December 5, 2021
Jacqueline Avant
Our Hearts Cry Out
Jacqueline Avant, 2016 Salute to Los Angeles HistoryMakers
Our world stopped here at The HistoryMakers on Wednesday morning, December 1st, when we received word of Jacqueline Avant’s killing. At home in the middle of the night and shot down at gunpoint, she was the victim of black-on-black crime, not in the inner city but in Beverly Hills. Nothing about it was right. NOTHING.
Gold on Black, Japanese Lacquer from the Jacqueline Avant Collection
She was at the point where she was thinking more and more about her legacy and finding a permanent home for her one-of-kind Japanese lacquer collection became of paramount importance. It was as if she, in a previous life, had been Japanese royalty. She had amassed a world-class collection that was sought out by some of the nation’s most respected art museums. She spoke of being intuitively drawn to her collected items. In 2013, her collection was exhibited at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas. She was as delicate and as strong as the lacquer pieces she collected. As her collection grew, so did her knowledge. She became a noted expert, giving lectures at Broadway Feder, Scripps College and Spelman College.
Left to right: U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, Jacqueline Avant, Victoria Kennedy, and Clarence Avant, undated
Her children, Nicole Avant, a film producer and former ambassador to the Bahamas who is married to Netflix co-CEO and COO Ted Sarandos, and Alex Avant, a writer/producer and CAA executive, were grown and doing very well. Her husband, Clarence Avant, former Chairman of the Board of Motown, was rightfully being touted for his life’s work, which was featured in the 2019 Netflix documentary The Black Godfather, directed by Reginald Hudlin. On October 30, 2021, he had been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Jackie and Clarence were being recognized for their lifetime of contributions.
Left, left to right: First Lady Michelle Obama, Clarence Avant, Jacqueline Avant, and President Barack Obama, c. 2008
Right: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant with then-Vice President Joe Biden, California, c. 2009-2017
Left, left to right: HistoryMakers Hank and Billye Aaron with Jacqueline and Clarence Avant, undated
Right: Jacqueline Avant, Nelson Mandela, and Clarence Avant, MGM Studios, Beverly Hills, California, undated
Life had been good to them, and they had spent their lives ensuring that others benefited as well. They walked their talk and, as you have seen and will see, their lives have touched so many—everyone from celebrities to business and civic leaders, and presidents both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as the average man. So, we use this time to celebrate a life very well lived… Ms. Jacqueline Avant.
1962 Schaefer Beer Miss Beaux Arts contest. Jacqueline Gray Avant is seated in the front, center. From the Collection of Audrey Smaltz
Jacqueline Avant was born Jacqueline Alberta Gray on March 6, 1940, in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Her close friend, the legendary fashion expert Audrey Smaltz, spoke in her interview for The HistoryMakers of how she and Jackie were finalists for a beauty contest: “We were the finalists in the Miss Beaux Arts contest. There were eight of us… That's me in the middle and just below me is one of my dearest friends, [Jacqueline] Jackie Gray Avant… we're still… best of friends all these many years later. Dee Simmons won that contest.”[1]
Clarence Avant and his then-girlfriend Jacqueline Gray, c.1966
Jackie Avant went on to model for the Ebony Fashion Fair Show and Audrey Smaltz became its famous commentator. Their friendship was forever sealed. It was during this time that Jackie would meet and then marry Clarence Avant, a music executive who worked for the legendary Joe Glaser and ABC Booking, who managed the careers of thousands of artists including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, B.B. King, Benny Goodman, Woody Dave Brubeck, Barbra Streisand, the Altman Brothers, T. Rex and others. In his interview for The HistoryMakers, Clarence told the story of how he met Jackie: “Well, Cissy Nash, Johnny Nash’s wife at the time… suggested that she had a girlfriend, we should go on a blind date, so we did… Jackie had to figure out for herself (laughter) my attention was someplace else… And I called her from London or Paris or wherever I was, and we talked briefly… Then another event come up, it had to be two and a half, three years later, and Cissy again said why don’t you take Jackie… Well, then that time it was a little better… Jackie was sweet, kind… [and] after a while it registered, [and now] we here… My wife is my wife.”
Avant family, left to right: Clarence, Alexander, Jacqueline, and Nicole, c. 1970s
They would marry in 1967 and their first child, Nicole Avant, would be born on March 6, 1968—the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the same day as her mother Jackie’s birthday. Alexander “Alex” Devore Avant, their son, would be born three years later on August 3, 1971.
