Depending on your age, you may know Quincy Jones for different reasons. Perhaps you know him as the executive producer and music composer for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or as the founder of VIBE magazine. Maybe for his legendary work producing Michael Jackson’s best-selling solo albums, including Thriller. If you’re really old, you may know him as a jazz musician-turned-composer who trained and played with household names of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
And if none of the above jog your memory, you’ve likely seen a viral interview he did earlier this year with Vulture where he gossipped about a whole cast of his celebrity friends, claiming Marlon Brando slept with Marvin Gaye and that he once dated Ivanka Trump.
Netflix’s new documentary Quincy, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Al Hicks, dazzles its audience simply by recounting a career that’s so prolific, it’s hard for casual fans to remember in full. When compressed into two hours, however, it becomes an overdue and essential story that illuminates the progression of American music and the indelible impact Black American artists have had in shaping it.
Jones’s electric personality peppers the movie with poignant moments and words of wisdom. To fully appreciate his impact, it’s worth carving out a couple hours to watch the documentary in full. But to whet your appetite, here are a few memorable sound bites from the film that encapsulate significant themes of Quincy and, by extension, the myth of the man behind the film.
“In order for music to grow, critics have to stop categorizing and let the musicians get involved in all different facets of music. We will die if we get stuck in one area of music.”
Egged on by jazz pioneer Duke Ellington, Jones made it his mission to help decategorize American music, encouraging artists to tackle projects outside the genres they’re associated with. Labeling musical styles has the tendency to box musicians into stereotypes, associating jazz with people of color, or pop with white musicians; gospel with a traditionalist lifestyle, or the blues with a rebellious one.
Jones was clearly drawn to particular genres at various points in his career, like when he trailed New York bebop musicians until they let him join their ranks in the 1940s. But his quest to experiment across categories also came to define his legacy. Perhaps serendipitously, he got big breaks from musicians like Frank Sinatra, who recognized that Jones could apply his skills to a broad range of styles. His industry-wide prominence positioned him perfectly to realize his vision of cross-genre collaboration, like the famous 1985 fundraising track “We Are the World,” or Jones’s hip-hop/bebop fusion record Back on the Block from 1989.
This particular Quincy quote, suggesting musicians “will die” if boxed in, takes an abruptly dark turn. But it’s a misanthropic undercurrent that runs through the film. Sitting opposite Kendrick Lamar at a photoshoot, Jones credits music with saving him from ending up dead or in jail—a prominent theme throughout Lamar’s discography, too.
Rashida Jones also told Entertainment Weekly that she learned about her father’s “need to survive through music” while shooting the film. Of course, giving too much of himself to his career and lavish lifestyle has also nearly killed Jones several times, like when he collapsed from overworking in his 30s or when he slipped into a diabetic coma in 2015. But at 85-years-old, the way Jones continues throwing himself into ambitious projects highlights how vital music is to his very existence.
“I learned a long time ago, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.”
Jones delivers this line to Dr. Dre in the opening scene of Quincy, right after describing violence in his childhood that left him with permanent scars on his body. The documentary portrays him as a man with a profound memory of his personal and professional successes and tragedies. The insinuation is that if lived experience is as valuable as creative output, Jones’ extraordinary personal history is at least partly to thank for his parade of smash hits.
The film portrays Jones as a person of exceptional character in some ways, which parallels his producing expertise. But he clearly wasn’t perfect. Jones had a pattern of abandoning family in favor of his career, and he had some pretty cutting things to say about famous acquaintances in a recent viral interview with Vulture.
Yet he is a remarkably gravitational figure. Even the wives he must have hurt by being an absentee partner don’t have anything resentful to say in the film—at least not in the final cut. And a number of his exes still spend holidays with him. Jones comes off as a man with deep and long-lasting friendships and a sincere interest in providing mentorship for younger artists, all while using his clout to promote social justice and political causes. In this context, his producing chops seem like an extension of a man striving to fulfill his potential in every aspect of life.
