You just have to get an attitude about it. You can’t let it take you out.
It doesn’t seem to have left you embittered in any way.
Quincy Jones: It makes you angry. But I always thought, “Let’s harness that anger, let’s do something that’s going to mean something.” If you punch some dude out, that doesn’t do anything because they still say you’re a nigger. I’ve seen that happen. That doesn’t straighten it out, that’s why I get involved in all the battles there are, but on another level.
I went with Lionel Hampton for three years. Out of that came a trip to Europe. I went to Europe at 19 and it turned me upside down in many ways. It gave you some sense of perspective of past, present and future. It took the myopic conflict between just black and white in the United States and put it on another level because you saw the turmoil between the Armenians and the Turks, and the Cypriots and the Greeks, and the Swedes and the Danes, and the Koreans and the Japanese. Everybody had these hassles, and you saw it was a basic part of human nature, these conflicts. It opened my soul, it opened my mind.
I tried to learn 20 to 30 words in every language in the world. I came back to New York after playing with Hamp. I freelanced, wrote for almost every singer in the business. Then I went on a State Department trip in 1956. I organized it for Dizzy Gillespie. We toured all over the Middle East, and South America.
When they send a black band around the world as ambassadors, you know you’re going to do a lot of kamikaze work, and we did. They have these categories. The plum jobs are in London and France and so forth. They sent us to what they call the hardship posts. So, we went to Tehran, and Dacha, Karachi, Istanbul and Damascus. It was very exciting. Some of these people had never seen western instruments before.
We got a last-minute call one time from the White House to go immediately from Istanbul to Athens, Greece because the Cypriot students were stoning the embassy. Whenever that happened we got called immediately to go in there, and play for these same kids. That was pretty scary because you could feel the energy and the hostility against whatever policy was going wrong at that time, whether it was Beirut and Israel, or the Cypriots and the Greeks. And after that concert, they rushed the stage — the kids — and we thought we were in trouble. Instead, they put Dizzy Gillespie on their shoulders and they were just running around the auditorium singing to him and everything else. It was great!
They sent us to South America, and back to the United States. I moved to Paris in 1957 to study with Nadia Boulanger, and to work for a record company called Barclay Records. That was an incredible experience. I went back in 1959, did a Broadway show and had a whole big band to play with the show. I was supposed to eventually pick Sammy Davis, Jr. up in London and come back to Broadway. My band was featured in the show with costumes and parts, and plans didn’t go that way. So, we got stranded in Europe for ten months after the show closed, which is the closest I ever came to suicide. And, we finally came home. I hocked everything I had in my publishing companies and got the band and all 30 people back home.
A friend of mine who was the president of Mercury Records, which was about to merge with Philips Records of Holland, asked me to work there, so I could pay some of my debts back. I was vice president, and two years later got a chance to really learn what the record business was all about. I became a troubleshooter in Europe and Greece.
It was a great education from the other side, the other perspective of our business. Because, for the most part, artists feel that all corporations get up at 7 o’clock in the morning figuring out how to get them. It’s not quite like that, but it’s a whole different perspective. I learned a lot about the inner workings of a business that I was going to be in for 48 years.
From the beginning you attracted the interest, or the respect, of older musicians. What did they see in you? What did they see in Quincy Jones?
Quincy Jones: I don’t know. They knew I wanted to do whatever I did well. They could tell that I hadn’t gotten it together yet, but they knew I wanted to, and they knew one day I would. I don’t know why they’d waste their time otherwise. Count Basie practically adopted me at 13. We became closer and closer and I ended up conducting for him and Sinatra.
All my life Count Basie was there. He was like manager, mentor, father, brother, everything. He’d help me get jobs when I had my big band later. And, I remember we played up in New Haven, a job that he didn’t want to take, and he said, “Okay, I’ve got a job for your band. You got it.” And so they got the contracts. We were the same agency, Willard Alexander, and we got a third of what he would get naturally. It was a 12 or 1300-seat place and only about 700 people showed up, and I was really disappointed and hurt. I had a big band from New York. Basie showed up, and he said, “Okay, give the man half of the money back.” I said, “What do you mean, half of the money back?” He said, “He put your name down front and the people didn’t come. He will be important for you in the future and you shouldn’t hurt him because the people didn’t come. Give him half of his money back.” I gave half the money back. He always tried to teach me how to be a human being.
A lot of the guys were like that — Oscar Pettiford — they just took me under their wing, and that’s why I automatically help young people. I just love it, because they did that for me. They were there.
