems have been translated into 28 languages and are widely published.
But it was Jayne Cortez’s involvement in the black arts movement that would come to define her career. Cortez strongly advocated using art as a vehicle to push political causes, with her work being used to register black voters in Mississippi in the early 1960s.
At the time of her death, Jayne Cortez was living with her second husband, the sculptor Melvin Edwards.
Below is footage of Cortez reading her poem “Rape” (NSFW language):