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Flashes of Quincy

We spoke with Quincy Jones about everything from 2Pac to Miles Davis to his adolescent friendship with Clint Eastwood to working with Michael Jackson. This is what he had to say.
March 18, 2015, 3:20pm

Nobody can touch Quincy's ear. Illustration by Brad Beatson. View high-resolution here.

Quincy Jones doesn’t need more deification, but he deserves it. Don’t ask me for references. I’m not a more reliable source than Miles Davis, who once said about his long-time friend and collaborator: “Certain paperboys can go in any yard with any dog and they won't get bit. [Quincy] just has it.”

Bono claimed Quincy Jones is the coolest person he ever met. Oprah described him as “what love is.” If you ever wondered how she transformed from an obscure Windy City newswoman to a car-giving cultural tidal wave, it’s because he discovered her while channel surfing in a Chicago hotel room. In real life, Quincy ushered Will Smith from West Philadelphia to that house in Bel-Air when he executive-produced, The Fresh Prince. The guy could go into a pound blind-folded and pick out Air Bud.

Have you seen Ray? Remember the scene where Quincy Jones refuses to tour the Jim Crow south out of principle? Since he was young, Jones has balanced that sort of social conscience with elegant compositions and stereoscopic vision. He was the first black person to be nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Original Song.” He produced “We are the World.” Before Dre became rap’s first billionaire, the aspiring mogul wanted to be Quincy, who had the original blueprint. Even his mustache was so influential that Billy Dee Williams copied it. I have no evidence, but I’m willing to bet that he’s the reason why Schoolboy Q was named Quincy.

In the 50s, Jones was the trumpeter and arranger for Dizzy Gillespie. In the 60s, he arranged for Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Dinah Washington. In the 70s and 80s, he produced Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. You can lean on these sturdy facts or just listen to “Summer in the City,” a cover so musically complex that it supplied the marrow for The Pharcyde’s “Passing Me By,” The Roots’ “Clones,” and Outkast’s “You May Die.” It’s so powerful that it gave Joe a #1 hit in 2001—an artist so anodyne that he actually thought Joe was a serviceable stage name.

And this is roughly three percent of Quincy Jones’ biography. He makes the most interesting man in the world look like an alcoholic liar. Gob may have coveted Starla, the Bluth Company “business model,” but she was hopelessly in love with the charms of Quincy. He was based a half-century before Lil B was born. He’s currently 81 with the energy of an 18-year old. A few months ago, I spoke with Jones in conjunction with his appearance in the documentary, The Distortion of Sound, a 22-minute polemic about the decline in audio fidelity. The conversation ranged from 2Pac to Miles Davis, his adolescent friendship with Clint Eastwood to working with Michael Jackson. This is what he had to say.

The Distortion of Sound focuses on how technology has ruined audio fidelity. Do you believe that technology ‘s ease of production has impaired the improvisational quality of creation?
I don’t think it’s so much that way with the rappers. Sometimes they have trouble finding a music guy who can provide them with what they need. I’ll never forget meeting Russell Simmons in ‘85. My son was a hip-hop dancer and a teenager at the time and he met all of those crazy dudes. The best rappers in the world—Russell had them all.

And then your son went onto produce for LL Cool J, Ice Cube and 2Pac…
He was a talented little kid and still is. He’s become a vegetarian and is in great shape. He was born when I was in London in 1968 doing The Italian Job with Michael Caine. Me and Michael Caine discovered that we were celestial twins—born in the same week, month and hour. It blew our minds. We just had a great big 80th birthday together in Vegas. It was incredible. We had Bono, Stevie Wonder, everyone there. It’s great to get old gracefully. But I don’t feel old. I still feel 24.

There’s no advantage to growing up – grown ups take themselves too seriously. I was just talking about this with [jazz composer and arranger] Johnny Mandel. He must be 88 now and we’ve been best friends for half a century since we were 18 years old playing with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.

Johnny told me, ‘Q, the two of us are gonna’ be the first dudes to go from infancy to Alzheimer’s without ever growing up.

Do you think this factors into the child-like playfulness that many artists say is important to creativity?
Absolutely—especially the jazz guys. I started in nightclubs playing with Ray Charles. We worked 5 clubs a night as teeangers. I had a great teacher [at Garfield High in Seattle] named Parker Cook. He told me, ‘you’re doing what God taught you to do.] We played everything from swing to Sousa and then finished our nights playing bebop until 3 a.m. at the Elks Club. We never thought about money or fame. We just wanted to be good. We never thought about money or fame. We just wanted to be good.