And Benny Carter, please! Benny Carter is one of the finest musicians on the planet. He was my idol. When I went to California, Benny puts you on his shoulders, gives you the target and helps you pull the bow strings. Just amazing. Benny and me are just beautiful close friends now. He’s 96 years old, with a mind just as sharp as a tack.
People like Milt Hinton, the bass player that was so kind to me when I first went to New York. Some guys try to take advantage of you, some don’t pay any attention to you, and the others embrace you and put their arms around you and help you.
You went from playing the trumpet to arranging, conducting, film composing, being a record company executive — you have done all these things. And you didn’t stop at being a jazz musician, you went on to do so many different kinds of music. Wasn’t that difficult?
Quincy Jones: We started that in music very early. We had to play schottisches and boogie-woogie, blues or rhythm and blues or be-bop, pop music, concert music, Sousa, everything. From the beginning, we played it. That’s why a lot of the jazz musicians, when I did Michael Jackson, they said, “You sold out.” I said, “I’ve been doing this all my life. What do you mean, sold out?” It’s not even a stretch, you know, to go from different kinds of music. And, if you start out like that it’s not unusual at all. Everything feels good, whether it’s Wynonie Harris, Louis Jordan or Charlie Parker or Bartok, Alban Berg or whatever. Nadia Boulanger used to say, “There’s only 12 notes, so listen to what everybody does with those 12 notes.” That’s all there are really.
You were born in Chicago. What was your life like when you were a child?
Quincy Jones: We were in the heart of the ghetto in Chicago during the Depression, and every block — it was probably the biggest black ghetto in America — every block — it also is the spawning ground probably for every gangster, black and white, in America too. So, we were around all of that. We saw that every day. There was a policeman named Two Gun Pete, a black policeman, who used to shoot teenagers in the back every weekend and everything happened there all the time. A gang on every street: the Vagabonds, the Giles HC, the Scorpions, and just on and on. In each gang they had the dukes and duchesses, junior and senior, which accommodated everybody in the neighborhood. That was the whole idea, for unity, really. Our biggest struggle every day was we were either running from gangs or with gangs. And it was just getting to school and back home. Because if your parents aren’t home all day, you know, it’s a notorious trek. I still have the metals here from the switchblade through my hand, pinned to a tree. I had an ice pick here in the temple one time. But, when you’re young, nothing harms you, nothing scares you or anything. You don’t know any better. And in the summertime — the schools were the roughest schools probably in America. I saw teachers getting hurt and maimed and everything every day, and it was everyday stuff. It’s amazing. Young people get used to things very quickly.
Some summers my father would take us down to visit our grandmother in Louisville, who was an ex-slave, Susan Jones, and she had a shotgun shack they call it, and no electricity, a well in the back, a coal stove, kerosene lamps. We used to take baths that had these big, heavy, black iron pots. They’d take the top off of the stove to get it heated quicker and wait and wait and wait until it boils, and then you pour it in the big tin tub on the floor, and then it would take you another 20 minutes to do that. I mean, I remember the process and all. The security system there was a big rusty bent nail over the back door. And when you’re seven, eight, nine years old, that’s all drama. She used to say, “Go down to the river and grab the rats that still have their tails moving.” She’d cook the rats. She’d take greens out of the back yard and cook the greens, fry the rats with onions and so forth on a coal stove, and you’d see — like almost ice on the floor at night, you know, it was so cold in the winter time in Kentucky.
I asked my brother before he died, “Was this an aberration in my mind?” And he said, “What are you talking about? That’s the way it was.” He kind of affirmed everything that really happened. It doesn’t bother you until later. You say “How could you do that?” but at the time it was just another adventure and kept your tummy filled. You didn’t have too much choice.
When I was about five or seven years old my mother was placed in a mental institution and so we were with our father who worked very hard, and we had to figure a lot of things out. In 1989 and 1990, I went back to Chicago because I was doing a documentary on my life.
