Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere

The great poet Jayne Cortez made her transition on December 28, 2012.

Though her creative spirit lives on, she will be terribly missed on this side. Her dynamic voice and musical delivery were a hallmark of the Black Arts Movement, which she helped conceive and define. And she extended that era’s premises and promises with her formally challenging, multi-media poetics. Her prophetic imagination found full expression in the the language of surrealism and the blue hues of jazz.

Cortez’s artistic self-determination and uncompromising soul meant that she never waited for publishers or labels to catch up to her. She self-published most of her poetry and recordings under the Bola imprint. Her collaborations with the painter, sculptor, and print-maker Melvin Edwards lends those books a dramatic sense of counterpoint.

Edwards Firespitter

The visual and sonic dimensions of her work highlight the syncopated timing of her poetic gestures. Her tribute to John Coltrane, published in her first book of poems, is among her best known work. Her performance of the poem with bassist Richard Davis testifies to her facility with performative nuances.

Her poem, “A Blues,” comes from her 1971 book Festivals and Funerals.

A Blues

Give me some star beer & a bottle of gin
cause forty heads have rolled &
I’m celebrating the end

Blues drying in my eyes like salt

I’m talkin to the shaven head beauties
wrapped in orange & black
black & orange funeral wrapped sisters lookin
just like bessie
those bessie smith lookin women in
the ashanti tribe

Let me speak with the ancestor of this clan

Empress baby sister
no we didn’t try to understand you so
chances are we’ll never understand them

trouble trouble trouble everywhere

I’m on my way
going to a festival
a festival where the umbrella gods will
shade my tongue with an oath so powerful
I could become the link to paradise
but who would mock my breath
who would steal my soul who
would tell the people what
the blues is really without my being dead

Hot pepper on my flesh

Give me some star beer & a bottle of gin cause
More heads are gonna roll & I
wanna celebrate the end

Sarah Webster Fabio

Before the break, I gave a talk at Penn State’s Africana Research Center, which supported my trip to the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The Smithsonian Institution took over Moses Asch’s Folkways Records along with its archive and collections in 1987. My talk was on Sarah Webster Fabio, who recorded four albums of jazz poetry with Folkways in the 1970s.

Webster Fabio comes from an extraordinary educational background. After graduating high school at fifteen years old she enrolled at Spelman College and later transferred to Fisk University, where she studied poetry with Arna Bontemps. She began graduate studies at San Francisco State College in 1963, earning an MA in “Language Arts, Creative Writing with a Special Emphasis on Poetry”—she did so while raising five children.

In 1966, Webster Fabio began publishing her poetry more widely and traveled to Dakar, Senegal to read at the First World Festival of Negro Arts. It was around this time that she took a teaching position at Merritt College in Oakland, where student activists were demanding Black Studies and Ethnic Studies courses. At Merritt, Webster Fabio taught Huey Newton and Bobby Seale (founding members of the Black Panther Party) as well as Ron Karenga (who founded the US organization). This fact has earned her respectful nicknames like “Panther Teacher” and the “Mother of Black Studies.”

As her poetry career began to take off, she moved from Merritt College to UC-Berkeley. Soon after, her genre-defying creative essay, “Tripping on Black Writing,” appeared in Addison Gayle’s anthology, The Black Aesthetic (1971), solidifying her credentials as a critic.

In 1972 and 1973 Webster Fabio recorded back-to-back albums: Boss Soul and Soul Ain’t : Soul Is. Her next album was Jujus / Alchemy of the Blues in 1976, followed by Together / To the Tune of Coltrane’s Equinox in 1977.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper

Her last album includes a seldom discussed—yet no less important—contribution to the sub-genre of Coltrane poems. It also features a recording of what is perhaps her most well-known work, “Tribute to Duke.” It was one of two poems by Webster Fabio included in Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech & Black Music as Poetic References (1973).

But Webster Fabio synthesized influences from jazz with those from R&B, soul, and funk. “Alchemy of the Blues” is a “Juju for Ray Charles” according to the liner notes.



This semester, as a final project I am teaching revision in some of my courses. To get started thinking about the concept, we looked at Talib Kweli’s take on two Nina Simone tunes: “Sinnerman” and “Four Women.”

The Kanye West-produced “Get By” uses a sample built around the piano bridge following the hand-clap breakdown from Simone’s source text. The intro samples her forceful vocal improvisation on the word “power” during the cesura, just before the song’s culmination. One student cast Kweli’s revision as an answer to Simone.

The second example is oriented around content. Kweli’s elaboration on Simone’s four character sketches pays profound tribute to the original. Even though it is a hidden track, Kweli is explicit about his reference.

During the verses, lyrics that correlate strongly to Simone’s are doubled—or split. A female voice raps in unison with Kweli. Fragmenting the perspective, Kweli strengthens the allusion with this multi-layered delivery.