Quincy Jones has been involved in so many causes, staged so many benefits and spearheaded so many initiatives, starting from the 1960s and continuing to the present day, that the word “philanthropist” often seems to be appended to his name just as often as “musician,” “composer,” “producer” or “27-time Grammy winner.”
But ask Jones, Variety’s Philanthropist of the Year, when he first got the bug, when he realized that there was more to life than business success or the Billboard charts, when he discovered his celebrity and connections could be exploited for charitable means, and he’ll tell you you’re asking the wrong question.
“I didn’t have a mother when I grew up, so I had to figure out a lot of shit on my own,” Jones says. “I came up in Chicago during the Depression, and Harlem and Watts were like Boys Town to me when I got out of there. They didn’t fuck around. I remember one day when I was about 7 years old, I went to the wrong block, ran into the wrong gang, and they nailed my hand to a fence with a switchblade knife, and put an icepick to my temple. I thought I was gone. So I guess that was my start.”
He explains further: “If you come from the streets of Chicago during the Depression, and then you go through Soweto, or the favelas of Brazil, or Cambodia, you automatically respond because you know what it feels like, you’ve been there. You’ve been out there as a kid seeing dead bodies and Tommy guns and cats with stogies sitting over piles of money. You see these kids, and they don’t have to say the words, you know exactly what they’re going through. It’s a universal kind of position on the pyramid.”
In the decades that followed, Jones’ eyes were opened wider to issues of social justice touring the world in the 1950s with Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, and his civil rights work spans the eras of Martin Luther King Jr. through to Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH and decades of work with Nelson Mandela. His namesake foundation operates on both micro and macro levels, raising funds and awareness for global children’s issues, malaria eradication, clean water and post-Katrina relief. His We Are the Future initiative helped open child healthcare centers in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea and Palestinian territories. He’s been a longtime supporter of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s Linda Crnic Institute and the Harvard Center for Health Communication, a board member of the Jazz Foundation of America. The list of charities to which he’s offered a helping hand is almost as long as his discography.
“Quincy has been with me every year,” says Barbara Davis, whose childhood diabetes fundraiser the Carousel of Hope Ball feted Jones for his longtime support in 2010. “He has never missed a year. He’s a philanthropist, but he’s a philanthropist of the heart; he gives in every way he can. I would honor him every year, if I could.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Jones spearheaded perhaps the most famous and seminal single philanthropic venture in the history of music, when his USA for Africa coalition recorded the single “We Are the World,” with proceeds of its sales going to combat famine in Ethiopia. Featuring a galaxy of stars, from Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen to Lionel Richie and Paul Simon, both the single and the subsequent LP went to No. 1, with the single selling more than 20 million copies.
“We raised $63 million from that,” Jones says, “but more importantly, we forced the government to spend $800 million for Ethiopia.”
However, while “We Are the World” put Jones’ name near the top of the entertainment world’s philanthropist list, it also taught him some hard lessons.
“You have to put (initiatives) together like a CEO would a corporation, or like Colin Powell would as a 39-year general,” Jones says. “You have to learn all the science. Right after ‘We Are the World,’ we were so stupid, we didn’t understand what the NGOs were doing there, or what it was like on the ground, so we leased a plane and sent over a million dollars of food to kind of put three toes in the water. And this was just before the Eritrea conflict, and the army threw it all on the desert floor; in four days a million dollars’ worth of food spoiled.
“So that was when Bono and I hooked up and said, ‘Look, we’ve got to do studies here, we’ve got to always do our homework and do this right.’ ”
With Bono and Bob Geldof, Jones engineered the single-largest financial venture of his philanthropic life in 1999, when the trio accompanied the Jubilee 2000 delegation to meet Pope John Paul II. After a 20-minute consultation, the pontiff endorsed the group’s plans for Third World debt relief, which led to a $27 billion in debt relief for Mozambique, the Ivory Coast and Bolivia.
In the past decade, Jones revived “We Are the World” to raise funds for Haitian earthquake relief, corralling a clutch of millennial talent like Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber.
A number of leading lights from Jones’ generation — most notably his “We Are the World” collaborator Harry Belafonte — have complained publicly about a perceived lack of social awareness from the youngest cohort of musicians, though Jones prefers to accent the positives.
