Q&A: Quincy Jones


"I'm turning 75, and I'll tell you this," says Quincy Jones with a warm, easy laugh. "The one great thing about getting older is that you get to see how everything turns out. It's astounding."

Things have certainly turned out well for Jones, whose prodigious talents have left a unique and indelible impression in every field he's pursued. From his work as a bebop bandleader to his groundbreaking scores for such films as 1964's "The Pawnbroker" and 1967's "In Cold Blood," or as the phenomenally successful record producer behind Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (1982) and the guiding force behind 1985's "We Are the World," Jones has been an inspiration, a trailblazer, an educator and, above all, a singular embodiment of artistic integrity.

At 75, Jones will graciously accept a number of awards, honors and tributes coming his way. But the praise will have to work its way into a still incredibly active schedule. Jones has a number of recording projects planned with artists ranging from Snoop Dogg to Tony Bennett, and he has nine film projects in various stages of production. His tireless charitable work ranges from his efforts on behalf of UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics, to his work toward ending malaria in Africa. As CEO of Quincy Jones Prods. and chairman of the newly formed licensing venture Quincy Jones Entertainment, the man they call "Q" is still as driven and as passionate about his interests as he's ever been.

At his Los Angeles home for a few days between international trips, Jones took time to speak with Chuck Crisafulli for The Hollywood Reporter about his long and accomplished career.

The Hollywood Reporter: Looking back to your early days, when did you first feel drawn to a life in music?
Quincy Jones: I came from Chicago, the biggest black ghetto in America, with our own black gangsters. My father was a carpenter for the biggest gangsters out there -- the Jones boys -- black gangsters with a policy racket and a bunch of five-and-dime stores. All I ever saw was machine guns and tommy guns and stogies. I figured that was all that was out there. When I was 11, we kids broke into some place -- which is what we were usually doing. We got into this recreation center, and I was walking around, and I opened this one door and almost closed it again, but I saw a spinet piano in there. I walked in and touched that spinet piano, and every cell in my body said, "This is what you should be doing the rest of your life." I really wanted to be a gangster up until then, but everything changed with one note on the spinet piano. It's funny how it works, to go from that piano to Dizzy Gillespie to Count Basie to Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Paul Simon to Kool Moe Dee to 50 Cent. Astounding. You look back and think, "Jesus, how did this all happen?" Somebody once called me "The Ghetto Gump." That's perfect.

THR: A couple of generation's worth of artists consider you to be an extraordinary mentor and teacher. Who in your life have you learned the most from?
Jones: There are so many I learned so much from: Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Clark Terry, Bobby Tucker, who was the musical director for Billie Holiday. I went to Seattle University for a minute, but I learned my stuff in the street and the nightclubs. I came up with Ray Charles, and we learned a lot of it together. Being in Lionel Hampton's band was an education. And I was at what they now call the Berklee School of Music for about six months -- it was the Schillinger House when I went there. Ben Webster took me under his wing, so did Count Basie. While I was in Paris in the '50s, I studied with Nadia Boulanger, who was a teacher for Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein and Stravinsky's mentor. An amazing lady. She always said, "Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being." I learned so much from her. I met Stravinsky at her house once and almost had a heart attack.
You listen to what wise people have to say, and after a while your own personality is going to govern how you react to that. You have to get that education, though, because it's all about soul and science. I don't care how much soul you've got: If you don't have the science, you can't execute it.

THR: After so much early success as a musician, arranger, conductor and record label executive, you took a major turn in your career in 1964, when you created the jazz score for Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker." You broke down both Hollywood color lines and film music expectations with that work. Did it feel natural to add "composer" to your list of talents?
Jones: I've always felt that if you really do your homework with your core skills, you can have all the liberty you want. And I wanted to write for movies since I was 13 years old.
I couldn't shake it. It was like an addiction. I used to play hooky and go to the 11-cent movies. I could identify Alfred Newman's influence at 20th Century Fox, Victor Young at Paramount, Stanley Wilson at Republic -- I have no idea how, but I could tell. I could feel it. And I could tell when Benny Carter -- who became a friend and a mentor -- would do an arrangement for somebody, for something like (1952's) "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and he'd just get a little screen credit because they didn't officially use black composers. It had to be an Eastern European guy to be taken seriously. It was painful for a long time because I didn't ever think I'd get a shot at it. Sure enough, I waited 15 years, then I got to do a Swedish film, and then I did "The Pawnbroker" for Sidney Lumet. From there on in, we broke through.