I hadn’t been back there in 50 years to this home where we lived in Chicago, and I got out and I was hoping it would be a supermarket, you know, or everything is gone. It was exactly like it was when we left. The paint job that my father left there was the same paint job. Every room, every radiator, every vent was exactly the same. The back yard, the same wooden fence where this happened was all there. And Lucy, this girl that was next door, 12 years old, when I got out of the car, she was like 63 or something in a wheelchair and it was explosive. It just blew my psyche — shattered it, you know. And, when we went upstairs Lucy — they helped her upstairs with the wheelchair and she said, “That’s the bed where they put the straitjacket on your mother.” I had totally blanked it out, but they say — the therapy I’ve had — said that trauma is frozen at the peak. And, as soon as she said it, I saw her that day with the four guys holding her down and she was trying to get away and they strapped her down and put the straitjacket on her. And, we were out front on the front step and Lucy held my brother in her arms and closed his eyes as they put her in the ambulance, and I sat on the other step and I had closed my eyes too, and I was crying and I was singing this song, “Oh, oh, oh, somebody touched me, it must have been the hand of the Lord.” It all came back, all of these things that you’ve totally blanked out of your mind. It’s a strange feeling to feel it reentering your soul, the reality that you blanked out conveniently. It is unforgettable stuff.
My brother died of cancer two years ago (1998), renal cell carcinoma. He was my only real brother and I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been so desperate in my life. So we went everywhere, to Sloan Kettering, to UCLA, and we saw the best people we could, but it was too late. Dr. Dean Ornish is a good friend of mine; he had studied my brother’s case and he said, “We’re dealing with equal parts of medical disease, nutrition and psychology. There’s a balance. You have to play with all three almost on an equal level to deal with it properly.”
My mother was out of the sanitarium then. She had followed us to Seattle and there was always a conflict between her and my stepmother. I didn’t particularly like either one, and I couldn’t deal with either one. She was not really a nice lady, the stepmother. Dean was trying to cure my brother, and this is key, he said, “You can never see your mother again,” because he knew my brother took everything in the chest. “You can’t deal with it,” he said. And my brother said, “I bet you I can,” and he stayed in Seattle.
I asked Dean, “How did this happen? We came up in the same environment, how could he be so vulnerable to this and just eat it all and take it in and internalize it and have it turn against him like this and take his life? He’s younger than I am. I’d give half of my body right now to save his life. How did I miss it?” And he said, “Somehow, in trying to survive you found a way to totally transfer everything involving your mother into your music or your creativity.”
I used to go in a little closet, a little tiny closet that had four barrels with some two-by-fours and a workbench on it, and just sit there and just turn the world off every time the pain came in and go inside and just — since I was very young — just to take all the negative things and the painful things and take that and convert it into something beautiful and positive. So, I could feel that if I turned it on myself, in toward bitterness, it would kill me, it would take me out like it did my brother.
I had transferred all of the need of what we didn’t have, so I didn’t need it anymore because I had something else that was beautiful, it was mine, I could always depend on. I could always go there no matter what happened, racial things or whatever happened. I could go there and it would be okay. It was my own little world and I could make it what I wanted it to be.
We spent most of our life almost like street rats just running around the street until we were ten years old. My father worked for Julian Black, the people that ran Joe Louis’s life. Joe Louis lived in one of the buildings we lived in. And after one of the fights he gave the gloves to my father. And a kid down the street had a BB gun that I wanted and so when my father went to work I took the gloves and traded the gloves for the BB gun. And my father wore my tail out and went over to get the gloves back, and when he came back, he came back with my stepmother who was his mother, who was not really a very charming lady. She was rough. She made our life pretty rough.
My father was a carpenter, a very good carpenter. He also worked for the Jones boys. They were not family members, we weren’t related at all. They started the policy racket in Chicago, and they had the five and dime store. They used to call it the “V” — like the “V and X store,” you know, for roman numerals. We loved all this drama. All kids love that.
We used to go to a place called Drexel Wine and Liquor. We would go up these big steps, and the administrative office was upstairs. You’d see everything you saw on Elliot Ness, The Untouchables. Two-way mirrors and so forth, tommy guns and hats and cigars. We loved it. You know, all kids love that. And, we couldn’t understand why daddy wanted to keep us away from that element. So one day he said, “Let’s get out of here.” And, I think what happened is Capone took over the policy racket from the Jones boys. The Jones boys had to leave town fast and we were right behind them because daddy worked with them. So, he came and picked us up from the barber shop. “I have to get — we have to go get our toys.” “Forget that. We’re going straight to a Trailways bus.” And, the bus took us out to Bremerton, Washington – Seattle Washington.
