Music is Jones' first love
EmptySpend a few minutes with Quincy Delight Jones Jr. and you quickly realize that he's not like most people. He is literally a walking music and social history book that includes more than a few self-penned chapters.
Musician. Songwriter. Producer-arranger. Label executive. Film composer. TV producer. Magazine publisher. Broadway show co-producer. Jones has done it all -- and still shows no signs of slowing down.
"Quincy is one of the great people of our time in music," says fellow icon B.B. King. "He's a role model for all of us young and old who appreciate good music."
Singer Lesley Gore, for whom Jones produced the No. 1 pop hit "It's My Party," once quipped to Billboard that she's "never known anyone whose DNA looks like a music staff." And during his 60-plus-year career, he's drawn considerable creative inspiration from the G clefs and C notes coursing through his veins.
Born March 14, 1933, on Chicago's South Side, Jones was 10 when his family moved to the Seattle suburb of Bremerton. Joining the choir and band in elementary school, he first tinkered with the trombone before concentrating on a gift from his father: a trumpet.
A scrappy Jones began penning the pages of his history book in his early teens when he would talk music and technique with touring artists who stopped in town, such as trumpeter Clark Terry and bandleader Count Basie. A lifelong friendship and musical partnership began when Jones met local singer-pianist Ray Charles. Two years older than Jones, Charles began gigging with him at clubs and weddings.
After graduating from high school, Jones won a scholarship to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, then called the Schillinger House of Music. That led to a fortuitous meeting with bassist Oscar Pettiford, who asked the fledgling musician to write some arrangements for him.
While in New York with Pettiford, Jones met such future musical giants as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and bandleader Lionel Hampton. Taking Hampton up on his offer to go on the road with him, a fearless Jones left Schillinger and never looked back. As the 1950s rolled along, he fashioned a lucrative career as a freelance arranger, collaborating with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Clifford Brown, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley.
"He always has a story," says producer-arranger Mervyn Warren, who has worked with Jones on several projects, including the 1994 album, "Q's Jook Joint." "Recently, while I was scoring the TV remake of 'A Raisin in the Sun' (ABC), Quincy asked me what I was working on currently. He has a counterpart story for everything. In this case, he was there opening night on Broadway when Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee were in the cast. There's no one he hasn't touched or worked with."
At the age of 24, Jones had recorded his first albums as a bandleader himself for ABC-Paramount Records when, in 1957, he decided to relocate to Paris, where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and served as music director for Mercury Records' French distributor, Barclay Records. After European and American tours with his own 18-member big band left him in debt, Jones resurfaced in 1961 to do A&R for Mercury and then made history when he became the first black person to hold a vp post at a white-owned record company.
It was during this period that he first tasted pop success with a 16-year-old Gore and "It's My Party."
"He hot-wires sentences in the most colorful way -- in that distinctive voice -- as he recalls the rich experiences of his life," says producer Glen Ballard of Jones' jazz-inflected speech. "He hasn't forgotten any of it. He's a raconteur who takes you from the early days in Paris through the herculean job as a bandleader. But the spirit that infused it all then remains: life, music, fun, love."
But there were still other dreams to tackle, one of which was scoring film soundtracks. His first effort, director Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" (1965), led to Jones exiting Mercury and relocating to Hollywood in 1965 to seek more film work -- despite the fact that this particular door was largely closed to African-Americans.
However, armed with support from such allies as composer Henry Mancini and jazz artist Benny Carter, an undaunted Jones pushed ahead. Besides ultimately scoring such notable films as 1965's "The Slender Thread" and 1967's "In Cold Blood" and "In the Heat of the Night," Jones wrote and produced theme songs for various TV series, including "Sanford and Son," "Ironside," the 1969 incarnation of "The Bill Cosby Show" and the landmark 1977 miniseries "Roots."
"I believe Quincy helped break the color line in becoming the first black composer to get name credit for his scores," recalls former Billboard managing editor and author Eliot Tiegel. "Before Quincy, Gil Fuller was a well-respected, sought-after African-American ghostwriter who wrote scores for a number of well-known film composers before his true identity became public."
