Author note: I had the treasured opportunity to interview unrivaled opera singer Jessye Norman in March 2016 in advance of her performance at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s annual Classical Roots gala. The soprano wowed me with her approachability and sweet disposition.
September 15, 1945 – September 30, 2019
If, as the saying goes, a life worth living is one lived for others, then Jessye Norman and her brother Dr. Silas Norman Jr. lived indeed.
Silas, the singer, physician and activist, and Jessye, an oft-awarded, legendary soprano, enhanced the lives of friends and strangers alike through performance, activism and philanthropy.
Two of six children, Silas and Jessye Norman began singing as young children in their hometown of Augusta, Ga. Their parents, Silas Norman Sr. and Janie King Norman, instilled in the family a love of music and learning, a respect for hard work and the importance of civil rights.
It was 1968; and the world was on fire with rallies, marches, sit-ins and riots. Educated in the importance of the Civil Rights movement, Jessye Norman engaged herself in the fight.
“I had participated in mass meetings and protest marches, carrying signs, exhorting NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE, and lending my voice to the song concluding almost every gathering, Pete Seeger’s ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Ms. Norman writes in her biography “Stand Up Straight and Sing!”
Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Ms. Norman—a multi-award-winning operatic soprano known not for arias, oratorios and spirituals—discovered her calling.
She competed in the Bavarian Radio International Music Competition and to her surprise, she won. “It wasn’t really until I won the contest in Munich, where I was competing with people I did not know and who did not know me, that I thought there was a possibility of making a living doing this,” she explained.
“Making a living” is an understatement. The five-time Grammy Award winner, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, has been a force in the music world since her operatic debut in 1969 in Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Ms. Norman responds to her many honors with humility.
Regarding the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, she said: “It was a lovely experience. When you have not wished for these experiences, and they simply come to your life unbidden, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s very humbling to think there are people considering you and your work when you are doing your dishes or picking up the dry cleaning.”
The disciplined, dedicated artist studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore; and at U-M, where she was attending when the U.S. State Department chose her for the Bavarian Radio competition.
She has performed for at least two presidential inaugurations and has received more than 40 honorary doctorates and a plethora of international honors, including London’s Gramophone Award for her interpretation of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, New York City’s Handel Medallion, the Frederick Douglas Medal by the New York Urban League, an honorary professorship at the Central Music Conservatory of Beijing, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in recognition of her humanitarian and civic contributions and the 2010 National Medal of Arts. She was the youngest performer at age 50 to receive Kennedy Center Honors.
“That was an unusual thing for them to do,” she said. “I had been a participant of them honoring other people such as Sidney Poitier. When I received this information in the summer of ’97, I thought it was general information about the event itself. I had to read the letter two or three times to make sure I understood that I was being honored myself.”
At the Kennedy Center Honors reception, former President Bill Clinton captured Ms. Norman’s spirit well, saying: “The first song she ever performed in public was God Will Take Care of You.
Her voice has been called the greatest instrument in the world. Her greatness, however, lies not just in her sound, but in her soul.
—PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON
Well, God was taking care of all us when he gave us Jessye Norman’s wondrous voice. From a church choir in Georgia to center stage at the Met, Jessye Norman has brought joy to music lovers and critics to their feet. Her voice has been called the greatest instrument in the world. Her greatness, however, lies not just in her sound, but in her soul.
“She has that rare gift for capturing in music truths of the human experience —truths that can never be fully expressed in words alone. Having brought new meaning to Mozart and Wagner, to Berlioz and Stravinsky, Jessye Norman remains an American diva. Indeed, when she sang The Star Spangled Banner at my inauguration earlier this year, I thought the flag was buoyed by the waves of her voice. I must say, Jessye, you were a tough act to follow.”
Jessye Norman chronicles her life in her elegantly written, 2014 book “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” In it, she goes beyond list making and richly details her experiences growing up in the Jim Crow south along memorable performances and lyrics of her favorite songs.
“Her mastery of language goes handin-glove with her mastery of music and singing…,” conductor James Levine wrote in his introduction.
Indeed, Jessye Norman has a love not only of the English language but of multiple languages. In addition to singing in German, Italian, Spanish and French, Ms. Norman fluently speaks each language. She did so, she said, by working hard and studying.
Asked how she pulled off two very different roles in Les Troyens at the Met, she had a similar response: “We do that with a great deal of preparation, a great deal of energy and a great deal of stamina. For anything that is challenging vocally and physically you have to be ready for it, and I was. So I was looking forward to it. There was Cassandra knowing Troy was going to fall and the queen wanting to bring her country back to its former glory. To have the opportunity was thrilling.”
Whether singing spirituals, church songs or arias, the vocalist said she gives herself thoroughly to whatever she is doing. That includes work with numerous nonprofits. Ms. Norman serves on the board of directors for The New York Public Library, is a member of the board of governors for the New York Botanical Garden, and serves on the boards of Carnegie Hall, The Dance Theatre of Harlem, Howard University, the Lupus Foundation and Paine College. She is national spokesperson for The Lupus
Foundation and The Partnership for the Homeless and is a lifetime member of the Girl Scouts of America.
Her utmost source of “great pride and joy,” however, is the Jessye Norman School of the Arts in her hometown of Augusta.
“It’s disgraceful that arts are falling away from the public schools,” she said. “Arts are still looked on as elitist rather than a necessary part of development.”