“The important thing is that some of them do. I talk to guys like Drake and Common and Ludacris, they know. Will Smith knows. Alicia Keys gets it, Jennifer Hudson gets it. Usher gets it — Usher’s worked with us a lot. What happens is they know what your background is, and when they come to you, you know that they care. And you automatically say ‘c’mon, let’s talk.’ ”
Usher remembers Jones’ early support of his mentorship program, Usher’s New Look, which he started at the beginning of his career.
“He by far was one of the greatest supporters of my philanthropic organizations when I was still at a very young age,” he says. “He always said, ‘Usher you’ve gotta do something greater than just music, because what are you going do with all that you’ve earned and hoarded? You can have a house in Los Angeles and accolades and awards, but what’re you going do that allows you to live forever? Your philanthropic efforts should be more of a priority.’ And when this is coming from Quincy Jones, how do you say no?
“I’d say 90% of what I’ve done is down to Quincy’s influence,” he says, “and the other 10%, I’m just making shit up and finding my own way.”
It was through working with and observing some of his younger peers that Jones found the inspiration for another of his ventures, the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium. Struck by the United States’ lack of an official minister of culture — “We’re one of the only countries that doesn’t have one, isn’t that sick?” — Jones’ consortium looks to establish a standard curriculum for teaching the history of American music, from the African roots of blues and jazz through rock and roll and hip-hop.
“(Music education) has always been about the three B’s — Bach, Brahms and Beethoven, which is virtuosic, European concert music. Whereas the African influence is the life-force music, the rhythms that come straight from nature, from God. I don’t think the country thought this sort of music was very important (at the time), because black people were involved. You remember the old posters they put up when Elvis came out, saying, ‘Don’t let your kids hear this mongrel music, this African monkey music…’
“I ask the rappers now, in their minds, what was the year of origin of hip-hop? And they’ll say sometime in the 1970s, or they’ll mention the Black Panthers or Gil Scott-Heron. I’ll say, man, I was rapping in Chicago in 1939, with the dirty dozens, ‘The Signifying Monkey,’ ‘Shine and the Titanic’ and all the talking about ‘your mother.’ And all that comes from Africa, from the Izibongo praise poems and the griots, it’s ancient. And we don’t get it. Breakdancing comes from Capoeira in Brazil, and before that it came from Angola. Most people don’t know shit about the origins of their music. And why would they? It’s a big mistake not to teach it. Because it’s easier to get where you’re going if you know where you come from.”
Jones acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle enacting changes in calcified school curricula. He also admits it can become exhausting to see age-old conflicts continue to bedevil social justice causes for decades.
“You know what scares me?” he asks. “The Donald Sterlings of America. And there’s still millions of those, you know. It shocks you that your country in the 21st century is still talking that same shit. It hurts, man. It really does.”
Yet Jones is almost unfailingly upbeat when discussing solutions to these various crises, and tends to free associate in a deceptively nonchalant way between philanthropic efforts and music, film and entrepreneurship.
A discussion of efforts to fight gun violence in Brazil, for example, leads easily into a discourse on Candomble rituals, and then Brazilian music star and activist Carlinhos Brown, and finally to Jones’ plans to produce an Imax documentary follow-up to his 2005 docu “Favelas Rising.”
“I look at it all as the same stuff,” he says, and then takes an uncharacteristically long pause. “I went to the Berklee College of Music back when it was called the Schillinger House, and there were these two Russian mathematicians, (Joseph) Schillinger and (Nicolas) Slonimsky, who tried to prove the connection between music and mathematics in terms of left and right brain. It’s ironic, because I never wanted to associate music with mathematics because it sounds so mechanical, but the older I get, the more I realize it’s so true. There are a lot of connections, and I’ve always had an endless curiosity. I just want to know, how does it work? Figure it out. How does it work? Whether it’s music or math or a foundation or a concert, just how do you make it work?
“That’s the reason I don’t ever get cynical. I will not acknowledge fear. Instead of looking at things as problems, I try to make them into puzzles. Because I can solve a puzzle. A problem just stresses you out and you get freaked out about it. You don’t want to do that, you want to keep your cool and find a way around it. That’s the best survival instinct I know.”