NEW YORK -- Jayne Cortez, a forceful poet, activist and performance artist who blended oral and written traditions into numerous books and musical recordings, has died. She was 78.
The Organization of Women Writers of Africa says Cortez died of heart failure in New York on Dec. 28. She had helped found the group and, while dividing her time between homes in New York and Senegal, was planning a symposium of women writers to be held in Ghana in May.
Cortez was a prominent figure in the black arts movement of the 1960s and `70s that advocated art as a vehicle for political protest. She cited her experiences trying to register black voters in Mississippi in the early `60s as a key influence.
A native of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., she was raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles. She loved jazz since childhood and would listen to her parents' record collection. Musicians including trumpeter Don Cherry would visit her home and through them she met her first husband, Ornette Coleman, one of the world's greatest jazz artists. They were married from 1954 to 1964.
Her books included "Scarifications" and "Mouth On Paper," and she recorded often with her band the Firespitters, chanting indictments of racism, sexism and capitalism. Its members included her son, drummer Denardo Coleman, and several other members of Ornette Coleman's electronic Prime Time band, guitarist Bern Nix and bassist Al McDowell.
Cortez, who described herself as a "jazz poet," performed all over the world and her work was translated into 28 languages. At the time of her death, she was living with her second husband, the sculptor Melvin Edwards.