We stopped in Idaho and we got out to eat, [but] they wouldn’t let us eat at the white places so we had to go find a black family. You have to remember, this is the day when there was no TV, no MTV. You had nothing to hold on to your identity with. The books were “See Jane Run. See Spot,” and so forth, and nothing about black history or anything. You’re talking about 1943. And radio was Blondie and Dagwood and Gabriel Heater, and I Love a Mystery. And, the black figures there were Rochester, Beulah and Amos and Andy, who were white, [Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll]. And so it was very — at the time you don’t recognize it, but you’re trying to say “Who the hell am I?” you know, “What are we about?” You know, if you don’t have a mother there that leads you down that road you’re trying to figure out who you are and so, we spent half of our life trying to figure out what was up, what we were all about. Now we go from the biggest ghetto in Chicago to being the only three black kids in Navy Yard City, and there’s a serious contrast. And, it dances on your head a little bit because we carried switchblade knives in those days and the kids in Bremerton didn’t know what they were. So we had — no, you couldn’t use fear anymore like they used on us in Chicago. You just keep going.
We got into all the trouble you could ever imagine. We figured that if the Jones boys and all the gangsters ran Chicago, we had our own territory now. All the stores, all the crime, we were in charge of everything, my stepbrother and my brother. It’s amazing how much trouble you can get in when you don’t have anything else to do. We’d take chickens in the new apartments and we’d cook them. We didn’t know what we were doing. We stole a box of honey jars one time and went out in the woods and took care of the whole box. I don’t think I touched honey again for 20 years. I never wanted to see honey again.
Was there room for anything but survival in your mind then?
Quincy Jones: Nothing but survival. There was no medium ground. So in the search for your identity you had to be in constant action, trying to do something. We were so young the girls wouldn’t pay any attention to us. The girls loved all the young sailors who came through town, so we used to go visit the destroyers and battleships and aircraft carriers. It was a big navy town, and during the war America was very gung ho, and they were the heroes. The black sailors and soldiers were very stylish. They had the hats that were really cool, and bloused their pants down over their boots. They were always immaculate and had a lot of style. So the girls just walked all over us little bumpkins. I still have pictures of me waiting on the porch of this little girl named Sara Ann. She didn’t give me the time of day. We couldn’t get arrested. But you were trying to just figure out what you’re supposed to be doing in life. You don’t know. You can’t get a legitimate job.
I finally got a job when I was 11; this guy named Roscoe asked me to press clothes. You know, I was some nice cheap labor there. And, I had a little raggedy bike and so after I pressed and did a pretty good job, he says, “Well, you know, why don’t you take them to be cleaned now and you can fill out the bills and put the paper sack over it and deliver them.” At 11 years old I was running that whole business for him, and I was proud of that and I was happy that I was capable of being responsible for something and useful.
I hadn’t discovered music yet. It’s funny the things that you remember from those days. There was a big armory up there where everybody played basketball; it was a community center really. There was an army camp right there, because Seattle and Bremerton were hot spots during the war. That’s where the ships left to go to the Pacific, so things were happening all the time. We’d break into this armory at night, and we’d eat lemon meringue pie and ice cream, and when we got too tired of eating it we’d start to play — throw it at each other and whatever trouble you could get in, just awful.
One night we went and broke in another door, and I broke into this door and there was a piano there, and I just walked around the room to see what was there first, and then hands kind of hit the keyboard and I remembered from Chicago next door when I was a kid, there was a little girl named Lucy that used to play piano, and it brought everything back because I was never very good at music when I was little. I never paid any attention to it in school. And, from that moment on when I touched those keys, I said, “This is it. I’m not going to do the other thing again. I’m going here.” And, that’s what happened.
I got in the school band and the school choir. It all hit me like a ton of bricks, everything just came out. I played percussion for a while, and stayed after school forever just tinkering around with different things, the clarinets and the violins. I couldn’t get into that at all. I finally found the B flat baritone horn, Sousaphone, B flat alto peck horn. I chose the trombone because the trombone players in the marching band got to be up front with the majorettes (because of the slides) and I loved that! My heart was really with the trumpets, but they were too far back. I finally got to the trumpet and I said. “That’s what I really feel.”
Were there any people who particularly inspired you?
Quincy Jones: I was inspired by a lot of people when I was young, every band that came through town, to the theater, or the dance hall. I was at every dance, every night club, listened to every band that came through, because in those days we didn’t have MTV, we didn’t have television. The communication for music was through Downbeat magazine, or the grapevine, and what was happening in New York. Radio dealt with it a little bit. We used to pick up a few jazz stations from San Francisco. You could hear some of the new music that was out.
