Quincy Jones Gives Us a Glimpse Into the Life of a Musical Legend
He’s won 27 Grammys, produced the best-selling album of all time, and worked with Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Oprah Winfrey. In Los Angeles’ first-ever L.A. Icon interview, he looks back on his life and times
Quincy Jones settles into a massive couch in the living room of the 25,000-square-foot house he built at the top of Bel-Air Road. Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal a 180-degree view of the city below. Inside, there’s plenty to see as well: His Oscar sits atop a Bösendorfer grand piano; his Emmy nestles on the bar; there are photos of him with family (he has seven children, among them actress Rashida Jones), friends, superstars, world leaders. Jones has always been a good-looking cat. But it’s his warm, melodic voice that pulls you closer. Above us, a circular ceiling is divided into 12 panels to represent, he says, “the 12 notes on the scale, the 12 signs of the zodiac, and the apostles—the whole thing.” I ask whether he has a name for this room. Yes, he says: “H-O-M-E. Home.”
You’ve broken so many glass ceilings in music, film, and television over the past six decades, and you’ve got an amazing eye for emerging talent. Whom do you admire musically today?
Bruno Mars. Kendrick Lamar, I love—he’s a hero. Common—we’re old friends. Jennifer Hudson. Snoop Dogg forever. Dr. Dre, Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga. LL Cool, Ice T, Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee. Melle Mel to me is like the godfather of rap. He never pimped a hood. Ludacris, John Legend. They’re all like my little brothers, you know, great people.
You run a management company that advises young artists as well, right?
I’ve got 17 of the most talented young people in the world. We manage them and book them. We travel together—we call it Global Gumbo All-Stars. They are so hot, you can’t believe it.
Why take on little babies at this point in your career?
Because they did that to me when I was young; it makes me feel right. I’m passing whatever little bit I know on to the next generation. Maybe I can hitchhike a ride to the future with them.
Sounds like you hitched a ride into your own future when you were 15 and legendary bandleader Lionel Hampton asked you to join his troupe.
I even got on his tour bus. But his wife, Gladys, who was also his manager, spotted me and said, “Hamp, what’s that child doing in this bus?” Then to me she said, “Come here, honey. What’s your name? Get off this bus. Go get your education. We’ll get back to you.” And they did: They sent for me at 18. I had a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. But I quit after six months and went on the road with Hamp for three years. We toured the country, and then we went to Europe—all the way to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. It was the best thing that ever happened in my life. It opened my mind.
But you’d already had some early exposure to musical genius when you met Ray Charles playing music in Seattle. Tell that story.
I was 14. He was 16. Everybody would go to the juke joint for gambling, for food, for dancing, for sex. Ray and I fell in love with each other. He had an apartment, two suits, two girlfriends, a record player, everything I didn’t have. He taught me how to arrange in Braille because he knew I was a music junkie. I was absolutely addicted. I wanted to know everything.
Seriously, you’ve met or worked with everyone. I love how at the end of your autobiography, you liken yourself to Forrest Gump.
Yes. Ghetto Gump! I don’t know how it happened. I had nothing to do with it. It’s divine intervention.
Did divine intervention play a role in how you discovered music, too?
Yes. Daddy was a master carpenter. In Chicago he’d built homes for a group of black gangsters called the Jones Boys, and because of that my brother and I saw dead bodies, tommy guns, big piles of money, and we wanted to be baby gangsters. So after we moved to Bremerton, Washington, we were like little street rats. One night we broke into the local rec center because we heard they had lemon meringue pie and three kinds of ice cream. Well, we ate up all the ice cream, had a food fight, then walked around to the offices. In one office I saw a piano. I almost walked out and closed the door, but something said, “Idiot, go back into that room now.” I didn’t know that human beings played instruments, you know? But when I touched the piano, every cell in my body said, “This is what you’re going to do the rest of your life.”
Something about that instrument just pulled you in.
It saved me. I started on sousaphone, tuba, B-flat baritone, E-flat alto, French horn, trombone. I liked to play trombone because in the marching band, I got to march with the majorettes.
Your mother was in a mental institution. You’ve said that music is another mother to you.
Yes, it is.
Did you start writing and arranging compositions right away?
Little by little, I got it. But I didn’t know the language yet. I didn’t know what key signatures were. I still have some of my early arrangements. There’ll be a note with a little asterisk: “Play all of the B naturals a half step lower because it sounds funny if you play B natural.”
So you dived right in. Were you playing with a band in high school?
