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“I found out a long time ago that the best position to be in — in this city [Hollywood] — is to be underestimated,” says Quincy Jones, the legendary showbiz figure, as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Jones, who has worked as a musician, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, record producer, film composer, record label executive and film producer over a career spanning some 75 years, during which he has closely collaborated with an incredible array of the most important artists of his time, elaborates, “If they underestimate you, they get out of your way.”
The 85-year-old has been near the center of the music world for decades. During the 1950s and 1960s, he played with the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Dizzie Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He was standing by the piano with John Coltrane when Miles Davis recorded what many regard as the greatest jazz album ever, Kind of Blue, in 1959. In 1969, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which he arranged for Frank Sinatra, became the first song ever played on the moon. He scored the biggest TV miniseries of the 1970s, or any decade for that matter, 1977’s Roots. He was on set in 1984 for the filming of the most famous music video of all time, Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller.” He brought together dozens of the biggest artists in music history to record the charity single “We Are the World” in 1985. And the list, quite literally, goes on, as he continues to be a major force in his ninth decade of life.
Along the way, Jones also became one of only 21 EGOTs in history, if you count not only competitive awards like his 27 Grammys (tied for most among the living, and second most overall), one Emmy and one Tony, and non-competitive awards, like the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award that the film Academy presented him in 1995, his two special Grammys, 1989’s Trustees Award and 1992’s Legend Award. He’s also a 2013 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recipient of its lifetime achievement award.
But who is Quincy Jones, and what exactly makes him special? Those are the questions addressed in Quincy, a new documentary feature on Netflix that was co-directed by one of Jones’ seven children, daughter Rashida Jones, and Australian jazz musician-turned-filmmaker Al Hicks.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 20:27], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Quincy directors Al Hicks and Rashida Jones about the making of the film and its enigmatic subject.
Click here to access our past episodes, including conversations with Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, Justin Timberlake, Gal Gadot, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Kate Winslet, Aaron Sorkin, Carol Burnett, Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ryan Murphy, Natalie Portman, Jimmy Kimmel, Nicole Kidman, Chadwick Boseman, Reese Witherspoon, Ricky Gervais, Amy Schumer, Eddie Murphy, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Emma Stone, Jerry Seinfeld, Emilia Clarke, J.J. Abrams, Kris Jenner, Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Brosnahan, Michael Moore, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Margot Robbie, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lady Gaga, Bill Maher, Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hanks, Judi Dench & Aziz Ansari.
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Jones was born in Chicago in 1933 to a carpenter father and a mentally disturbed mother who was taken away in a straitjacket when he was just 7. The grandson of a former slave, he recalls a “nightmare” of a childhood set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, gang violence and poverty. What saved him, Jones says, was his discovery of music, which came through a series of events — hearing his mother singing, listening in to a neighbor practicing on her piano and ultimately breaking into a social hall and experimenting on its piano. “That turned my life around,” he says. “I’d have been dead or in prison if I hadn’t done that.”
At 10, Jones relocated with his family to Seattle, where his involvement with music exploded. At 12, he discovered jazz and began to study with the master Clark Terry, who also taught Davis. At 13, he learned how to write music. At 14, he met and became best friends with Ray Charles, who was four years older, and began to play trumpet behind the likes of Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine when they came through town. At 15, he was recruited to join Hampton’s band, but wasn’t permitted to do so until the age of 18, by which time he had completed his college education at the Berklee College of Music, which gave him a scholarship. Then, after touring with Hampton for a while, he moved to New York and began arranging music for others, employing his knowledge of instruments to craft beautiful ways of bringing songs to life. As he puts it, “Orchestration, to me, is like Heaven.”
Jones was a music prodigy — someone who processed music as colors (“I see music before I hear it”) and, even as a kid, could go to the movies and immediately determine, from merely the sound of a score, which studio was behind a film — and he got to grow his skills even further in his 20s when he began to spend time in Europe. In 1956, he served as Gillespie’s arranger and musical director on a State Department mission to Paris, and then returned on his own in 1957 to study with the legendary teacher Nadia Boulanger, developing a respect for all genres of music. “I always did all kinds of music,” he says. “Whatever you bring, I can do it.” In Europe, he also spent time with American expats like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who, like him, enjoyed a respite from racism while abroad. When he returned to the U.S. in the early 60s, his career took off life a rocket — he became the first person of color to serve as a vice president at a major record label (Mercury), he produced a hit album with a No. 1 single (Lesley Gore‘s “It’s My Party”) and, at just 29, he became Sinatra’s arranger — but he still encountered racism wherever he went.
Nevertheless, Jones powered through, often in ways that few — if any — other persons of color in Hollywood ever had before. He became the first person of color, other than Ellington (1959’s Anatomy of a Murder), to score a Hollywood film (1964’s The Pawnbroker). He became the first person of color to be nominated for multiple Oscars in a single year (he was up for both best original song and best original score at the ceremony in 1968). He became the first person of color to serve as musical director and conductor of an Academy Awards ceremony (in 1971). And he became the first person of color chosen by the Academy’s board of governors to receive the organization’s highest honor, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Perhaps most admirably, Jones is largely responsible for bringing to the attention of the world many other artists. Some, like Jackson, were far from anonymous before Jones championed them — Jones and Jackson met on the 1978 film The Wiz, which Jones was scoring and Jackson, then 19, was starring in, and they went on to collaborate on Jackson’s first solo album, 1979’s Off the Wall; biggest hit album, 1982’s Thriller; and 1987’s Bad. Others were known for one thing before he gave them a chance to do something else entirely, like Oprah Winfrey, a TV newscaster who had never acted before Jones discovered her for the 1985 film The Color Purple, which Jones produced, or Will Smith, a rapper who was hoping to transition into acting when Jones put him on the 1990s TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, of which Jones was an executive producer and composer. As Jones puts it, “I can see the talent in people before they even know they have it.”
Jones, who has survived many health scares, including two brain aneurysms that nearly killed him, remains as engaged with and enthusiastic about life — and music — as ever. “The last thing to leave this planet will be music and water,” he asserts. “You cannot live without it, brother. How long can you go? Melody is God’s voice — now, I’m sure of that. Then it’s clothed by lyrics, but it’s God’s voice.” He enjoys music both old and new (he says Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper “are something else”). He worries about his country (“Everything he does bothers me,” Jones says of President Donald Trump). And he is still creating and championing great music (he manages a stable of young talents including Justin Kauflin, an incredible musician who happens to be blind, like Ray Charles). Jones was “flabbergasted” to see the new documentary about his life, saying of its filmmakers, “They dug in deep” and “hit everything,” and applauding the fact that, in his view, “There’s not a drop of BS in it — not one drop.” Rather than making him want to rest on his laurels, it — and the enthusiastic response to it from audiences around the world — energizes him. “I’m just starting, baby,” he vows. “I love to create. ‘Retired’? You take the ‘re’ off of that and it’s ‘tired.’ I’m not tired yet.”
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