A few days after Thanksgiving, venerable Watts community activist “Sweet” Alice Harris got a phone call. The woman on the other end of the line lived in the tony Trousdale Estates section of Beverly Hills and had seen Harris on TV, giving away turkeys for the holiday and talking about how she would next present children in her working-class community with bicycles.
“She said ‘I am going to get some friends of mine together and we are going to help you to get all those bikes out for Christmas,’ “ Harris recalled Jacqueline Avant telling her. “She didn’t want the credit. She was doing it from her heart. She was doing it because it needs to be done.”
Before she could complete her latest act of generosity, Avant was fatally shot Wednesday morning by an intruder in her home, a sudden passing 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, dubbed “The Godfather” of Black music in America. But those close to the couple described her as a quiet force who helped guide her husband to unite powerful figures from the worlds of sports, entertainment and politics, usually to benefit the less fortunate.
It was often Jackie, as friends knew her, who without fanfare organized 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 trusted enough by President Carter that he would direct African heads of state to visit the Avants when they traveled to 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, a political consultant and friend of the Avants for more than four decades.
“She was just an amazing woman, who was a quiet giant,” said basketball great Magic Johnson. “She wasn’t behind Clarence, she was right beside him. She was a very intelligent woman, a very caring woman, a great mother, a great wife, and she was just sweet to everybody. She had that gentle touch.”
Avant was born Jacqueline Alberta Gray on March 6, 1940, in Jamaica, Queens, New York. She became a model, including for Ebony Fashion Fair, which introduced new styles to the Black community. She met Clarence Avant when he was an up-and-coming 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 entrée to clubs such as Birdland and the Apollo Theater.
She told The Times in 1980: “I used to be lazy. I relied on my looks to get me everything. Now life has more meaning.”
After marrying in New York 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 make it as a musician. After hearing his demos, Avant signed Withers and, ever the connector, teamed him with Booker T. Jones to create “Just as I Am,” Withers’ debut album. It featured the now-classic song “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
“He puts people together, and they do what they do,” Withers said in “The Black Godfather,” the 2019 Netlfix documentary about Avant’s life.
Avant’s label closed in 1975 but in 1979 he opened Tabu Records and across the 1980s and ‘90s scored platinum success with R&B acts including the S.O.S. Band, Alexander O’Neal and Babyface.
He encouraged young entrepreneurs to build power and influence. Platinum production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis learned the business under Avant, and rapper and businessman Sean Combs has long cited Avant’s guidance as one key 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.
By the 1970s and ‘80s, the Avants were at the center of a heady scene in Los Angeles. They spent the then-astounding sum of $26,000 to help elect Tom Bradley as the first and thus far only Black mayor in the city’s history. They also supported Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and many of the African American politicians who at one time filled one-third of the 15-member Los Angeles City Council.
When the Avants weren’t raising and giving political donations, Clarence was making sure political organizers had access to concerts by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire — assuring more political registrations.
“You had this intersection of music, entertainment and politics,” said Maddox, who worked for Bradley and Waters, among others. “That, to me, was the golden era of Black politics in Los Angeles. And Clarence and the Avants were the glue.”
Over the years, Jackie Avant served on many 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 docent at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, developing a particular interest in Japanese art and artifacts and building her own substantial collection of those treasures.
Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel and a major fundraiser for Democratic candidates, described how the Avants “effortlessly traveled between artists and kings.” He called Jackie Avant “the queen of the people.”
Close friend Mattie McFadden-Lawson and her husband, Michael, had dinner at the Avants’ home only a week before the killing. “She was really looking forward to this next phase in her journey,” McFadden-Lawson said. “There were so many blessings she talked about that she was thankful for.”
The Avants’ son, Alex, is an executive at CAA, the behemoth talent agency. Their daughter, Nicole, joined the recording industry, including a stint at her father’s company. She later became the co-chair of Barack Obama’s Southern California fundraising efforts, then Obama’s ambassador to the Bahamas. She is married to Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos.
In an interview with Spectrum News 1, Nicole Avant recalled that celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Hank Aaron turned up regularly at her parents’ home. Among her parents and these friends, a common refrain was the importance of helping the next generation.
The younger Avant said her parents’ consistent message was, “You’ve got to be able to pass that baton to the people behind you … to keep things moving forward.”