To say that Quincy Jones is one of the most successful black musicians of the past 50 years is to minimize the accomplishment. Trumpet player, bandleader, vocal arranger, film composer, pop music impresario, movie and TV producer, multi-media conglomerate — he’s done more than most musicians of any color. When Time published its list of influential jazz artists of the century, Jones ranked alongside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. What has never been widely discussed until this highly readable memoir is the backdrop for all this hyperachievement. The grandson of a former slave, Jones was pretty much self-raised. His father was a carpenter who shifted his two boys from St. Louis to Chicago’s South Side to Seattle depending on the work available; his mother was a schizophrenic who spent much of her life institutionalized; and his stepmother was a hateful, abusive woman who assured that the rest of his childhood would be a loveless one.
Within the first 40 pages, it all becomes clear. Music was his ticket out. The “jook” joints where all those folks seemed to be having such a good time? They were the places that he wanted to be. Just how he accomplished that, of course, is an odyssey that fills the next 300-plus pages (not counting the appendices listing all his awards, and the multi-page acknowledgments of friends, family and colleagues).
The details are often shocking: eating rats cooked by his grandmother in Kentucky; running with gangs and brandishing switchblades in the Chicago ghetto; shining shoes, shoplifting and serving jail time in Seattle, all before he was out of his teens.
“Music was one thing I could control,” Jones writes. “It was the one world that offered me my freedom. When I played music, my nightmares ended. My family problems disappeared. I didn’t have to search for answers. The answers lay no further than in the bell of my trumpet and my scrawled, penciled scores. Music made me full, strong, popular, self-reliant, and cool.”
Twenty of the 37 chapters in “Q” (a nickname given him by Frank Sinatra) are in the composer’s voice. Interspersed throughout the narrative are contributions by friends, family and even ex-wives, offering a slightly different, and welcome, perspective. Brother Lloyd Jones recalls his disappointment at Quincy’s total severing of family ties once he left for Boston and New York; Ray Charles reminisces about his friendship with the young arranger while both were teens in Seattle; actress Peggy Lipton regrets the disintegration of their marriage in the ’70s; children Kidada and Quincy III relate their own struggles to win their father’s attention.
Jones covers most of the essentials: the stint with Lionel Hampton’s band, the arranging years (1950s and early ’60s), the European big-band tour in 1960 that left everyone broke and stranded, the time at Mercury (where he became the first black vice-president of a major label), the movie and TV scores (which lasted just eight years but gave him an international profile for the first time). And the women: Jones is candid, but not tasteless or obnoxious, about his many affairs (one of which, with singer Dinah Washington, derailed his first marriage).
This was the fun time, the learning curve, the jet-set period when he was working for the likes of Sinatra and Basie and Sarah and Ella. All of this takes up more than two-thirds of the book, and that’s as it should be. The ’80s and ’90s, the era of Michael Jackson, “We Are the World,” the struggles of making “The Color Purple” and the evolution of Quincy Jones as corporate magnate, take up the last third, and it’s frankly less interesting.
Jones unfortunately skips over a lot of the details of his film years, which lasted from 1965 through 1972. We get a little about “The Pawnbroker,” “In Cold Blood” and “Ironside,” but other significant scores are omitted, notably “The Anderson Tapes” (a pioneering synthesizer score), “The Hot Rock” (where Jones fought for screen credit for all his players) and “The Getaway” (his most refined work, involving soloists, synths and Don Elliott’s amazing vocals). Nor does he discuss “Roots” — mentioned only fleetingly by Lipton, but a subject that deserves extended treatment considering the fact that, despite his closeness with author Alex Haley, he was fired from the prestige project after completing only the first two hours.
What’s disappointing about “Q” is the stunning failure of his Doubleday editors to fact-check even the most basic details of the manuscript. The blame shouldn’t be laid at Jones’ door; everyone’s memory is faulty, and he is surrounded by people who could have assisted in the task. But apparently no one cared enough to figure out that his scoring mentor
Stanley Wilson was at Republic, not RKO; that Universal didn’t offer him “Dr. Kildare” (it was “Marcus Welby, M.D.”); that significant figures like Bernard Herrmann, Sid Sheinberg, Stan Margulies and Matt Monro deserve to have their names spelled correctly; and, most embarrassingly, that Walter Scharf, listed among Jones’ “late” musical heroes, happens to still be alive.
For all its factual errors, “Q” is nevertheless an emotionally honest autobiography. It’s clear that creating this book was a soul-searching, often painful process for the man — “cathartic,” as he put it in a recent interview with Variety. And that he, unlike so many others from similarly troubled backgrounds, found a way to break out, survive, and thrive despite the obstacles. That’s worth reading.