We admit it: We’re not generally fans of jazz poetry. The stuff tends to deserve the bad rap it gets. However, the work of Jayne Cortez is a blazing exception. With the help of George Scala, we’ve put together this memorial post paying tribute to her undersung work — work that melded free jazz, funk, and searing poetry into unique and combustible songs.

Cortez was a published poet who received awards from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation; a spoken word artist; a social activist — and most crucially for this post — a crack bandleader. She was married to Ornette Coleman for many years and ably adapted his harmolodic concepts into new musical shapes. Call it a 22nd Century Talking Blues.

She put together remarkable musical ensembles – often under The Firespitters name — that included such jazz luminaries as James “Blood” Ulmer, Ron Carter, Ed Blackwell, Frank Lowe, Bobby Bradford, and Richard Davis. Not to mention Ornette, her son Dernado, plus key members of the Prime Time band such as Bern Nix, Al MacDowell, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Scroll down for a selection of her most trenchant tunes.

Jayne Cortez
Unsubmissive Blues
Bola Press : 1979

JC, vocals; Bern Nix, guitar; Joe Daley, tuba; Denardo Coleman, drums.

For all its harmolodic swagger, Cortez’s music and poetry was always deeply rooted in the blues. Here she struggles with the impossibility of writing the sort of blues that hits you like a Joe Louis punch and turns the computer into an event like Guinea-Bissau. But that’s always been the key component of all true literature — its attempt to express the impossible. You know?

Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters
There It Is
Bola Press : 1982

JC, vocals. Bern Nix, guitar; Charles Moffet Jr, tenor sax; Bill Cole, flute, muzette, sona; Jamaaladeen Tacuma,  electric bass; Farel Johnson Jr., bongo, bell, conga; Abraham Adzinyah, conga; Denardo Coleman, drums.

This is Jayne Cortez’s most devastating track, even more pertinent now than it was when she first waxed it. Over a pleasantly loping groove, she mercilessly dissects the capitalist state of being and the victims it creates. She begins: “My friends, they don’t care if you’re an individualist, a leftist, a rightist, a shithead, they will try to exploit you…” If Angela Davis was one of The Last Poets, she’d still be struggling to come up with something this stirring.

If we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is…

Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters
Maintain Control
Bola Press : 1986

JC, vocals; Ornette Coleman, alto sax on “Explanations”; Bern Nix, guitar; Charles Moffet Jr, tenor sax; Al MacDowell, electric bass; Denardo Coleman, electro/acoustical percussion.

“No Simple Explanations” is an especially moody and hypnotic track, a wonderfully slow-burning hoodoo groove given extra emotional heft by Ornette Coleman’s snaking solo. Against a subtly complex backdrop, Cortez holds the stage with forceful declamations and urgent imagery. “Conjuration and syntax,” indeed. Our favorite line: “The altar will not fit another skull.” Or put it another way, when the great ones are gone, baby, they’re gone.

The Afro-futurist “Maintain Control” mixes a robotic flow with unpredictable percussion accents. It creates a rhythmic straightjacket that embodies the monomania which is the song’s true subject. Cortez’s voice creates another rhythm, urgently spurring the song forward while evoking the anxiety of being left behind. After all, the more you feel like you’re falling apart, the tighter you have to wind yourself up.

Jayne Cortez
Everywhere Drums
Bola Press : 1990

JC, vocals; Bern Nix, guitar; Charles Moffet Jr., tenor saxophone; Al MacDowell, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums.

Riding a relentless boogie choogle and surging saxophone riffs, Cortez evokes the connection between half notes, war dances, Santeria shrines, and abolitionist politics. An impressionist gumbo whose ingredients include Gullah, Yoruba, Havana, and Zydeco. She lays down the lyrics like incantations:

Not tweet tweet
But Mau Mau

Jayne Cortez & The Firespitters
Borders of Disorderly Time
Bola Press : 2002

JC, vocals; James “Blood” Ulmer, guitar; Bern Nix, guitar; Frank Lowe, tenor sax; Sam Furnace, alto saxophone; Alex Harding, baritone sax; Al MacDowell, bass; Charnett Moffett, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums.

Cortez lays out a recipe for the ultimate postmodern jazz track — something that almost sounds like some lost Bill Laswell, circa mid-1990s. But is it really an advancement? “What about the history of humans imitating machines?” she wonders. “Can you really shop at the supermarket, bag up all the groceries, and then act like what’s in the container is your creation, even though you didn’t invent one item in the bag?” Over a herky-jerk rhythm, this track — like all her best music — offers listeners that rarest thing: A reality check.

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