THR: Having spoken with those who have worked with you on films and in recording studios, it sounds like you put your trust in the people you brought to your projects.
Jones: I think you have to. Why be a brain Nazi and stifle somebody's creativity, you know? You can't just throw a bunch of musicians in a studio and say, "Do it." It doesn't work like that. You have to know what everybody does, and find an organized way and a sensible way to let them have their freedom and still be part of that collective creativity. There's nothing more powerful than collective creativity.

THR: You played with Dizzy Gillespie, conducted Frank Sinatra's band and produced Lesley Gore's 1963 hit "It's My Party." You produced 1985's "The Color Purple" and executive produced Fox's "Mad TV." For all the focus and drive behind your accomplishments, you seem to enjoy following an unpredictable career path.
Jones: One of the proudest possessions I have in my life is a picture from Duke Ellington. And he said, "To Quincy, may you be the one to continue to help decategorize American music." I hate categorization. Hate it, man. Look, I come from a jazz bebop background -- a modern jazz background. So there's no way in the world you can be a brain Nazi coming from there. The mind's always open for every possibility, and you somehow understand the benefit of listening to God's whispers.

THR: Thinking of that soul and science split, you've not only been a creative force in so many fields, you've also been a skilled executive. Was it important to you to master the business side of entertainment?
Jones: I had to learn the business side because I got into such trouble (laughs). I took a band overseas at 26 years old. I got the best musicians in America. Two of them left Duke Ellington to come to my band: Clark Terry and Quentin Jackson. I had Sahib Shihab on baritone sax, Phil Woods on tenor -- the best. But I was 26. I didn't know any better, so all I thought about was music. I had the best band in the world, playing all over Europe, and we were starving. Later on, Irving Green at Mercury told me, "Quincy, this is a music business; you have to understand the business side." I didn't know a damn thing or care. I came up from a school that was not into bling-bling or all about the Benjamins. We didn't give a shit about money or fame. We couldn't care less. Because our idols didn't have any of that: They were broke. Charlie Parker died at 34 and didn't have a quarter. And I'm glad we came from that because I never wanted to care about money; I just wanted to be a good musician. But you pay attention, and you make being smart about business part of your core skills. You use business to make the music possible. You don't use music to make the business possible.

THR: You may be the only person on the planet who's had a chance to attend your own memorial service.
Jones: That's right. In 1974, I had two aneurysms. I had one aneurysm that erupted, and it didn't look like I'd make it, so my friends planned a memorial service. Well, I made it, but they had the concert anyway. The doctor said, "The good news is you lived through the first one, but you have another, and we have to go back in in two months." He said I could go to the concert, but I couldn't get excited. How do I not get excited looking at Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye and Billy Eckstine and Cannonball Adderley? It was at the Shrine, and the neurologist sat there with me to make sure I didn't get into trouble.

THR: Is it safe to assume that you're happy with how your life has turned out?
Jones: Through it all, the greatest reward has been my seven children. They kick your ass -- especially between 13 and 19, when they know everything and you don't know anything. But you make it through. It's an amazing process and a great reward.

The older I get, the more I realize how little we have to do with what happens to us. Adolphe Sax was the Belgian who invented the saxophone hundreds of years ago --
Ravel uses it in "Bolero." Adolphe had no idea that American slaves would get a hold of that instrument and come up with Coleman Hawkins and (John) Coltrane and Charlie Parker. He had no idea what was coming. My next-door neighbor is Art Linkletter. He's 95 and sharp as a tack, and he tells me all the time, "Quincy, you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans" (laughs). If you write the script, God's got the rewrite ready.

We think we're in charge of so much, and it's so much bigger than us. But you stay busy, because you're gonna get a lot of rest when you're gone. ... Sinatra used to say this every night, "Quincy, live every day like it's your last, and one day you'll be right."

THR: So are you still hearing whispers from God?
Jones: Oh yeah, man. God's talking my ear off.