I can tell you right up front, it is going to be impossible to begin to cover the career of Quincy Jones in this article. If you are a fan of this man, who has at various times worked as a musician, producer, songwriter, singer and record company executive, you might as well plan to buy his book, due out this fall.I can tell you right up front, it is going to be impossible to begin to cover the career of Quincy Jones in this article. If you are a fan of this man, who has at various times worked as a musician, producer, songwriter, singer and record company executive, you might as well plan to buy his book, due out this fall.
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And while you’re at it, you will want to check out the newly released The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones, a four-disc history of Jones and his musical legacy, released Rhino Records. Included on the discs are recordings ranging from Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra to Michael Jackson and Lesley Gore. Other tracks feature George Benson, Donna Summer, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Paul Simon, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra and Count Basie and His Orchestra.
Jones has at various times in his career worked as a musician with Bumps Blackwell, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. He produced records for Lesley Gore, Dinah Washington, Brooks Benton, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and the worldwide hit “We Are The World.”
As a composer for television and the movies, Jones scored The Pawnbroker, Mirage, Walk Don’t Run, The Slender Thread, In Cold Blood, Sanford and Son, Ironside, the first Bill Cosby show, the first episode of Roots and The Wiz. As a movie producer he worked on The Color Purple, casting Whoopie Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
In 1961 he joined Mercury Records as an A&R man, and the following year was named vice president, thus becoming the first black man to bear that title at a white-owned label.
Born in Chicago in 1933, Jones grew up under less than the best of conditions. His mother, from whom he gained his love for music, was sent to a mental institution when he was a child, and he and his brother, Lloyd, were quick to learn the way of the streets. After his mother was institutionalized, Quincy and Lloyd went to live with their grandmother in Louisville but both of them missed their father. The three were eventually reunited and returned to Chicago for a brief period of time before moving on to Bremerton, Washington. They later moved to Seattle, where Quincy remained until he graduated from high school and pursued music via a scholarship to Schillinger House, which is not the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Jones discovered the piano when he still lived in Chicago, but it was in Washington that he really began developing as a musician. His father had remarried and worked long hours; his step-mother favored her children and the children she had with Quincy’s father, so he and Lloyd continued to develop their street knowledge. One night they broke into the recreation center, a placed called the Armory, to find food. Quincy wandered into another room and found the center’s piano. As he says in his book, “That’s where I began to find peace. I was 11.”
Quincy became active in the school choir and band, learning to play a variety of instruments including trumpet, drums, tuba, B-flat baritone horn, French Horn, E-flat alto horn, sousaphone and piano.
In Seattle he hung out with a very young Ray Charles, only two years his senior but already playing clubs and living on his own. He also sang in a gospel group. Trumpeter Clark Terry took Quincy under his wing, and Jones says, “He taught me and talked to me and gave me confidence to get out there and see what I could do on my own.”
He spent some time in Europe, which freed him from the racial tension he had to deal with in the U.S. There jazz was appreciated, and he was musical director of Barclay Records, owned by Eddie Barclay and Nadia Boulanger, the famous composition instructor who had among her students Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland. Jones studied under Boulanger in order to learn counterpoint, orchestration and composition.
“I got meet incredible people…James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Francoise Sagon, Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso and Porfirio Rubirosa. That year in Paris was wonderful.”
It is amazing that Jones could remember all the aspects of his career in order to put it into book format.
“The book as five-and-a-half years of writing and remembering,” says Jones. “I underestimated it, I admit it. There was so much to the writing and rewriting. You just sit down and use power and work it out. I never looked back before; I got surprises, painful things, revelations, a lot of joyful surprises too, just dealing with it.”
Jones continues to explain how the book came about. “Joni Evans at Random House stayed on me to write the book, so we picked a writer to work with us. Then I found out you have to sit down and start to figure it out yourself. You just keep going; you shape it; there’s a tone; you can’t say here’s something on tape, go from there.