We’d play five nightclubs a night. First we played pop for the white kids at the Seattle Tennis Club. We’d have our little cardigans on and ties. Then we’d change into our suits and go over to the Washington Social and Educational Club, which was really just a bottle club. We played everything: rock and roll, rhythm and blues. Then we’d go down to the red-light district and have bebop jam sessions. That’s why imbeciles don’t know what they’re talking about when they say, “You sold out when you produced albums for Michael Jackson.” I’m not going to be ashamed of Thriller. Are you crazy? Get the hell out of here, man! We played pop music all our life. And R&B, and Philip Sousa marches, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. Ray used to say, “Be pure and faithful to every genre of music and go all the way. Just drown yourself in the roots.” That’s how we came up, honey—respecting every kind of music there was and learning the science of all of them. When I was about 15, I was at the Seattle Civic Center one night—I used to watch all the symphonies rehearse to learn how to write and everything—and I was talking to [the conductor] Toscanini. He had just been to Brazil, and he said, “One day that African beat is going to crumble the hallowed halls of classical music.” I think we’re at that point right now.
Let’s talk about Michael. You produced Off the Wall, which was a departure from his earlier work.
I wanted to see: Could I bring something new out of him? If I couldn’t do that, I didn’t want to do it because everybody was telling me that after the Jackson 5, “he can’t get any bigger.” I said, “We’ll see.” I watched him as we made the movie The Wiz together, and he was just inquisitive, you know? He knew everybody’s dialogue, he knew every song, he knew the dance steps, everything. That kind of curiosity really piqued me. It touched me. So I said, “There are some things he hasn’t done. Number one, he’s never sung about a real woman.” His love song “Ben” was to a rat. I’d been saving “She’s Out of My Life” for Sinatra, but I gave it to Michael, and he cried every time he sang it. That was on the first album. On Thriller, we went through 800 songs to get down to 9.
Had you learned about what it takes to put together a successful album after becoming a vice president at Mercury Records in 1961? You’ve said that at first, you did records with the jazz greats—Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong—but they made no money.
Irving Green, my boss and the founder of Mercury, said, “You’re doing Nina Simone. OK. But why don’t you make some hits for us?” So I said, “It ain’t no big deal.” He said, “Well, then—do it.” And I did 18 hits with Lesley Gore. No music scares me. None. Bring it on. Four-to-the-floor with disco? Hell, that was done in 1930 with Basie. That’s not new. It’s good to know where you come from to get where you’re going. I try to tell all these young cats now: You’ve got to know music, man. You have to learn the science of your craft. Someone will say, “Yeah, I used to read music, but I forgot.” Bullshit. That’s not the way it works. You’ve got to love it enough to work for it, you know, and get your tools.
How did you come to know Frank Sinatra?
We met in 1958, when I was 25, in Monaco. Grace Kelly called and asked if I’d bring a 55-piece band to back Frank up. Afterwards Frank said, “Great job, kid.” And I didn’t hear from him for six years. In 1964, I get a call from Kauai. “Hey, Q, this is Francis here.” I said, “Damn, I haven’t heard from you in a long time.” He said, “I just heard the album you did with Count Basie last year, and you took Bart Howard’s ‘In Other Words’ ”—it was a waltz—“and did it in 4/4. That’s the way I want to do it. Would you consider doing an album with me and Basie?” I said, “Man, is the pope a Catholic?” In two days I was over there, and I was with him for the rest of his life. What a friend. He used to say, “Q, live every day like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right.” He lived it, too. Between Ray Charles and Frank, boy—they could write the Guinness Book of Records on partying.
I’ve heard that you have a photographic memory, and I’m getting the vibe here that it’s true.
Yeah. And I have synesthesia, too.
That’s when you put colors to music. When I’m writing a film score, before I even write a note, I do charcoal sketches first, then watercolors, and then, when we’ve finally got the bass lines and backgrounds in and everything, I go to oil because that’s permanent. So you’re painting while you’re composing. Then the notes come in. The painting brings the notes out. It’s crazy, but it works.
Do you still play music every day?
I write it every day. I’ve got my score paper with me all the time. They always used to say that when you write for the movies, “you’d better have your score paper with you at all times because if God comes by at 5 a.m. and you’re not up, he’ll take it down the street to Henry Mancini.” Mancini was a dear friend.
You’ve become such a quintessential Angeleno. Did you move here in the ’60s to score movies?
I moved to Los Angeles because everything was here, from movies to TV to modeling to talent agencies to records. L.A. is my lady. I did the score for Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker—that was my first film, in 1965. Soon I was doing 8 a year, more than 35 in all. My first TV theme was in 1966: Hey, Landlord. I’d later do the themes for Ironside and Sanford & Son and the Roots miniseries.
