Poet whose incantatory performances could be militant, lyrical and surreal
The poet Jayne Cortez, who has died aged 78, was unambiguous about her craft: "Words are musical – there's nothing more to say about it. That's it! … There is the sound of the voice … and your attitude you put on top of it." A passionate cultural activist, both on page and platform, Cortez transformed elements of her personal history and that of the African diaspora into cutting-edge blues poetry. "No ravine is too perilous, no abyss too threatening for Jayne Cortez," observed Maya Angelou.
In a lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University in 2011, Cortez stated her guiding belief:
The arts are just a part of the weapons of life
Art can make us see and feel reality
and help change that reality
Art is revelation. Art is hard work
Art is a part of protest.
She made her most indelible impact in public performances of sometimes confrontational intensity, captured on recordings with music, including Celebrations and Solitudes (1974), Unsubmissive Blues (1979), There It Is (1982), Maintain Control (1986), Everywhere Drums (1990), Cheerful and Optimistic (1994) and Taking the Blues Back Home (1996).
Born Sallie Jayne Richardson in Arizona, she moved at the age of seven to Los Angeles, where she grew up in the Watts district, enthralled by her parents' jazz and blues record collection. She played bass at school. In 1954, she married the avant-garde saxophonist Ornette Coleman (a track on his first album is entitled Jayne). Their son, Denardo, was born in 1956; as a child he began drumming with his father and he later collaborated with both parents in their separate careers. They divorced in 1964.
Assuming her maternal grandmother's maiden name, Cortez began writing down thoughts that turned into poems. She also became involved in the civil rights movement, working in Mississippi and raising money for the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. "I wrote more political kinds of works, works that could be read at rallies. I became more active, not just in writing but as an organiser," she told the journalist Val Wilmer in 1985.
Cortez was a founder and artistic director of the community-based Watts repertory theatre company. She subsequently settled in New York and set up Bola Press, the independent imprint which published most of her works. Her first book, Pissstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares, was published in 1969; her subsequent publications included Festivals and Funerals (1971), Scarifications (1973), Mouth on Paper (1977), Firespitter (1977), Coagulations (1984), Poetic Magnetic (1991) and Fragments (1994).
In 1975 she married the sculptor and visual artist Melvin Edwards, whose work appeared on some of her book covers. Her band, the Firespitters, which featured Denardo, provided a complementary jazz-funk-blues response to Cortez's rhythmic, often incantatory delivery, her mood ranging from militancy to lyricism, dynamic surrealism to raw emotion. She spoke compellingly of social and environmental issues in a global context; fought injustice wherever she found it; was in the frontline struggle for racial and gender equality; and celebrated the all-pervading power of music.
The best tracks on There it Is epitomise her style and concerns: the jubilant I See Chano Pozo honours the Afro-Cuban percussionist; US/Nigerian Relations challenges the practices of the capitalist west, summed up in the mesmerically repeated line "They want the oil/but they don't want the people"; and If the Drum Is a Woman references the title of a Duke Ellington album and addresses sexual oppression ("If the Drum is a woman/Don't abuse your drum").
Cortez's poems were translated into several languages and appeared in anthologies including Daughters of Africa (1992), which I edited. In 1991, together with the Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo, she founded the Organisation of Women Writers of Africa. She remained true to the mantra of Find Your Own Voice, the title of her retrospective CD with the Firespitters, released in 2004.
Something of what Cortez stood for is embodied in her poem There It Is:
And if we don't fight
if we don't resist
if we don't organise and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylised look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanised look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is
Her husband and son survive her.
• Jayne Cortez(Sallie Jayne Richardson), poet, born 10 May 1934; died 28 December 2012