Jones’ philosophy, that music should never be considered more valuable than the person who created it, is particularly poignant, since black jazz musicians were notoriously mistreated offstage during segregation, while white audiences simultaneously went crazy for their music. The documentary touches on this a few times, most memorably when it relates how Frank Sinatra refused to make his black band members stay in different hotels from his white musicians, on the opposite side of town in Las Vegas. Jones refused to let this dichotomy affect him, in his own way. Once, in an interview, Jones said that he and Ray Charles shared an empowering refrain: “Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.”
“Ego is usually just an overdressed insecurity. I think you have to dream so big that you can’t get an ego, ‘cause you can’t fulfill all those dreams.”
In the 1950s and 60s, being a jazz musician was like being a modern day rock star. But The Mod Squad actress Peggy Lipton, Jones’s girlfriend at the time (and mother to Rashida), said he didn’t want to be seen as just a jazz musician or film composer. For being so successful throughout his career, Jones comes off as insatiable in the film.
Jones nearly died during the filming of Quincy, after going into a diabetic coma, so he abruptly quit drinking, partly because he feels like he still has more dreams to fulfill. The documentary is centered on the achievement of one of those goals: following Jones as he helps curate music history for the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
In the much-hyped interview with Vulture, a number of moments make him seem more boastful than he comes off in the documentary. At one point the interviewer asks, “What’s something you’ve worked on that should’ve been bigger?” To which Jones responds, “What the fuck are you talking about? I’ve never had that problem. They were all big.” He’s clearly proud of his accomplishments and has a fiery tongue, but the documentary tempers this depiction of him. Quincy points out that Jones is also humbled by his unrelenting drive to always do better and accomplish more.
“My feeling is [when you’re recording music], always leave at least 20 to 30 percent room for the Lord to walk through the room. Because then you’re leaving room for the magic, and records are about capturing real magical moments at that time.”
Whether stoking chemistry between bebop musicians and hip-hop artists, or coaxing a shy Michael Jackson out of his shell, Jones perfected the art of setting musicians up for success, then letting nature take its course. Interestingly, Jones didn’t seem too impressed by Jackson’s early hits as a child star. In the documentary, he calls it “bubble gum.” But when Jones met Jackson while producing The Wiz, in which Jackson played the scarecrow, Jones was impressed with his talent and discipline, and ultimately decided to produce Jackson’s solo records. Jones had access to the best in the business, and much of his genius revolved around assembling the right people for a project—a skill that notably manifested on the tracks Jones produced for Jackson.
“I don’t think [rappers] are aware that they have such a tremendous heritage. Sometimes they feel like they’re alone out there. But they’re not alone.”
As a genre-blending, intergenerational icon, Jones used his clout to help dispel the myth that rap was a rotten, insurgent force deviating from more “dignified” black musical legacies, like jazz, swing, funk, and soul.
At first glance, this quote suggests that Jones was launching into a finger-wagging diatribe about rappers respecting their elders. But Jones was sincerely interested in helping rappers achieve success and acclaim on their own terms, so he began producing their music and started VIBE magazine to better document the culture.
When Jones did interject, it was primarily out of concern that deadly violence was looming. In the documentary, he often sheds tears for friends from the jazz era who have passed away. When he cries at a 1995 meeting between feuding gangster rappers, trying to urge them towards peace, the tears seem to come from a similar place. He considers these musicians part of the same legacy.
Throughout Quincy, we witness Jones focusing most of his energy on fostering kinship between black musicians of different genres and eras, emphasizing the history and struggle they’re all descended from. Within that crusade, there’s still room for Jones to eccentrically assert in a conversation with Lamar that hip-hop beats originated not from the Bronx, but from praise shouters in Africa.
Instead of taking Bill Cosby’s “pound cake speech” approach, viewed as a factually-flawed and stodgy slander of Black American youth, Jones seems to adhere to the same school of thought as artists like Erykah Badu, who has forged close, empathetic bonds with younger musicians. Perhaps bridging this barrier is one of his biggest achievements—it’s a monumental contribution to culture.
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