It would be Clarence’s work for Joe Glaser that would take the Avants to Los Angeles and specifically to the 1100 block of Maytor Place. Here they would have active lives as members of the Los Angeles community and beyond. In 1974, Jackie became active in the National Organization for Women (NOW) and chaired NOW’s membership committee. She also served as president of the Neighbors of Watts Child Care Center in 1975 and on the board of directors of UCLA’s International Student Center. Their home served as a gathering place for parties, social events, political fundraising and social activism. Visual artist Phoebe Beasley, when talking about those who supported her early works, noted: “Clarence and Jackie [Jacqueline Gray Avant] are two of my biggest collectors.”[2] Their travels would take them around the world. Clarence spoke of one of their trips to Africa: “So, we were invited to Tanzania... the next president came was the President of Sudan, Jackie knows how to say their names… I don’t.” 
Left, left to right: Clarence Avant, Berry Gordy, Julieanna Richardson, Danny Bakewell, Jacqueline Avant, Rev. Jesse Jackson An Evening With Berry Gordy, 2012
Right: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant with Berry Gordy at An Evening With Berry Gordy, 2012
Her grace and charm would engage everyone. Essentially, Jackie was the Yin to Clarence’s Yang. For The HistoryMakers, it was Clarence’s Yang that first came into the life of our organization. He helped guide us through our launch of The HistoryMakers with An Evening With Harry Belafonte. His support came before it was popular to do so. Flying to Chicago, he witnessed our beginning with 1,000 people in attendance. When Harry Belafonte entered the room and saw Clarence, he greeted him with the warmest of bear hugs. Clarence would return for An Evening With BB King, The HistoryMakers National Planning Summit, and An Evening With Earl Graves. Part fun, part serious, and always the advisor, his interactions were often eager exchanges of information. In 2012, he finally agreed to sit for an interview. That was when we met Clarence’s Yin. Over a two-day period, Jackie poked her head in from time to time during our ten-hour interview. She knew her husband like the back of her hand and her Yin exhibited itself in her soft-spoken nature, her supportive demeanor and in her class and style—sometimes with eyebrows discreetly raised. She was always perfectly coiffed and impeccably dressed. Her laughter would often be accompanied by the slight tilt of her head. She travelled with him to Chicago later that year to attend An Evening With Berry Gordy.
Left: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant walking to Library of Congress Packard Campus for The HistoryMakers' Video Collection, 2014
Right: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant at the Library of Congress, 2014
Left: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant at An Evening With Gwen Ifill, 2014
Right: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant at 2016 Salute to LA HistoryMakers
2016 Salute to LA HistoryMakers: Jacqueline Gray Avant is seated in the front, center
Then, in 2014, they traveled to Washington, D.C. for the celebration of the Library of Congress’ becoming The HistoryMakers’ permanent repository. When we hosted a 2016 Salute to our Los Angeles HistoryMakers, we told Jackie that we could not find a location, and before we knew it, she had found us the perfect location!
Left: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant at An Evening With Debra Lee, 2019
Right, left to right: Julieanna Richardson, Clarence Avant, and Jacqueline Avant at An Evening With
Debra Lee, 2019
That situation would be repeated in 2019, when we were having trouble finding a location for our taping of An Evening With Debra Lee. She said, “let me check” or “call this person or that person.” She had become the person we relied on in Los Angeles. When Clarence retired and closed his office, we called the house to reach him. She would answer the phone and say, “He is out for his walk” or “at lunch—I’ll have him call you.” But then, over time, the conversations were with her directly. You could hear the excitement when she talked about her art collection, her work in the community, her children, and their work and travels. She never spoke in a boastful way, but always in an endearing and appreciative way. She was a class act and will be sorely missed.
Jackie Avant’s death happened so quickly and with such tragic finality. We, along with many others, mourn her death. She had just agreed to sit for an interview with us after years of gentle prodding. It would have been our chance to open up her story to the world.
Left: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant at their 25th wedding anniversary party, 1992
Right: Jacqueline and Clarence Avant celebrating a marriage anniversary, Seattle, Washington, undated
But now we, like everyone else, must hold Clarence, her husband of 54 years, her daughter Nicole, her son Alex and their son-in law, Ted Sarandos, in our prayers. More importantly, each of us must ask ourselves how we can help to change this rising tide of violence. Nothing will be gained by sitting on the sidelines. In so acting, let’s hold up Jackie Avant’s life and legacy as an example of a life well-lived.
God bless you and let God wrap his arms around you, Ms. Jacqueline Alberta Gray Avant. You gave so much to so many.
[1] Audrey Lavinia Smaltz (The HistoryMakers A2005.060), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 8, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 1, Audrey Lavinia Smaltz narrates her photographs.
[2] Phoebe Beasley (The HistoryMakers A2007.148), interviewed by Ron Brewington, April 18, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, Phoebe Beasley talks about the supporters of her early art career.