“I’m very visual—when I see a misspelled word, it jumps at me. The form and shape and tone are so important. I dealt with drama, TV, film, magazines, music, written word, where you have to convey that same emotion through the written world. I’ve always respected great writers but even more now. Words can be very powerful.”
Jones’s music is also powerful. He compares music with painting. “If you put your parameters first then you have real freedom. So I set up a form or contour, like charcoal sketches, then as I do with more contour; the music starts to come, then I get into pastels. Then there is orchestration, which is the oils. Orchestration feels like painting. It’s like you have a palate and brush and you can paint your colors with flute, or whatever instrument you want to. You can paint forever.”
Like a visual artist and his canvas, Jones has to know when the song is finished.
“When you try to take over God’s job is when you fall apart,” he says. “You will just know when it’s time to stop. I always say listen to God’s whispers. That whisper is never wrong. I trusted it for a long long time. As a little kid, I’d go in that closet and listen to whispers and turn negative feelings into something beautiful and positive energy. I knew that if those negative feelings would turn back on me it would destroy me. You try to transform them into something really beautiful. It tanks your soul; it makes you feel good inside; it paints your soul the right color.”
Jones says he doesn’t necessarily work best under pressure although he finds himself doing it so much of the time. “I don’t work better under the pressure, not really. I’ve done it all my life; that’s what happens. Your mouth writes a check your body can’t cash. I remember there were times I did eight movies a year. Spielberg says he loves it when a lot of chaos is happening. I’m the same way. All those projects are huge—it’s challenging; it makes you pay attention. It’s funny, it relates back to my core craft, back to orchestration and arranging. I relate everything to that. It’s the thing that I feel most comfortable with, and I apply that kind of thinking to movies, TV, whatever I do. It forces you to organize the project. I look at the final thing first, and then start to work back in my mind as to what the details are. And in the course of trying to execute, you have to leave space for God to walk through there.
“I remember I was doing the music for the Grammy’s and Christopher Reeves said he didn’t want Superman music. You have to be able to change, you have to relax with danger and just go with it. That’s when you have to listen to the whisper.”
Jones has always played a variety of music, so it should come as no surprise that he moves through jazz, hip-hop, popular music, and R&B with ease. His explanation for the phenomenon is simple.
“When I started playing music out, when I was 12 years old, we’d play white tennis clubs, then move to the black clubs playing R&B to strippers and then we’d go play bebop, all in the same night. In school the next day we’d be playing Sousa and the schottische, so all my life that’s all we did.”
“When I lived in France, it was fantastic to open your head, hear African, Brazilian, Swedish music. If you go in every country, eat their food, listen to the music, speak their language, you will know their world. Listen to their folk music, those three things-food, language, and music-caress each other.”
Jones is adamant about teaching the wide range of America’s music culture to the children. “We need to keep music appreciation in schools. When there’s a lack of money, the first thing that goes is the popular music budget, but they keep European music in. I know for the rest of my days I’m gonna try to do what I can to turn that around.”
It doesn’t seem possible that anyone alive today has not been influenced in some part by a piece of Jones’s work. He says that he does hear some of those influences in modern pop music.
“Yes, I do hear them, all the time. We all borrow from each other. I think it’s a compliment. We must get requests for 30-40 samples a week.”
“I’ve worked with lot of rappers; I think they are the most creative musicians since beboppers. I’ll send out a tape two weeks ahead; they come into studio and listen twice and they do it; they’ve really got the chops. They are so creative. In 1985, when I went by to see Russell Simmons when he started Def Jam, which was the home to LL Cool, they asked me, ‘Mr. Jones, what do the singers and musicians think about us?’ I’d never thought about it.”
When asked what advice he would offer to newcomers in the business, Jones replied “I tell them, ‘Think more about getting better…it’s not all about the money. If you do you thing right it’s gonna happen anyway.’
“I’ve never been snobbish about three chords, one chord, whatever-if the songwriter can tell it and express it the way people dig it, that’s what it’s about. And if they would do it whether they get paid for it or not. If you give up 150 percent every time, empty your cup, it will fill up double.”
Jones paused a moment, then added “I treasure all the experiences, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”