Jacqueline Avant helped unite black politics, entertainment
Days after Thanksgiving, venerable Watts “Sweet” community activist Alice Harris received a phone call. The woman on the other end of the phone lived in the Tony Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills and had seen Harris on TV, donating turkeys for the holidays and explaining how she would then introduce bikes to children in her working-class community.
“She said ‘I’m going to get some friends of mine and we’ll help you get all those bikes out for Christmas,'” Harris recalls, telling her Jacqueline Avant. “She didn’t want credit. She did it with her heart. She was doing it because it needs to be done.
Before he could complete his final act of generosity, Avant was fatally shot Wednesday morning by an intruder in his home, a sudden death that shocked the philanthropist’s friends from south Los Angeles to the halls of Congress.
Avant, 81, was best known as the wife of music industry titan Clarence Avant, nicknamed “The Godfather” of black music in America. But those close to the couple described her as a quiet force who helped her husband unite powerful figures from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics, usually for the benefit of those less fortunate.
It was often Jackie, as friends knew her, who ran without fanfare fundraisers for schools and community groups and for politicians, including Presidents Clinton and Obama, Gov. Jerry Brown and Rep. Maxine Waters.
She and her husband were friends with those presidents, and President Carter had enough confidence in him to ask African heads of state to visit the Forwards when they visited Los Angeles.
“They were the quintessential team and clearly the most powerful African-American married couple in Southern California, if not the entire West Coast,” said Kerman Maddox, political consultant and friend of the Forwards for more than four decades.
“She was just an amazing woman, who was a quiet giant,” said great basketball player Magic Johnson. “She wasn’t behind Clarence, she was right next to him. She was a very smart woman, a very caring woman, a great mother, a great wife, and she was just so sweet to everyone. She had that soft touch.
Avant was born Jacqueline Alberta Gray on March 6, 1940 in Jamaica, Queens, New York. She became a model, notably for Ebony Fashion Fair, which introduced new styles to the black community. She met Clarence Avant when he was a promising talent manager whose clients included actress Cicely Tyson and jazz and R&B stars Little Willie John and Jimmy Smith. He wooed her with limo rides and tickets to clubs such as Birdland and the Apollo Theater.
She told The Times in 1980: “I was lazy. I relied on my appearance to get me everything. Now life has more meaning.
After getting married in New York City in 1967, the newlyweds moved west and Clarence Avant formed Sussex Records in 1969.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Clarence met singer and songwriter Bill Withers, who had recently been laid off from a manufacturing job at Weber Aircraft and was hoping to become a musician. After hearing his demos, Avant signed Withers and, still the Connector, teamed him up with Booker T. Jones to create “Just as I Am,” Withers’ debut album. It featured the now classic song “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
“He brings people together and they do what they do,” Withers said in “The Black Godfather,” the 2019 Netlfix documentary on Life Before.
Avant’s label closed in 1975, but in 1979 it opened Tabu Records and in the 1980s and 1990s achieved platinum success with R&B groups such as SOS Band, Alexander O’Neal and Babyface.
He encouraged young entrepreneurs to develop their power and influence. Platinum production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis learned the trade under Avant, and rapper and businessman Sean Combs has long cited Avant’s advice as one of the keys to his success. Avant was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in May. With his wife in the audience, he received a prolonged standing ovation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Forwards were the center of an intoxicating scene in Los Angeles. They spent an incredible $ 26,000 to help elect Tom Bradley as the first and so far the only black mayor in the city’s history. They also supported Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and many African-American politicians who at one point made up one-third of Los Angeles City Council’s 15 members.
When the Forwards weren’t collecting and giving political donations, Clarence made sure that political organizers had access to concerts such as Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, thus securing more political entries.
“You had this intersection of music, entertainment and politics,” said Maddox, who worked for Bradley and Waters, among others. “For me, it was the golden age of black politics in Los Angeles. And Clarence and the Forwards were the glue.
Over the years, Jackie Avant has served on numerous charitable boards, including for the UCLA International Student Center (now the UCLA Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars), the National Organization for Women’s Entertainment Division, and the Neighbors of Watts. .
She also worked as a guide at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, developing a particular interest in Japanese art and artifacts and building her own substantial collection of these treasures.
Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel and a major fundraiser for Democratic candidates, described how the Forwards “traveled effortlessly between performers and kings.” He called Jackie Avant “the People’s Queen”.
Close friend Mattie McFadden-Lawson and her husband, Michael, had dinner at the Avant’s only a week before the murder. “She was really looking forward to this next phase of her journey,” said McFadden-Lawson. “There were so many blessings she was talking about that she was grateful for. “
The Avants’ son, Alex, is an executive at CAA, the giant talent agency. Their daughter, Nicole, joined the recording industry, including a stint in her father’s business. She went on to become co-chair of Barack Obama’s fundraising efforts in Southern California, then Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas. She is married to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.
In an interview with Spectrum News 1, Nicole Avant recalled that celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Hank Aaron regularly show up at her parents’ house. Among his parents and friends, a common refrain was the importance of helping the next generation.
Young Avant said the consistent message from her parents was: “You need to be able to pass the baton to the people behind you… to get things done. “