The record stores in those days had big glass booths and you could go in and listen to the record, put earphones on. And I couldn’t afford to buy them, so I just stayed in the music store all day and just listened to all of the latest records. And in those days they had five record companies, only five record companies. So, anybody that was even recording was automatically a giant. On Decca Records, everybody was – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald – just the greatest musicians that ever lived, on each label. So, there wasn’t too much Russian roulette going on in records those days. Whoever was signed and made records was really pretty phenomenal.
How did you start composing?
I was writing this thing called “A Suite from the Four Winds,” and on the trumpet parts I put a little asterisk and said, “Play all B naturals a half step lower because it sounds funny if you play it B natural straight.” I didn’t know there was a key signature of a flat on the third line that would take care of all that. But, you know, you just learn step by step. Somebody finally said, “Idiot! You know there are key signatures. There’s one flat, two flats, three flats.” And, “Oh yeah, key signatures. That’s a great concept.” It’s 500 years old, right?
My grades in music were terrible before that, but then the love, this passion came forth, and that’s when somebody lit a flame, a candle inside, and that candle still burns, you know, it never went out. I’d stay up all night sometimes until my eyes bled to write the music. I was writing a suite, a Concerto in Blue for something at the school, for concert band, and I was fearless!
How did you learn to read music?
Quincy Jones: I don’t know. I just started and had to pay attention. It’s logical though. If you’re standing out from all the other people you know you’re playing it wrong, so you have to understand the value of each note. There’s only four beats in each bar, or six or three or whatever it is. You just use your mother wit, common sense really.
So you learned on your own?
Quincy Jones: Yeah. In school they had books and so forth. It’s easy to get next to music theory, especially between your peers and music classes and so forth. You just pay attention. I had a good ear, so I realized that printed music was just about reminding you what to play. A lot of people say, “Count Basie and Earl Hines don’t read music. That’s amazing!” It has nothing to do with it. Reading music is just a way to document it so you can remember what to play at the same time, but the creation of music has nothing to do with it. That’s a divine sense in a way.
How did you get along in school? What gave you the confidence to do all this?
Quincy Jones: I’ll tell you one thing. I went to Robert E. Koontz junior high school in Bremerton and there were just a few black kids in the school. There were 2,800 kids there. A little white kid named Robin Fields said, “I’d like to be your manager for you running for Boys Club president.” I said, “You’ve got to be out of your mind. What are you talking about? That’s never going to happen.” And I was wrong; I won.
It was messed up, because in 1947 my family moved to Seattle and I had to get up at 5:00 o’clock in the morning to catch the ferry back to Bremerton every morning because I was Boys Club president. That really put a hurting on my sleeping time because I couldn’t write music late at night.
You were one of the only black kids in a white school and you became Boys Club president. How do you account for that?
Quincy Jones: I have no idea. It made me realize that I had to take everybody one on one. I couldn’t say, “This is this, and everybody is this, and they’re like this.” The things we usually do as human beings. I couldn’t do it, because Robin Fields was there and I couldn’t include him in that number. It was great for me.
But how did you start getting gigs with your band when you were just a kid?
We were big fish in a small pond. At one time in New York, most of the guys who were happening there were not from New York; they got their confidence in the small cities. If you started in New York you were dealing with the biggest guys in the world. You’re dealing with Charlie Parker and all the big bands and everything. We got more experience working in Seattle.
We were in the National Guard band, which was an all black unit, which was funny, because Bumps Blackwell, who had the pop band we were in, he was the commanding officer, and we’d go out to Fort Lewis for about three months in the summer time with the band. And, we were master sergeants and all that stuff, and staff sergeants because we were musicians, definitely not because we were soldiers, because we didn’t really get that at all. You know, marching and the discipline of what the military thing was about, because we — it wasn’t real because we were National Guard. We were young kids in the National Guard. We put our ages up. We were 14 years old.
One weekend we had a job with the band, the dance band, to play at Island Lake Park or some place like that, and we didn’t come home that night, we stayed over there. And, I was the company bugler, I was supposed to wake up the real troops, you know, for bivouac. And you know, the army doesn’t play that, and that was supposed to be at 7:00 o’clock. We didn’t get back until 11:00 o’clock. And as we got out of the car, the real army guys were saying, “Well sergeant, we hope you have an explanation for this.” I said, “We really don’t, sir.” He said, “Okay private. Stand over there.” We got demoted on the spot. These are things that really stick out in your mind because you feel like you’ve really blown it and you’ve failed somehow.
