Passing of Jessye Norman
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