Do you feel like that’s currently lost in the contemporary desire to be rich and famous?
I never understood that mentality, but it seems to be the route that many take today—not everyone of course. That never crossed our minds. I met Ray Charles when I was 14; he was 17. And we spent our whole life together. When we started out, he sounded like Nat King Cole crossed with Charles Brown and he played alto sax like Charlie Parker. He didn’t lose his sight until he was 6, so he knew how to read music and he taught me how to read it in Braille. Those early jam sessions we had in Seattle were the time of my life.

What did you learn from Duke Ellington?
Between Duke and Sarah Vaughn—that that was like the holy grail of arranging and composing. The Big Band Era was my Vatican. I used to see every band from when I was 12 and 13 years old until my ears exploded. I saw Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, every night. 4 trombones and 4 saxophones and drums and piano and guitar.

But I wanted to be a gangster until I was 11. I was originally from Chicago. My father was a carpenter for the Jones Boys, who were the biggest black gangsters in the Midwest. He used to build all their homes. In 1941, they made $110 million from policy rackets in five and dime stores. All I saw was dead bodies, tommy guns, stogies, and piles of money under lights. I didn’t think anybody did anything else for a living until Al Capone found out how much money they made in 1941. Then he ran them out to Mexico.

So my father moved us to Seattle and he went to work in the Bremerton shipyards. But us 11-year old gangsters controlled the whole neighborhood. We broke into an armory out there and stole pie and ice cream and had a food fight. But I saw a spinet piano in one of the supervisor’s rooms and a voice in my head said to me, ‘idiot, go back in that room.’ I went in and played a single note and it changed my entire life and lifestyle. Every cell in my body said you have to do this.

So I practiced the piano and the sousaphone and then trombone—because the trombones were up in the front of the marching band. And then I eventually got to trumpet.

And while you were in Seattle as a teenager, you became friends with Clint Eastwood too, right?
I met him at the Trianon Ballroom. His folks had just moved from Oakland to Seattle to work for Boing and we’ve been friends ever since. I call him ‘Albino Red.’ He plays the piano and loves jazz. In fact, I hired his son Kyle to play some shows with me at Montreaux.

It’s been an amazing life. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with almost every amazing musician of the last 60 years: Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday when I was 14, Ray Charles, Simon and Garfunkel, Michael Jackson. But it’s not like I had anything to do with that; it’s just destiny.

I actually met the Beatles before they came to America. Paul hasn’t changed one inch since I first met him in 1962 in London, when I took Leslie Gore over there. That trip, I met the Beatles, the Stones and Elton John, back when was only 17.

What’s your favorite Miles Davis story?
I first met Miles Davis in 1950. I’d just left school at Berklee in Boston to go down to work a benefit in New York. I’d never been in New York before and it was just like paradise to me. Miles got me to come down on a bus to do some arrangements for him.

One night we went out to the Blue Note. Oscar Peterson took me around to meet all of those great musicians. So he ends up with me in the back of the car drunk and Al Hibler, the blind singer is up front with Art Tatum, the piano player who was also blind.

All of a sudden, I hear the car start up and Art Tatum and Hibler are driving. So Oscar Peterson leaps in the front and starts driving, but he was so drunk he might’ve been worse than the blind guys.

We ended up at a club and behind me, walking in with three of his girlfriends, I hear someone bark, “I heard some of y’all motherfuckers are trying to sound like me.’ And it was Miles Davis. He liked to intimidate people, but he was all bark, no bite—just like Sinatra. And they became two of my best friends. In his book, he said that I was one of his five closest friends and I was really happy to hear that because Miles didn’t just like anyone.

We had a lot of the same girlfriends including Juliette Greco in Paris. I met his first wife Frances Davis when I was 2 and he was always a little jealous because she said that I was cute.

You’ve made some great records with excellent musicians who never became famous and you’ve worked with icons. What separates a gifted artist from someone who becomes a major pop star?
You can’t compare people. Since I was 14, I’ve been working with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and Aretha Franklin and Leslie Gore—they’re all so different.

