Quincy Jones turns 80 on March 14 — and from his perch high up in Bel-Air with a 180-degree view of Southern California, he can look back at one of the most improbable careers in show business. Even he can’t quite believe it.
“These were some of my mentors,” he says, reeling off names like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Louis Jordan, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry (“who taught me how to play when I was 12”), Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Eubie Blake. “You know, it’s astounding; every major music model in the history of America, somehow I was blessed to work with. It’s crazy. You can’t plan that.”
Jones — whom Frank Sinatra nicknamed Q — has, of course, long since transcended the world of jazz to make strong marks in popular music, film, television, philanthropy, education, social activism and as an ambassador to an unimaginably wide range of world culture. Through it all, he has kept his ear continuously to the ground, able to stay curious, current and forward-thinking.
If there is any record that encapsulates Jones’ position as a bridge, it is his 1989 album “Back on the Block,” where jazz greats in effect passed the torch of American music to another generation of rappers and singers. A Quincy Jones production has its own distinct sonic profile — a deep, rich, resonant texture polished to the nth degree. He cares about good sound, a rare priority in many circles these days.
Musicians testify to Jones’ ability to ingratiate himself with everyone. “Quincy has the ability to make you feel more capable than you are, and you can watch magic come out of your own efforts,” says ace studio pianist Mike Lang. “I’ve had the experience of working with him and coming out high because of how well you felt when you are playing. He’s very warm, very intuitive.”
“Quincy was great because he let you do whatever you wanted to do,” says Toto’s David Paich, who played on many of Jones’ most famous productions, including the 110 million-selling “Thriller” and “We Are the World.” “He was there to frame the music that was going on. He got you started and just let you go, just like you were on roller skates. He is the ultimate teacher guru when it comes to musical knowledge and helping people in this business.”
Tested by Sinatra
When he started out as a record producer in the 1950s, though, Jones was left to his own devices. “It was a long, lengthy process of becoming a producer because I didn’t know; I never thought about it,” he says.
But his deep background as an arranger for big bands — not to mention his studies in Paris with the 20th century’s most respected teacher, Nadia Boulanger — became an invaluable asset. “You can come in as an engineer, a singer, a songwriter, but I think orchestration and arranging is a good one,” he says. “You can identify things real quick.
“Michael (Jackson) used to say, ‘Oh, Quincy Jones is holding his head.’ You’re X-raying the density of the thing. Is there room for the vocal? Is it too fast or slow? It’s amazing, the amount of details. You have to be a babysitter, a psychiatrist, everything. And know when you’re pushing too hard. And when you tell people like Sinatra or Ray Charles or Billy Eckstine to jump without a net, man, you’d better know what you’re talking about because they’re tough. Frank tested me the first time we met.”
How does the art of producing differ now than it did when Quincy started out? “It hasn’t changed a lot,” he says, but “a lot of the producers now have assistants to do what they should be doing, what they should know how to do. They’re not schooled like the guys of the past. As a producer, you have to be 900 different things.”
Jones had wanted to break into scoring films since he was 15, having haunted the movie houses of Seattle near skid row, absorbing the styles of such composers as Alfred Newman and Victor Young. But he didn’t get his first shot at it until the age of 30 when Sidney Lumet had him score “The Pawnbroker,” becoming one of a handful of African-American musicians who were able to penetrate Hollywood.
He also wrote for television; the iconic theme from “Ironside” is his, as are the funky, jazzy, improvised soundtracks that he produced for Bill Cosby’s first, hilarious sitcom. He worked feverishly in Hollywood in the 1960s, but characteristically was dissatisfied with the sonic limitations of movie soundtracks.
“I was doing movie scores, and we would record in magnetic but they put it on optical, and the top strata got cut off and the bottom got cut off at 100 cycles,” he says. “So when we did ‘In Cold Blood,’ which was a very low score — there were basses and cellos — when it got to optical, it cut off all that. It sounded flat, and the ranges were cut off. That’s why I stopped doing movies.”
But Jones claims the introduction of the Dolby noise reduction system, which brought true high fidelity sound to the movies for the first time, was the biggest influence of the 1970s. “When Dolby came in, it was another world,” he says. “First you had ‘Star Wars,’ then you had ‘Saturday Night Fever.’ It was huge, man.”
Later, when Jones got into movie and television production and forming media companies, he applied his orchestration skills to these fields, like solving a puzzle. “I learned about what line producing is,” he says of his experience on “The Color Purple.” “It’s hard, man. I call it USS — University of Steven Spielberg.”
But he sees the sector that became his bread and butter as struggling. “The record business is in trouble,” he says. “We have 98% piracy everywhere in the world.
“I don’t think it will be like it was before.” But, he adds, “I think it will be three times bigger once we figure out what kind of app to use. Spotify is one I believe in very much.”
Can artists make a living through Spotify? “They will, once we get focused,” he says. “Not yet. And that’s what’s sad, because it would be hard not to tell your kids to be a musician.”
Rockin’ honors, new gigs
As he is about to turn 80 Jones still has an overflowing stack of projects on his table. He says there are plans to produce something like six albums, featuring discoveries of his like 11-year-old pianist-composer Emily Bear, 19-year-old singer Nikki Yanofsky and Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez.
He is partnering with Playground Sessions, which has developed software for teaching kids to play the piano and learn music. There is also an artists management consultancy inspired by Jones’ involvement with his multi-national band, the Global Gumbo All-Stars.
There are also ideas for films, including one on Alexander Pushkin; a World Peace concert he is producing in Hiroshima in August on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb; 80th birthday events in Las Vegas, Montreux, London and Tokyo; and his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18.
On top of that, Jones is still writing music, still working on a composition that has occupied him since the 1970s — a history of the evolution of black music. Originally announced as a symphony or tone poem for records, it now looks like it will take the form of a Broadway show and a 3D animated film. The latter, in his words, will “make the characters the instruments so young kids can get it without preaching to them.”
“In many ways, I feel like I’m just starting,” Jones says. Or, as he put it sagely at his Hollywood Bowl concert in 2011, “Once you go over the hill, you really pick up some speed.”