A string of solo albums (including 1974's "Body Heat") followed on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss' A&M Records. Then, in 1974, Jones underwent two operations after suffering a cerebral aneurysm. But that hardly slowed him down.
After working with Michael Jackson while scoring Lumet's "The Wiz" (1978), Jones and the young dynamo partnered for a series of classic albums, including 1982's history-making, top-selling "Thriller." That was followed by the Grammy-winning USA for Africa benefit single, 1985's "We Are the World," which found the duo working with another R&B/pop icon, Lionel Richie.
"Quincy is a song career producer as opposed to a gimmick," relates Richie. "What he makes is playable and relatable. He mixes everything he knows with what's new today."
Jones marked his return as a label executive with the 1980 launch of his Warner Bros.-distributed Qwest Records. The roster included George Benson, Frank Sinatra and Jones himself, whose albums were a showcase for established and new talent such as Patti Austin, James Ingram and Tamia. He also illustrated his adeptness at melding together different music genres. For instance, on his 1989 album "Back on the Block," Jones offered up a cross-pollination that featured jazz stalwarts Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald on the same album with R&B heavy Barry White and rappers Melle Mel, Kool Moe Dee and Ice-T.
"Quincy was a forerunner of building and nurturing talents," says artist manager Ron Weisner. "He would put pieces of a puzzle together that no one else would do."
Adds Kool Moe Dee: "Quincy was one of the first guys to deal with rap. He understood that its growing popularity was becoming an integral part of the culture and musical landscape."
Hooking up with TV executive David Salzman after the two staged former President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration concert, the pair formed Quincy Jones-David Salzman Entertainment. Out of that teaming came such ventures as hip-hop magazine Vibe and TV's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," starring rapper-actor Will Smith, as well as the current Fox series "Mad TV."
Since then, Jones has gone on to co-
produce the stage version of the 1985 Steven Spielberg film he co-produced, "The Color Purple," which recently ended its Broadway run. He also scored rapper 50 Cent's 2005 autobiographical film, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." He, Siedah Garrett and Mervyn Warren collaborated on "I Know I Can," the theme song for last October's Special Olympics in China. He's currently producing the Q Series, a nine-CD anthology of black American music for Extreme Music, the worldwide production music unit of Sony/ATV Music Publishing. The first three of the 16-track CDs were recently released: "Cool Jazz," "Hip-Hop" and "Gospel."
"He's a definitive authority not only in his genre but popular music in general," says Extreme Music co-CEO Russell Emanuel. "He's worked with everyone; they've left an imprint on him and vice versa."
"I don't know if Americans knows what a national treasure we have with Quincy," says songwriter-producer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. "He's truly the ambassador for music for America. His biggest lesson for me has been don't stop. There are so many different things you can do in music. He's always stretched out and gone to different places."
And he's still doing it. A tribute album, titled "Po No Mo," is presently in the works. The 2008 Interscope project is being executive produced by will.i.am and Akon, and will feature an array of artists and songwriter-producers like Dallas Austin.
"This dude's hipness is like, 'Wow,'" says will.i.am. "Dudes like him and Prince ... it makes me sad about the music industry today. It makes you scratch your head and wonder what we're doing that we aren't able to do it the way these guys did it."
"Quincy continues to reinvent himself, but he never feels like he still can't learn," says rapper Ludacris. "And that's what has kept him relevant."
Between his projects, Jones has stayed busy being a mentor to the music industry's next generation.
"I feel like one of his children," says Disturbing tha Peace principal and Ludacris' manager Chaka Zulu. "He's taught me to live life to the fullest, retain my passion and follow my instincts."
Longtime friend and record industry vet Clarence Avant says Jones' unparalleled creative longevity comes down to Jones' ongoing curiosity ("He's always busyness, with 1,000 ideas") and being "young at heart and soul. He's a great listener for whom the best is yet to come."
Sums up Akon: "He always stresses to me that you have an edge when you're educated: Learn to read music. Learn your jazz -- that's where all this came from. Those who aren't educated come and go. But if you are, you last forever. That's his secret."
Additional reporting by Mariel Concepcion in New York.