They kept telling me that I couldn’t do rock and roll records, but I told them that I’ve been doing rock and roll since I was 12—back when it was called rhythm and blues. I went to France to study for 2 weeks and stayed five years. My teacher there said, ‘God only gave us 12 notes. Beethoven, Bird Parker, Bach, Basie only used 12. Until God, gives us 13, I want you to do you.

I went all the way to symphony orchestras, brass, woodwinds and percussion—playing 28 years just getting my core skill together. Nothing scared me.

Frank Gehry used to tell me, ‘if architecture is frozen music, music must be liquid architecture. And I said it is, ‘liquid emotional architecture.’ My daddy always wanted me to be an architect because he was a carpenter, but in a way, being a musician is a form of architecture.

Is there a secret to any of this?
It’s strange when you look back and all these things have happened to me. I don’t deal with fear. The only fear that I had was getting an assignment that I wasn’t capable of delivering on.

When you get to a Sinatra or a Ray Charles, you better be ready for the task—but I was ready for it. And I’m glad that I had this kind of foundation where nothing would shake me up, and it was a pleasure to do.

Being a producer is difficult. You have to know the range and how an artist thinks and how to ask for one more take or when it’s time to let the artist take a break. If the song is the wrong tempo, you use the wrong singers or the wrong engineer, it’s all the producers fault. If it’s a hit, the singer gets all the credit. But that’s okay with me. It’s just human nature.

Marvin Gaye wanted me to work with him on What’s Going On and I wanted to, but it didn’t happen. When I originally was set to work with Michael Jackson, the Epic people told him that I was too jazzy to make it work.

What accounted for the evolution in conceptual scope and sonic experimentation between Off the Wall and Thriller?
At that time, I picked the songs and Michael recorded them. For Off the Wall, we were working day and night and he wrote 2.5 songs including “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” He wrote four on Thriller and by Bad, I said, ‘why don’t you do the whole album except for two?’ We brought in one of the 13 writers that I had at my publishing company to do “Man in the Mirror,” which ended up being one of his biggest hits.

A lot of the time during the recording of Thriller, Michael was on the road. He didn’t even know what we were doing until it was time to do it. But it all worked out good. My wife at the time, Peggy Lipton, knew Vincent Price, so we called him. We did whatever we felt like doing. Nobody can ever predict that sort of success would happen. If they do, they’re lying. Do what you love and what you believe in. I don’t believe in surveys. If you make music that you don’t believe in just because you think people will like it, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

For Michael and I, we did it until we both got goose bumps. And if we felt goose bumps from a song, we knew we were on the right path. I never thought about the fame aspect of it until Thriller and “We are the World,” and then I couldn’t avoid it.

How did your relationship with 2Pac evolve from when you first met him until he was killed?
At first before we met, he’d written some weird things about my kids—and then he fell in love with my daughter so that changed everything. I remember the first time I met him. We were at a late night delicatessen in LA. I was with [my daughters] Rashida and Kidada and I walked over to his booth and said, “Hey, Pac, we gotta talk.’ [Laughs]. I could’ve got shot, man.

So I told him that I didn’t like what he had said and then we resolved it almost immediately and we really fell in love. He was just a great guy. One time, he came by the Bel-Air Hotel to see me and I had a formal meeting, so he went home to put a tie in. That’s just a sweet guy.

Did you guys bond over a mutual interest in community activism and social justice?
Exactly. We were actually gonna’ adapt Pimp by Iceberg Slim and have it star him and Snoop Dogg. He used to call me all the time to talk about it. That was a different time for rap. I remember when we did The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1989. Initially, networks were scared to death of Will Smith. I said that Will was the last person anyone needed to be afraid of. It was astounding, man.But 2Pac died in my daughter’s arms in Las Vegas. We also lost Aaliyah and Biggie Smalls, all by the time she turned 21. It hurt her deeply.

I have six daughters and they’re all smart and don’t take any bullshit. They range from 21 to 61 and I love them dearly. But I will say that [the stress] of having six daughters meant that it was very hard for me to keep my hair. [laughs]

Rashida actually wrote a letter to The Source to defend you against 2Pac’s claims about you, right?
I was shocked and proud of her when she did that. She was so young. I insisted that all of them have a little bit of street in them, even though they didn’t come from the street. I came from the street and everything I ever needed to learn, came from there.

Jeff Weiss is a patient man. He's the author of 2Pac Vs. Biggie: An Illustrated Guide of Rap's Greatest Battle, and runs the music publication Passion of the Weiss. Follow him on Twitter.