Opera legend Jessye Norman feels that her job, as an artist, is to both entertain and inspire -- although not necessarily in that order.
With that in mind, Ms. Norman and a select group of artists -- pianist Damien Sneed, Broadway star De'Adre Aziza, jazz great Wycliffe Gordon and Ms. Norman's long-standing recital partner Mark Markham -- will perform tonight at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The concert, billed as Jessye Norman and Friends , is a benefit for the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, an after-school arts education program.
Like Ms. Norman, both Mr. Gordon and Mr. Sneed are from Augusta. Ms. Aziza, who has family in the Augusta area, was born in Atlanta. Mr. Gordon and Mr. Sneed are associated with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Program, and Ms. Aziza was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in the musical Passing Strange.
"I think it will be a wonderful encouragement for the students in particular and the adults in the community as well," Ms. Norman said in a recent interview at the school. "They can see what has happened to these people because they were given the opportunity to study the arts right here in Augusta. It's the kind of things that really is the stuff of dreams."
Ms. Norman said creativity doesn't come with a map. It is not necessarily centered in Paris, London or New York City. Georgia has a reputation for producing significant talent, she said. It's an idea she does not want to see lost on the students at the Jessye Norman School.
"There are so many people all over the world performing that have come from this area," she said. "I once had a French journalist ask if there was something in the water here, something in the Savannah River."
"I don't know," she said with a laugh. "Maybe there is."
Ms. Norman said her desire to inspire affects every creative decision she has made preparing for the performance.
"All the songs I'm singing I've selected because they are inspirational," she said. "I'm starting with Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music because really, that's what this school is about. It about working hard to attain dreams."
Ms. Norman paused in front of a large painting at the school. The image, created by a 13-year-old student, will adorn the cover of the Jessye Norman and Friends program. It combines elements of abstraction and figurative work. Contemplating the image, Ms. Norman said that the wonderful thing about inspiration is it is often reciprocal.
"Imagine what this child will be doing at 23," she said. "I'm just so inspired by the talent of these children. I'm inspired by their enthusiasm. I'm inspired by what it means to the parents. I'm inspired by the fact that these children will benefit from an arts education."
Although tapping into that inspiration is easy when Ms. Norman is in Augusta making one of her periodic visits to the school and its students, she said that her thoughts are never far from the program.
"I'm always interested in what is going on here," she said. "It gave me a special joy, for instance, to learn that on the very same day the school was having a showcase here, I was singing in Paris. 'See,' I thought. 'We all have something to do today.' "
The arts, she said, connect her to the school and students, the students to her, an audience to a performer. What the Jessye Norman School of the Arts teaches, what Jessye Norman and Friends seeks to attain, is connection.
"Well, that's what this is all about, isn't it," Ms. Norman said. "It's what the arts do. It's what happens when we have the courage to stand up in front of people, offer a little bit of ourselves and say 'This is who I am.' "
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WHAT: Jessye Norman and Friends, featuring Jessye Norman, De'Adre Aziza, Damien Sneed, Mark Markham and Wycliffe Gordon
WHEN: 7:30 tonight
WHERE: St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 605 Reynolds St.
COST: $100, champagne reception included; $35 performance-only tickets available for college and high school students; tickets available at the door
ABOUT THE SCHOOL
The Jessye Norman School of the Arts opened in 2003 and provides free after-school fine arts education to talented and interested students, many from economically disadvantaged homes. The school offers introductory and advanced-level training as well as academic assistance for its students.
The school initially held classes at St. John United Methodist Church, but last year moved into its own building, a structure on Greene Street donated by Peter Knox IV . Ms. Norman pays regular visits to the school .