When Laurence Fishburne needed inspiration as a struggling young actor, he looked at photos of great artists to help him focus, including international opera star Jessye Norman.
At Norman’s funeral Saturday in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia — where Fishburne too was born — he said when he was “confronted with a lot of obstacles being a young black actor” in his 20s, he put together photos of people like jazz icons Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, author Zora Neale Hurston and Norman as he meditated.
“It made me feel connected to something bigger than myself,” the Emmy- and Tony-winning actor said, adding that his black-and-white photo of Norman revealed someone energetic, whimsical and vulnerable.
“So I am here at the request of Jessye’s family to grieve with you, to say thank you to God for sharing her with us and the world, to celebrate her life, her good words, her accomplishments, and to praise her for using her talents, her gift, her compassion, her intellect to lift all of us up a little higher.”
Norman died Sept. 30 at age 74. The trailblazing performer was one of the rare black singers to attain worldwide stardom in the opera world.
Family, friends and famous faces gathered at the 2,800-seat William B. Bell Auditorium to pay tribute to Norman, whose passionate soprano voice won her four Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honor. A private burial was to follow.
Fishburne, 58, said he wasn’t a close friend of Norman’s, but said she would visit him when he performed onstage.
“I was privileged to meet her many times,” he said. “I would always, always be incredibly grateful and humbled by her praise, and now I finally understand this feeling I couldn’t describe then. It was something familial about the way that she spoke with me and dealt with me. I felt like she was one of my aunts. And so in fact I have learned since yesterday that in fact she is.”
The ceremony also featured a passionate remembrance from Norman’s former colleague, Georgetown University sociologist and author Michael Eric Dyson.
″(Jessye) was black girl magic before the term ever existed. Before there was Oprah and before there was Beyoncé and before there was Michelle Obama, there was Jessye Norman,” he said as the audience applauded.
“When she arrived, when she made an entrance, we knew that God had blessed us with a majestic diva,” he continued. “When she spoke it was tremendous. She spoke unafraid and unapologetic about being black in America, yet she attained the summit and the heights of ecstatic proclamation as one of the world’s greatest singers — and yet she never forgot where she came from.”
Students of Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which Norman founded in 2003 in Augusta to provide a free fine arts education to disadvantaged children, sang Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the service, which is being livestreamed from Augusta.
Musicians Wycliffe Gordon and J’Nai Bridges from the Metropolitan Opera are to perform. Norman’s longtime friend and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan will talk about the singer’s life along with elders at her family’s church in Augusta.
Hundreds paid their respects to Norman during visitation Thursday and Friday at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church.
The mourners included Deanne Brown, daughter of singer James Brown — The Godfather of Soul and one of Augusta’s most famous musicians. There were sorority sisters, a church music director who met Norman after a concert, a woman who attended the then-segregated Lucy C. Laney High School with Norman in Augusta and remembered how her choir solos even then commanded the tiny stage. And there was a woman who went to music school at the University of Michigan with Norman and said she had never heard anything like her before or since.
Augusta named a street for her Friday just outside the Jessye Norman School of the Arts.
Norman was awarded the National Medal of Arts from former President Barack Obama and is a member of the British Royal Academy of Music and Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Her performance of “Amazing Grace” at the 1995 Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Sidney Poitier brought the actor to tears. She sang the works of Wagner, but also Duke Ellington.
“Pigeonholing is only interesting to pigeons,” Norman said in a 2002 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Augusta.