Aldon Lynn Nielsen: On Jayne Cortez's Poetry

Following in the pattern of such artists as Betty Carter, Mingus, and Baraka, Cortez realized early on that black artists would require full control over the production of their works if they were to escape the censorious mediations of white editing and of capitalist recording industry demands for certain modes of product. Her response was to form the Bola Press, the imprint for all of her recordings after Celebrations and Solitudes and for all of her books prior to Coagulations. In addition to controlling the production of her jazz texts, she was able to determine the presentation of her printed works, many of which appeared with illustrations by her husband, Melvin Edwards.

Unlike David Henderson on Coleman's "Science Fiction," Cortez's recorded reading to music differs little from her unaccompanied reading style, but then, her works are so deeply rooted in music, and dramatic modes of presentation are so fundamental to her writing, that her texts seem to be written as acapella music. Cortez is one of the more "tonal" readers of poetry among contemporary artists. Continuing the poetics of the Beats and of Olson's projective verse, she writes her lines in breath units, and the measures of these units are usually derived from African-American music. In public readings, Cortez tends usually to read these lines in descending pitch sequences. She reads a first line, organized around one tone and then reads the next descending from a lower starting pitch. Her lines are, in this sense, chantlike, allowing for melodic effects within the chosen tonal range of the individual line. Additionally, Cortez has from her earliest days as a poet taken music as both the subject matter and the aesthetic correlative for her writing.

The works she collected in her first chapbook, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man’s Wares, published in 1969, had originally been composed for performance by the Watts Repertory Theater Company, a group Cortez had helped to form during her Los Angeles years, for a special production "dealing with Black music through poetry." As she explained to Melhem in their 1982 interviews, "I started writing poetry about my relationship to Black music, talking about the rhythms or what I liked about it, and of course, talking about the musicians who play the music. It's like praise poetry, the old African praise poetry." Trained in music when young, Cortez naturally gravitated toward the writing of lyric verse, and her extensive friendships with jazz musicians provided her with entrée into a community of potential collaborators. She was married, in the 1950s, to Ornette Coleman, who appeared along with cellist Abdul Wadud (Cortez also played cello at one time) on the 1986 recordings of Cortez's poetry, Maintain Control. The son of this marriage, Denardo Coleman, began playing the drums early on. By the time he was ten years old he was already playing on recordings with his father. (The first of these, The Empty Foxhole, includes in its liner notes rare samples of Ornette Coleman's poetry.) Since then, Denardo has continued to play in nearly all of his father's bands, and he has played on each of his mother's albums, beginning with Unsubmissive Blues in 1980.

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Title Aldon Lynn Nielsen: On Jayne Cortez's Poetry Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Aldon Lynn Nielsen Criticism Target Jayne Cortez
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Jun 2021
Publication Status No Data Publication Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism
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