AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – There were only fond memories of Augusta native Jessye Norman. The renowned international opera star died Monday at the age of 74.
She passed away in a New York hospital from complication from a spinal cord injury from 2015. Norman won 4 Grammy awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Kennedy Center Honor.
In Augusta, she is most known for the school that bears her name and the amphitheater named in her honor. She was big on educating youth in this community at Jessye Norman School of the Arts.
While she did not start the school, Jessye Norman lent her name to it and made visits so that talented children could flourish.
NewsChannel 6 took time to learn more about the legacy she left.
“My first time encountering Jessye Norman is when I was a child in Augusta watching her on television on PBS and the show was ‘Live from Lincoln Center Presents.’ Then I had a chance to see her sing at Paine College. My father took me to see her performance,” Damien Sneed, musician and mentee to Norman told us.
The American operatic soprano that captured Sneed’s heart at just a young age died September 30. But he recalls just the way she made him feel.
“I think she was larger than life, an amazing figure,” he said. “She definitely put Augusta on the map, very opulent. She was a force to be reckoned with.”
Norman, born September 15, 1945, grew up in the Garden City at the height of segregation. A different time now for a place with an Amphitheater that bears her name and the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, a facility she supported with dollars and time.
Ellis Johnson, a close friend to Norman through his wife, sat down with NewsChannel 6 the day she died.
“It was Jessye who endowed the first year of its existence and she has not yet ceased to support the school financially. And when she comes to Augusta, she always makes it her business to visit the school in an effort to talk to the children to find out what they’re doing, what they’re singing, how they’re dancing,” he said.
Once a kid in Augusta, Norman took her skills to Howard University to study voice and then received her master’s degree from University of Michigan.
She launched her opera career in Berlin, performing many times there. Her mentee and fellow Howard alum, Damien Sneed recalls the soprano’s wide range and diverse skill.
“She was able to master so many different languages, so many different styles of music from opera, to recital, to concert, to oratorical, to jazz, to gospel. She did everything,” he said.
Johnson added, “Once I asked Jessye, ‘Jessye, what opera house would you like to sing in that you haven’t sung in.’ She sad, ‘Ellis, absolutely, I think I’ve about made the circle. I think I sung at the major opera houses throughout the world and some several times over.'”
Sneed, who sung with Norman at her last international performance in France, has several memories working with her on stage.
“One day she called me at the last minute and asked if I could fly to DC to perform with her for President Obama,” he said noting his time with her off stage too.
Sneed told us her greatest legacy is the fact that she continued in a path that no one else traveled.
Earlier Tuesday afternoon, there was a moment of silence held at the commission meeting. Mayor Hardie Davis ordered all flags to be flown at half staff until sunrise Monday morning.
Tuesday evening, Jessye Norman School of the Arts held a community meeting with students to take suggestions on how to move forward.
Director Gary Dennis addressed the crown, emotionally at some points, about Norman’s time at the school and how they receive emails from France, Africa and other counties about Norman’s work around the globe. He also told the group that plans will continue for a concert and the renaming of 8th Street after Norman on October 11.
Howard University shared these words about Norman’s passing:
October 1, 2019
Dear Howard University Community,
Yesterday evening announcements on the passing of Howard alumna, renowned international opera star and Grammy-winning soprano Jessye Norman were shared with the world. Today, and onward, we will feel the impact of this significant loss to the arts, to music, and the world.
Norman was one of those once-in-a-generation singers who did not simply follow in the footsteps of others but staked out her niche in the history of singing. She entered Howard University on full-tuition scholarship at 16 years old and graduated cum laude in 1967 from the College of Fine Arts. She continued her studies at the Peabody Conservatory and the University of Michigan, earning an M.A. degree in 1968. On the occasion of the 1982 Commencement Convocation, Howard University conferred upon Ms. Norman the honorary Doctor of Music degree. A distinguished leader and caretaker of alma mater’s legacy, she served on the Howard University Board of Trustees from 2002–2014.
Her accolades include numerous Grammy Awards; the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal; the Kennedy Center Honors; and more than 40 honorary doctorate degrees from colleges, universities and conservatories around the world. Former United Nations Secretary-General Xavier Perez de Cuellar made her an Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations in 1990. In 2000, Howard honored Ms. Norman with the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. In 2006, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and served as the guest vocalist at our Charter Day Dinner. In 2009, she was honored with the National Medal of the Arts—the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government.
I had the pleasure of congratulating Ms. Norman for her receipt of the Honorary Doctor of Music degree and selection as the 2016 commencement orator at Oberlin College. During her address, Ms. Norman shared these profound and timeless words:
“You see, art brings us together as a family because it is an individual expression of universal human experience. It comes from that part of us that is without fear, prejudice, malice, or any of the other things that we create in order to separate ourselves one from the other. Art makes each of us whole by insisting that we use all of our senses, our heads and our hearts, that we express with our bodies, our voices, our hands, as well as with our minds.”
We are so grateful for Ms. Norman’s musical achievements; she was a trailblazing performer and created opportunities for others as one of few Black opera singers to achieve worldwide acclaim. Her contributions, selflessness and inspiration to communities around the world personify Howard’s motto: Truth and Service.
The Jessye Norman School for the Arts in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, is a tuition-free arts education program for talented middle-school students otherwise unable to experience private arts tutoring. The school is Ms. Norman’s response to the understanding that given the opportunity to explore the arts, students introduced to this positive means of self-expression perform better in their other studies and become more involved citizens.
On Oct. 17, 2014, during the University’s homecoming festivities, Ms. Norman selected Howard University as the grounding site for a book signing reception to promote Stand Up Straight and Sing! A Memoir—a deeply personal reflection of Norman’s life and work. She gifted this prose to readers to discuss her professional experiences as an African American performer and illuminate the picture of growing up in America’s segregated south.
Ms. Norman’s legacy will live in the students who walk the halls of Howard University. I find solace in the fact that the answer to her wish to see more faces like hers in the opera world may be found on our campus.
The lyric soprano is a warm voice, with a bright, full timbre that can be heard over a loud orchestra. Jessye Norman’s warmth will be felt, her brightness will shine, and her voice will be heard across Howard University in perpetuity. I encourage every member of the Howard community, in homage to Ms. Norman, to operate from the place inside you that is without fear, prejudice, malice or any of the other things that we create in order to separate ourselves one from the other.
Excellence in Truth and Service,
Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA
Photojournalists: Will Baker & Gary Hipps