Were there other teachers or musicians who had a big impact on you growing up?
Quincy Jones: Clark Terry used to come through town with Count Basie. I’d say, “Mr. Terry, I’d really love to study trumpet with you.”
He said, “Well, what’s a good time?”
I said, “The only time I can do it is before I go to school at 6:30.”
He said, “I don’t get home until 2:00 o’clock or 3:00 o’clock in the morning.”
Clark Terry was a very important influence in my life.
He taught me how to put the trumpet on top of my lip on high notes so it didn’t bleed when I played.
Lionel Hampton’s band came through Seattle then too. That was a very significant thing in my life because as I said before we played with Bumps Blackwell’s band and Charlie Taylor’s band for Billie Holiday, and then Billy Eckstine, at 14 and 15 years old. So, Hamp came through there then, and that was my dream to be with that band, more than any band because I saw every band that came through: Stan Kenton, Basie, Duke, Louis Armstrong, everybody. I was out in front hypnotized every night. I just couldn’t believe it, that there is the way to be a man, to have your dignity, to be proud of what you do. And there were 18 musicians — there was something about that kind of unity, too — that were really playing good, and made military bands look like military bands, or the white traveling bands, you know. But, there was something about it that just really hit a serious chord in me, and I wanted to know everything about it. That’s why I wanted to write so quick. As soon as I picked up the trumpet I heard arrangements in my head of those ensembles. How do you write for 18 musicians, or eight brass and five saxes, and not have them playing the same notes?
So there was a man named Joseph Powe, who was a military officer, and he had a dance band. He used to be with Wings over Jordan, which was a famous choir. And so he asked me to baby-sit for him, and I loved to baby-sit for him because I could read his Glenn Miller orchestration books, and he had a Frank Skinner book about underscoring movies. Bam! That was like walking into a wonderland. I got hung up on movies when I was 15.
You worked incredibly hard for everything you’ve accomplished, but it’s obvious that you also had a great talent. Do you have any idea where it came from?
Quincy Jones: No, not at all. I do now, later on in life. Alex Haley was a dear, dear friend of mine before he wrote Roots. We worked on Roots together. He asked me, “Where did the music come from in the family?” I said, “I don’t know. My mother played a little piano — religious piano because she was a religious fanatic — and I heard a little of that, but nobody else that I remember played in my family before.” And so Alex said, “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to call some friends of mine in Salt Lake City. The Mormons could have saved me ten years if they had done Roots because they are the greatest researchers.”
That Christmas they sent me a book of information that just blew my head off. I couldn’t believe it. Number one, my mother’s family came from a plantation that was owned by James Lanier, who was a relative of Sidney Lanier, the poet. He had a baby with my great-grandmother, and my grandmother was born there. We traced this all the way back to the Laniers, same family as Tennessee Williams.
They were originally Huguenots from France, who came over to England and then America. It turns out there were fourteen Laniers who were court musicians in France, Nicholas Lanier and so on. They worked for Henry the Fourth, the Third, and on. That was the musical strain, and it shocked me because I’ve always had this ridiculous passion for France.
The first time I went there I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding. We were coming on the train from Switzerland and I couldn’t sleep. I had to get up and I just stood up in the back of the train all the way. We went into Palais D’Orsay. Palais D’Orsay was a train station — it’s a museum now, and a hotel — so we came in about 6:30 in the morning and the music almost came from my soul when we saw that crimson sunrise and the smell of Paris. I could feel something very strange and then it all became answered when Alex found these people, this Lanier family.
It has been an amazing experience. I am very nosy so I am constantly exploring to find out what the hell happened, what is it all about.
You spoke earlier of the battles you’ve been involved in. I wanted to ask you about that.
Quincy Jones: When I was in France, Mandela asked me to come down. I’ve been involved with South Africa and Mandela for 30 years. It’s a way to really do something, whether it’s with Jesse Jackson — we helped him put together Operation Push in the ’70s, or with Dr. King in ’55. Malcolm X’s daughter is working for me now.
We’re working with Julian Bond right now. Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume called. We’re putting up $9 million and we’re doing a ten city bus tour — Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit and those places — to try to get out the black vote.
Why do you do it? Why is it important to you to do those things?
Quincy Jones: Because you have to do something. You’re fighting for your dignity, the dignity of your children, your grandchildren, kids who shouldn’t even be subjected to this kind of a thing.
