Remembering Jacqueline Avant: “Her Advocacy Was Profound”

In the early morning hours of Dec. 1, the Trousdale Estates home of Jacqueline Avant and her husband, Clarence, a trailblazing music executive known as the “Godfather of Black Music,” was invaded, and the 81-year-old philanthropist and former model was shot and killed. A possible motive for the crime is still being investigated by Beverly Hills police.

“Jacquie,” as friends and family called her, was born Jacqueline Alberta Gray on March 6, 1940, in Jamaica Queens, New York. In the 1960s, she began a career as a hospital technician and phlebotomist in New York City, and also modeled for Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual fashion show and fundraising event created by Eunice Johnson of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company that traveled to 30 cities, focusing on Black neighborhoods therein. The show featured mostly African American models wearing luxury European designers like Yves St. Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Givenchy and Jean Paul Gaultier.

It was around this time that she met, and was courted by, her soon-to-be husband, Clarence, who was building a reputation in music as a manager, producer, executive and entrepreneur.

“The Ebony Fashion Fair models were like the first models that Black people really saw on the runway, so for a Black guy in 1960-something, a Fashion Fair model was like a big deal,” music and cultural historian Nelson George said in the 2019 Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, which chronicles Clarence Avant’s life and career and was directed by Reginald Hudlin.

In a statement following the news of her death, Hudlin said: “Jacquie was the epitome of grace, elegance, kindness, and good taste. Like so many people in Hollywood, I owe so much to the mentorship and generosity of Clarence and Jacquie. This is a senseless tragedy that has our entire industry reeling, confused and heartbroken.” As of Thursday afternoon, Dec. 2, Beverly Hills police had taken 29-year-old Aariel Maynor of Los Angeles into custody as the only suspect.

The couple got married in 1967, and after moving west to Los Angeles, their union resulted in a daughter and a son: former United States Ambassador to the Bahamas (and wife to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos) Nicole Avant, and Alexander Du Bois Avant.

The Avants were 55-year residents of Beverly Hills, a notable tenure as a Black family who moved to the area in 1968, in a city where housing discrimination and redlining had created highly segregated neighborhoods.

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In The Black Godfather, Clarence tells the story of how the family originally wanted to move to the historically Black, upper-middle-class neighborhood of Baldwin Hills — “Ray Charles and Nancy Wilson lived there. Everybody lived in Baldwin Hills,” he said — especially since he could not afford the homes in Beverly Hills at the time. But thanks to a loan from his then-boss and mentor Joe Glaser, the Avants were able to move in.

Over the course of her life, Jacqueline Avant was a champion for the arts and philanthropic causes: In 1974, she was chairwoman of NOW membership and in 1975, she served as president of the Neighbors of Watts, a support group for the South Central Community Child Care Center. She would later serve on the board of directors of the International Student Center at UCLA, and two terms as the board president of the Museum of African American Art of Los Angeles.

More recently, she volunteered as a docent in the Pavilion for Japanese Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and sat on the board of The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts — a project she and her husband were involved in supporting from the ground floor when it was just a nonprofit, and the cultural center had yet to be built inside the former Beverly Hills Post Office.

“They are deeply dedicated to arts and culture, and they recognized the potential of repurposing this post office into a thriving performing arts campus long before it became a reality. And they stuck with it over more than two decades and made sure — along with the rest of our board members — that it actually came to fruition,” Rachel Fine, executive director and CEO of the Annenberg Center, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The Avants were “incredibly generous” donors according to Fine and were “absolute fixtures on a weekly basis” at the venue. On Jacquie’s 80th birthday in March 2020, she asked all of her friends and guests to steer contributions to the Wallis.

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“On my walk this morning, I was just thinking about what makes a consummate board member of a nonprofit cultural organization,” continues Fine. “She took such great pride and so her advocacy was profound. She was so deeply dedicated to our mission and vision and the delivery of those two things through our work onstage. She sat on the Education Committee; she was very passionate about our arts learning programs.”

Additionally, Jacqueline was very active in the Japanese community in Los Angeles, and was a noted art collector. She owned one of the largest collections of Japanese lacquered boxes and other artifacts in the United States; in 2013, her collection was on view at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas, and she was also published in Asian Arts Magazine on two occasions.

Amy Hofland, senior director at the Crow Collection, tells THR: “For me, this is just a loss of light in the world. She was what we call in the museum world ‘a dream collector,’ meaning that for her it was about so much more than the collection. It was about this passion — in her case, for Japanese lacquer — and about connection with friends and with people and young students. She was very committed to how we taught the collection while it was here, and so I think we found a kindred friendship in each other. That was the kind of person that Jacquie was, just an open-hearted, loving human being who carried the collection around the world and shared it generously with people.”

Jacqueline Avant, who began her lacquer collection in the early 1990s, amassed an impressive array of items like inkstone boxes, incense containers, pipe cases and more. She was a scholar on the art form, lecturing on her collection at Spelman College, Scripps College and Broadway Federal Bank, and was passionate about sharing Asian art with the community — an endeavor her husband staunchly supported, according to friends.

“I think as the wife of a major music figure, this was her expression of her own self. This was Jacqueline’s story,” Hofland says, adding, “Lacquer is an exquisite art form from Japan. It requires painstaking amounts of time and precision. Beauty and perfection are ideals of lacquer, and that is the kind of person that Jacqueline was: exquisite. She was just lovely in her care as a person for other people. And I think that’s what makes a human being exquisite.”

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Jacqueline Avant is survived by her husband, Clarence, their two children, Nicole and Alexander, her sister, Jean Morse, and a host of nieces, nephews and friends.

Veteran music producer Quincy Jones, one of Clarence and Jacquie’s closest companions, said in a statement: “The heaviness of my heart today is unlike any other that I have ever experienced in my life. The news of the tragic loss of my beautiful ‘sister-in-law’ Jacquie Avant is devastating beyond words. She was the purest of souls in every sense, and was the Rock of Gibraltar for Clarence, their children, and her friends. We are all, every single one of us, better people because Jacquie was in our lives. Dearest Jacquie, I will forever miss your gentle smile, your ‘side-eye’ glances, and the beauty that inhabited every fiber of your heart. God Bless you.”

In lieu of flowers, the Avant family requests that donations be made to the MLK Health and Wellness Development Corporation (a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization) for the Jacqueline Avant Memorial Fund for the new MLK Children’s Center in Watts, California. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 811473, Los Angeles, CA 90081, or at this link.

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