Looking back over your history here, there’s another moment of divine intervention that gives me chills. What’s this about almost being at Sharon Tate’s home the evening she and four others were murdered by the Manson Family?
Jay Sebring was my barber. I was supposed to do the score to Bullitt, but I got appendicitis and went into the hospital. I was so pissed off—I’ve got to tell you, honey. Anyway, Steve McQueen and Jay and I all used to hang together, and McQueen asked me to come see a rough cut of the picture, and I took Jay with me. And Jay said, “Quincy, why don’t you come by Sharon’s tonight?” I knew the house on Cielo Drive—I’d tried to buy it once. Anyway, I forgot about the invitation, and the next day I got a call from someone saying Jay was dead. It was heavy.
It must have been. A few years later you have another brush with death when you have a brain aneurysm.
Actually, I had two. After the surgery to remove the first one, they said, “The good news is you lived.” Only one out of a hundred lives, you know. “The bad news is you’ve got another one. We’ve got to go back in, in two months.” That was scary. I was paralyzed afterwards. But I got it all back. I began doing yoga with Bikram Choudry. Me and Jeff Bridges and Herb Alpert, Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch. Everybody was in that class. Ninety minutes a day for 15 years.
Has music kept you healthy, too, because you can express things and not store them up?
Exactly. Let it out. Don’t hold onto it. If anybody does something bad to you, you don’t have to worry about getting even. The higher powers will take care of it. They do every time.
Pisces dream a lot, but I know my rising sign, which is Leo, and he says, “Enough dreaming, sucker. Let’s execute.” Even when I was shining shoes, I developed an attitude like I’m going to give everything that’s in me to the process. I save nothing. I say to my kids, “Empty the cup every time. It always comes back twice as full when you’re giving.”
That is a perfect segue to discuss “We Are the World,” which you recorded in 1985 to raise millions for Ethiopian famine victims. I watched the video again recently and had forgotten just how many superstars were in the room—what was it, 46? I’m told you kept everyone in line by posting a sign that read Check Your Egos at the Door.
Can you imagine the moment where I had to tell 46 people that only 21 could sing solos? Ooh, la, la! But they came in with their hearts in the right place. They really did. That stuff about “check your ego at the door” wasn’t necessary. They all came with the right attitude. All I said was, “If you guys don’t behave, I’m going to have Stevie [Wonder] and Ray [Charles] drive you home!”
That same year you produced The Color Purple. What did you learn doing that film?
I discovered the power of being underestimated, because if they overestimate you, they get in the way. If they underestimate you, they get out of the way.
It’s wild to me that you cast Oprah Winfrey in that film after seeing her on her local Chicago TV show. And you gave Will Smith his first acting role, too, in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Oprah got $35,000 for that movie. Now she’s worth $3 billion.
And Will is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
And he should have gotten an Oscar nomination this year.
I agree. That’s a problem.
I want to come back to that in a minute. First, I’m wondering how difficult it was in 1990 to get a show about a rapper green-lit?
I took [music mogul] Benny Medina to the pitch at NBC because the show was based on his life story, growing up in Beverly Hills. And I loved [NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff.
But America didn’t know what rap was then.
No, they didn’t. We helped usher it in. That and the 1989 album I produced, Back on the Block, which featured Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel and Ice T. You know, you’ve got to take chances. I love to take chances. I always say you can’t get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F.
Yeah, well, starting a magazine is nothing if not risky. Did you always envision Vibe, which you launched in 1993, as a Rolling Stone about black musicians?
I said, “I don’t want to eliminate rhythm and blues just to put hip-hop in. It should be all of black music in there.” And that’s what we did, and we got in Rolling Stone’s face. It was fun.
Let’s get back to the Oscars. You used to sit on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and have been outspoken about its lack of diversity. In 1971, you were the first African American to conduct an Oscars telecast.
I’ve got a whole stack like that. First conductor. First producer. First vice president of an American record label. But that means “only,” so that doesn’t do it for me.
What do you think of the academy’s proposal to add more women and “people of color” to its ranks? I mean, it’s 2016 already. Seems like the time has come.
It’s a start. Like the Chinese say: Step by step by step, no problem. Louis Armstrong said, “Play it, don’t say it.” Do it. Walk the talk.
Well, you’ve definitely played your share.
I’m just starting. All my life, honey, my only fear I’ve ever had—I don’t fear nothing—was that I’d not be prepared for a great opportunity. And I was prepared.