Gus John joins Jayne Cortez celebration

Est. read time: 6 min

It was a huge honour to be invited to join Jayne Cortez’s friends and fellow poets, writers and performers at the celebration of her life in New York on Wednesday, 6 February 2013.

The celebration took place in a most fitting venue, the Great Hall of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859. The building — today a New York City landmark — quickly became a common meeting place of intellectuals, inventors, tinkerers, and people from across the social strata. Perhaps its greatest feature was the Great Hall.

"Lisette Santiago" by Margaret Busby (Picasa - BY-NC-ND 3.0)

“Lisette Santiago” by Margaret Busby (Picasa – BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The Cooper Union website records that:

The Great Hall of The Cooper Union has stood for more than a century as a bastion of free speech and a witness to the flow of American history and ideas. When the hall opened in 1858, more than a year in advance of the completion of the institution, it quickly became a mecca for all interested in serious discussion and debate of the vital issues of the day.

The Great Hall was the platform for some of the earliest workers’ rights campaigns and for the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the women’s suffrage movement and the American Red Cross. To the Great Hall’s podium has come a pageant of famous Americans — rebels and reformers, poets and presidents. Before they were elected, Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Barack Obama all spoke there. Besides Woodrow Wilson, two other incumbent presidents have spoken in the Great Hall: William Jefferson Clinton, who, on May 12, 1993, delivered a major economic address on reducing the federal deficit and Barack Obama, who, on April 22, 2010, gave an important speech on economic regulation and the financial markets.

During the past century’s times of tremendous upheaval, it was through meetings in Cooper’s famous auditorium that the politics and legislation necessary to build a humane city took shape.

In that place, steeped in the history of the birth of social movements, the contestations of ideas and ideologies and the shaping of liberation struggles, some of the most progressive voices and talents gathered to honour an extraordinary woman with an equally extraordinary talent, Jayne Cortez.

In a programme moderated by Danny Glover, actor, film director, political activist, ally and dear friend of Jayne and husband Mel Edwards, poets, academics, musicians, cultural and political activists gathered to honour Jayne Cortez and celebrate her life.

As a former member of the organizing committee of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third world Books (1982 –1995) and Founder Trustee of the George Padmore Institute, I also paid my own tribute to Jayne.


Among the numerous guests who attended the ceremony, there were musicians:  

  • "Danny Glover" by Margaret Busby (Picasa/  CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

    “Danny Glover” by Margaret Busby (Picasa/ CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

    Lisette Santiago, a Bata drummer and Latin percussionist who performed with Jayne at Lincoln Center Danrosch Park and the Schomberg center for a ‘Women in jazz’ programme. Salieu Suso, a Kora player from the Gambia who played with Jayne on her iconic album ‘Taking the Blues Back Home’ and Tapani Damba, a Griot (Jali) from Mali, who performed with Jane in Easter 2012 as part of Randy Weston’s ‘An African Nubian Suite’ at New York University (NYU). Craig Harris (trombonist), James Carter (saxophonist), Al MacDowell (Bassist), T.K. Blue (saxophonist & flautist), great friend of Jayne’s, Denardo Coleman (drummer), son of Jayne and her former husband Ornette Coleman.

  • The Firespitters, Jayne’s own band.  Directed by Denardo Coleman and consisting in addition of Al MacDowell, Bern NixBill ColeRene Mclean and Roy Campbell Jr, Firespitters is ‘a creative, experimental musical collaboration unit with whom Jayne performed for over 30 years and recorded 10 cds.
  • The great international jazz pianist, Randy Weston. Randy told me at the celebration, much to my surprise, that he first met Jayne at the International Book Fair festival in London many years ago and that was how they started working together and became great friends. They both ended up buying homes in and becoming residents of Dakar, Senegal. Randy’s most recent collaboration with Jayne was on his ‘An African Nubian Suite’ which they performed at NYU in Easter 2012.

There were poets:

  • Quincy Troupe, award winning poet and author of the best-selling:  Miles – the Autobiography of Miles Davis.  Quincy first met Jayne when she was director of the Watts Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
  • Steve Dalachinsky, poet activist in the Free Jazz Music world from Soho to Paris.  He, Jayne and surrealist jazz poet Ted Joans shared a close friendship.
  • Eugene Redmond, Poet Laureate of East St Louis, Illinois.  He and Jayne met in 1969 at a Black arts conference in Buffalo.
  • Rashidah Ismaili, poet, playwright, essayist, short story writer and activist.  She worked closely with Jayne in building the Organization of Women Writers of Africa OWWA).
  • Amiri Baraka, a long time compatriot of Jayne’s, Baraka is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, dramatic works and music history and criticism.  Baraka and Cortez shared platforms at cultural events, conferences and political dialogues throughout the world, from New York to Italy, Nicaragua and pretty much all of Africa.

There were speakers:

  • Lee Briccetti, the long-time Executive Director of Poets House, a 50,000-volume poetry library and meeting place in New York City, with whom Jayne collaborated over many years.
  • Manthia Diawara, director of the Institute of African American Affairs at NYU, long time collaborator with Jayne on the Yari Yari and Slave Routes conferences and the resulting documentary films. Jayne was instrumental in building his understanding of African political and cultural life, including the people and culture of Senegal.
  • Professor Robin D G Kelly, leading scholar of jazz and rebellion and author of the highly acclaimed recent study, Thelonious Monk:  The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009)
  • Professor Genna Rae McNeil, professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, specializing in African-American history and US social movements of the twentieth century.
  • Daniel Innehformer Secretary to Oba Erediauwa, present Oba of Benin.  He is an expert on history and traditional metal works of the Kingdom of Benin.  Since 1971 he has taken a particular interest in the work of Mel Edwards, the sculptor and of Jayne Cortez, the poet.  He and his wife Ekiuwa have remained close friends of Mel and Jayne over the last 40 years.
  • Milverton (Tony) Wallace, former member of the organizing committee of the International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third world Books (1982 –1995) that invited Jayne to come and read at the Bookfair festival and take part as a presenter and discussant in forums on poetry and literature, among others.  Member of the organizing committee of the John La Rose Memorial Lecture.  Founder Trustee of the George Padmore Institute.


It was a pleasure to celebrate Jayne’s life and work with such extraordinary people. And I used the occasion to announce that a UK tribute is also being planned for later this year.

Picture (home): “Jayne Cortez at the Poetry Project“, by T. Carrigan (Flickr – CC BY-ND 2.0)

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