Oprah, Pharrell, Hollywood Luminaries Remember Jacqueline Avant: ‘A Light Has Gone Out in Los Angeles’

Friends of Jacqueline Avant, the wife of music mogul Clarence Avant, are reeling from her shocking death at the age of 81 after a shooting and home invasion. As they process the tragedy, they are also shining a light on her charitable work and personal kindnesses.

“Grace is one of those things you can’t predict. It doesn’t just come, it shows up and blesses you,” Oprah Winfrey, a friend of Avant, told Variety during an emotional conversation this weekend. “That is how you always felt if you were in Jacquie Avant’s presence. She showed up and you were blessed.”

As partner to Clarence, a former Motown Records chairman who has been dubbed “The Black Godfather,” she was known affectionately to show business luminaries, numerous charitable foundations and friends as Jacquie.

Her loss is still difficult to absorb for many in her inner circle and the community at large.

“I don’t say this lightly, but a light has gone out in Los Angeles,” said Fred Rosen, the former Ticketmaster CEO and friend of the power couple. He became acquainted with Avant through her daughter Nicole, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas and the wife of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

The soft-spoken Avant transcended labels usually reserved for women of means in the sprawling hills of L.A. She was not a socialite, but used her power and wealth to become a major force for philanthropy, giving to causes involving arts, women’s rights, and education.

“Her motivation was just to give what she had. I certainly felt that with myself, and in all the work that she did in her charitable giving. It’s what she knew, what she had been exposed to and aspired to. That’s what she was willing to offer to other people,” Winfrey recalled through tears.

Avant was born in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y. In her early years, she studied to be a phlebotomist and supported herself modeling before she met Clarence, whose talents brought them to Beverly Hills in 1967. As one of the first Black families in the prestigious zip code, the Avants arrived at a defining moment in the city’s history, numerous family friends told Variety. Here she would spend over five decades writing a moral and empathetic blueprint for helping marginalized people and facilitating access to culture for all.

“She was the matriarch of our community,” multi-hyphenate star Pharrell Williams said of Avant. “While I was not born and raised in LA, when I say ‘our community’ I mean amongst Black people. But all other communities looked at her as a shining, living example of elegance. Someone beyond everything that they had accumulated whose wealth was experience.”

Just a few of her bona fides include supporting the South Central Community Child Care Center, through which she was named president of the group Neighbors of Watts. She served on the board of directors at UCLA’s International Student Center and became a founding member of the university’s Rape Treatment Center board. For almost 20 years, she and Clarence supported the building of what is today the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts — a premiere 90210 venue. Avant remained a dedicated member of the Wallis board since its opening, and was a weekly attendee for the center’s programming, said executive director Rachel Fine.

“Both Jacquie and Clarence were involved from the outset as people who loved Beverly Hills and ones who truly loved arts and culture. She was a deeply dedicated board member, a consummate board member, and the most humble person I know,” said Fine.

Avant’s 80th birthday celebration came days before global pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, Fine recalled.

“She was giddy about this birthday celebration. At that party she asked the attendees, in lieu of gifts, to make contributions to the Wallis. They gave very generously because they held her in the highest regard, and they knew how important it was to her. As she got checks, she delivered them to me in person. The last time I saw her before the pandemic, she and Clarence drove down to the Wallis in the pouring rain to hand them over,” Fine said.

Avant had a clear affinity for the fine arts. She served on boards for the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, LACMA’s East Asian Art Council, and was two-term board president of the Museum of African American Art of Los Angeles. Her famed collection of Japanese lacquerware was presented at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas. It was a passion she passed down to some of the most powerful people in media.

“Jacquie is the person who taught me about the art world, particularly Black art. When I first started out, she introduced me to Artis Lane and Elizabeth Catlett. She was just so helpful in bringing me into a world that I had no knowledge about whatsoever,” Winfrey said.

Avant was also remembered as a world-class hostess, entertaining figures like the President of Tanzania, President Bill Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, Governor Edmond Brown Jr., Mayor Tom Bradley and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“I have spent some of the loveliest days of my life with [the Avants]. They were there for the opening of my school, when I had a celebration for Sidney Poitier’s 79th birthday, even just having dinner at Quincy Jones’ house,” said Winfrey. “My every experience with them has a been a joyful, celebratory, memorable occasion. Let me tell you, this woman represents to me what the Bible says about, ‘Who can find a virtuous woman?’”

Perhaps most indelible, Variety gleaned from many conversations, was the sense of calm she brought to an often-turbulent town and industry.

“In telling you what I knew about her, I’m also telling what I feel like was taken. With her, you realized you were talking to somebody deep. It wasn’t a raindrop in a cup, it was more like standing next to the ocean,” said Williams.

Winfrey called Avant “the softness around every edge. It makes no sense that her life would end that way. I would hope to grow into that kind of elegance and regalness she carried. I would hope to do that in my lifetime.”

Avant is survived by her husband Clarence Avant and their two children, Nicole (m. Sarandos) and Alexander Avant, as well as her sister Jean Morse and a host of nieces, nephews and friends who loved her dearly.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Jacqueline Avant Memorial Fund at the  MLK Health & Wellness Community Development Corporation. 

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