Jayne Cortez, who founded the Watts Repertory Theater Company in California to highlight racial inequalities, has died in New York, her family said. She was 78.

Cortez, born Sallie Jayne Richardson, died of heart failure Dec. 28 at a hospital in New York City, her husband said.

Wanda Coleman, a Los Angeles poet, hailed Cortez as a skilled wordsmith, spoken-word performance artist and activist, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday.

"She was the first African American woman I met who refused to give in to negatives and difficulties," Coleman said. "She was an inspiration to me. Those were some mighty high heels, and walking behind them has been an effort."

Cortez wrote 10 books of poetry. In 1980 she began recording her poetry to jazz music performed by a band that included her son, Denardo Coleman.

"She'd give me an idea of a flavor of music that she wanted," he said. "She didn't want the poetry to dominate the music. It was all supposed to be one."

Cortez is survived by her son, three step-daughters, a sister and two grandchildren, the Times reported.