Now in its 13 th year, the school offers underprivileged, gifted children ages 11-15 private tutoring in dance, drama, music, photography, visual arts, freestyle writing and costume design. “Educators tell us this period of maturation is crucial. This understanding of relationships with others and with the world is something they will look for in the rest of their lives if they don’t get it in this period.”
Amazingly, Jessye Norman’s large heart has room for more outreach. “Our social ills are at such a fever pitch that I feel drawn to be able to work in that sphere, not only in arts education. Considering things in New York state and New York City, we have more than 50 percent of young men of color that do not finish high schools. These are troubling things to know.
“I feel that this idea and sense of community is somehow being lost. It is important for all of us to be a part of something, and it is better to be a part of something good.” She added, “Rodney King said with poignancy, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ Whatever I might help us to do to help us get along, that is my goal.”
At the time of his death in July 2015, at age 74, Dr. Silas Norman Jr. was associate dean of Admissions, Diversity and Inclusion for Wayne State University’s School of Medicine. His efforts to increase the numbers of African Americans in the medical industry, work in securing medical care for residents of urban communities and prisons and pursuits for social justice earned the humble, dedicated family man numerous accolades. At the same time, Dr. Norman served faithfully at church and used his talent as a singer for the benefit of many.
Dr. Norman took up the mantle of civil rights activism as a student at Paine College in Augusta. As a sophomore in 1960, he chaired the Paine College Steering Committee, an affiliate of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and served as vice president of Georgia’s Colleges and Youth Chapter of the NAACP. While there, he and 10 other students were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on a bus. Later, he courageously testified in court against the segregated seating rules.
As a student at the University of Wisconsin where he had a fellowship in medical microbiology, Norman chaired the cam pus civil rights group and managed the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). While there, he was asked to work with the Selma Literacy Project, where participants taught local African-American residents the skills they needed to pass the voter registration tests.
“To have made that decision to go and work in Selma with John Lewis and Dick Gregory and other people so prominent was something I thought was incredible,” said Jessye Norman. “Our parents were as proud for him as they were worried for him. Unlike other parents who might have protested, they did not let their worry deter him.”
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, he and three other men sat at a Selma lunch counter where the waiter refused to serve them. Police arrived, shocked him with cattle prods and arrested him; however, his harsh treatment only encouraged more sit-ins.
“It is a very interesting thing that he never wanted to write a book about it,” said Ms. Norman of her brother. “He never wanted to exploit the experience in any way. Until he sat and quieted himself and really wanted to talk about the horror of it, it took a lot for him to want to speak about the details.” She considered including some of her brother’s story in her biography “Stand Up Straight and Sing!” but said she decided against it. “It was Junior’s story,” she said. “We had to respect that.”
Dr. Norman’s participation in multiple music groups was his “celebration of the uplifting power of music and a reminder of the beauty of which people are capable.”
Not long after becoming director SNCC, Dr. Norman was drafted. He received orders to go to Vietnam and then, finally, his application as conscientious objector was approved. Instead of war, he went north to WSU medical school where he found other ways to serve.
“His work as a physician and civil rights leader stemmed from this dedication,” said Dr. Silas P. Norman (III), associate professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan and one of Silas Norman Jr.’s three sons. “He was also a man of strong faith and dedication to his church and the work of the church to help those in need. He had a strong focus on uplifting those in society that are often marginalized including African-Americans, the poor and the HIV positive. He lived his faith as exemplified by his participation and leadership in multiple medical and community associations.”
In serving the underserved, Dr. Norman was active with the Detroit Health Care for the Homeless project and the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion, which sought care for the uninsured; the Community Health Awareness Group Inc., which supports those affected by HIV and AIDS; and Doctors for Detroit. Dr. Norman had also been medical director at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, chief medical officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections and medical director for the Wayne County Jails.
As a member of the board at Paine College, Dr. Norman consistently contributed funds toward students’ tuition. And when Algea Harrison, Ph.D., a longtime friend and fellow congregant at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, decided to start a scholarship for members of the music and dance department at U-M, she asked Dr. Norman for assistance. “He joined me immediately and gave every year for 12 years in the name of his parents.”
In addition, Dr. Norman was a passionate choir member, participating in three adult choirs at church and a gospel quartet. “Silas had a unique voice, a very deep voice that stood out no matter what group he was singing with,” said Dr. Harrison.
Most notably, he performed with the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, one of the oldest African-American choirs in the nation. “He was an example of unselfish service, who did most of his service at the Chorale under the radar. We wouldn’t consider taking a trip without Silas blessing the trip. He was our spiritual leader,” said Donald Robinson, vice chair of the Brazeal Dennard board of directors.
“The first time I heard Handel’s Messiah, my brother was singing the bass part,” recalled Jessye Norman. “I have heard a lot of performances of Handel’s Messiah over the years, and I still like that one the best.”
In light of all he had seen and endured, his son said, Dr. Norman’s participation in multiple music groups was his “celebration of the uplifting power of music and a reminder of the beauty of which people are capable.”
When asked about her brother’s greatest accomplishment, Ms. Norman did not cite Dr. Norman’s music, activism, Alumni Achievement Award from the United Negro College Fund or his WSU School of Medicine’s Trailblazer award. She simply said: “I would have to say his three boys. They are wonderful, talented, concerned men. My brother gave a great deal to the outside world, but he was devoted to his family. I don’t
Dr. Silas P. Norman recalled fondly the day his son (also named Silas) was born. “Dad got to the hospital to see him faster than I thought anyone could,” he said. “His holding my son, the fourth generation of Silas’, and seeing his smile… There were few things that filled dad with more pride than his grandchildren.”