Poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson on May 10, 1934 in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Her father served in both world wars, and her mother worked as a receptionist. The Richardson family moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles when Cortez was seven. She later enrolled at Compton Community College. In 1959, she married the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. They had a son, Denardo, born in 1956, who later became a jazz drummer and joined his mother’s band, The Firespitters. Coleman and Cortez divorced in 1964. Cortez worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963–64, registering Black Mississippians to vote. She began writing poetry under her maternal grandmother’s surname.
Cortez published a dozen volumes of poetry, including On the Imperial Highway: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose Press, 2008); The Beautiful Book (Bola Press, 2007); Jazz Fan Looks Back (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere (Serpent’s Tail, 1997); Coagulations: New and Selected Poems (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1982); Poetic Magnetic (Bola Press, 1991); Firespitter (Bola Press, 1982); Mouth on Paper (Bola Press, 1977); Scarifications (Bola Press, 1973); and Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares (Phrase Text, 1969). Cortez’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. She has also released a number of recordings, many with The Firespitters, including Taking the Blues Back Home (1997), Cheerful & Optimistic (1994), Everywhere Drums (1991), and Maintain Control (1986).
Cortez’s awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, the International African Festival Award, and the American Book Award.
Cortez performed, lectured, and taught at many universities, museums, and festivals. In 1964, she founded the Watts Repertory Theater Company, where she gave her first poetry readings, as part of her work with the Black Arts Movement. Eight years later, she formed her own publishing company, Bola Press. In 1991, Cortez founded the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. She lived in Dakar, Senegal and in New York City.
Cortez died on December 28, 2012.