What I’m also learning as I get older, is that so many times — to deal in semantics — the word “racism” just blurs into economics and vice versa. Slavery wasn’t about racism; slavery was about economics. It was about free labor, slave labor. You have to go down to the core to see what the real problem is, because sometimes we’re dealing with a superficial problem. You’ve got the funnel of America; if they block that funnel, you’ve got whites and blacks or Hispanics or Asians fighting at that funnel with other people, all at the $35,000 level. You don’t see the people with $3 million fighting at that level.
That was a big lesson. You’ve got to try to improve the economic plight of black America, or any of the minority groups, so that this country can get as powerful as it really can be. Because if everybody in America had that thing we say we have in the constitution, this country would be hard to mess with. It’s hard to mess with anyway because it’s a powerful country, because we have that diversity. If we could learn to respect that diversity, that’s what makes us strong. I don’t care what you say, whatever the black kids in the ghetto are doing, two years later every kid in America is going to be doing it.
What advice would you give to a young person who wants to be a musician?
Quincy Jones: That’s a question that puzzles me a lot because it’s so different today. My son’s Quincy the third — he calls himself QV3 — and he’s done very well, because he’s a very hard worker and very talented. He is a hip-hop producer. He’s produces Ice Cube, and L.L. Cool J, and the Lynch Mob. He did Fresh Prince, and the Menace II Society scores. It frightens me because today is such a strange time to be in the music business, everything is different.
The instruments are different. The experience of jam sessions, the experience of bands playing together, looking in each other’s eyes and transmitting thoughts with unspoken words — which is an incredible experience — is not happening anymore. Most big producers now stay in a little room. Take Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Baby Face and L.A. Reid, or whoever. They have drum machines, and mini synthesizers that you can sequence to do anything you want, and there’s hardly any contact with the outside world, except maybe two producers and a singer. You may do one live date with strings, or bass. It’s just so different.
The converse side of what I see in a lot of young musicians who just want to be very famous and very rich, very quick — was a goal that we didn’t understand at all in those days, because our idols were not symbolic of that. It was Charlie Parker and people that almost died in poverty, and drugs, and they didn’t have that. They didn’t think of opulence or that kind of living, jet planes and limousines, and all those things. Today that’s a running thing. It’s a huge business now, where very young people make enormous amounts of money, and have to deal with an almost super-human position, trying to absorb that kind of adulation and recognition and fame, and adoration and money. It’s a very abnormal situation, and they’re trying to make it normal, ’cause it’s not normal, so we have a lot of casualties as a result of that.
It’s a very difficult thing. I kid a lot about it, but I’m serious when I say that the music business should get together and start a University of Success, so they can see that there are patterns, and this is not the first person to ever be successful. I think young people need to learn a lot, because I’ve seen thousands come and go so quickly and in such a tragic way. They come up, they burn out, and have to live with some very unpleasant memories.
On the positive side, there’s probably more opportunities now than ever. We’re going through a technological revolution that will be changing civilization, from a communications standpoint. The way people will receive information, through PCs, through fiber optics, through all the converging technology — it’s going to be quite sensational.
We still have to remember, everything starts with two things, a song or a story. That drives everything. That’s the people with the blank page, no matter what platform it’s put on. That’s where we have to start. The outlets are enormous today, on a global level. It used to take four years for a record that was released in the United States to come out in Europe. It’s almost simultaneous now. Sometimes it will come out internationally before it comes out domestically.
The throw of communications is so powerful, that communications alone have changed the course of our world. From Tiananmen Square to the Berlin Wall to South Africa. They weren’t governmental agencies that changed it. It was records and television and movies that changed that.
What makes music so rewarding? So…
Quincy Jones: Seductive? So far, I haven’t found any experience that is more pleasurable than trying to — it takes you three, two nights to sit down at the blank page of score paper and then try to imagine and hear that orchestra sound in your head and put what you think is going to sound like you think it sounds on that paper for each instrument. And, finally having the orchestra there, and when you do the down beat — to hear that sound — there’s no experience in the world like that. Still to this day I feel like I’m 12 years old when I bring my hand down to the orchestra.
I guess what’s so strong about it is that — outside of you growing as an arranger, or a composer, or an orchestrator — it’s the idea that when you conduct a symphony orchestra, 110 people plus the conductor are thinking about exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time, down to the microscopic proportions — the 32nd and 64th notes. That’s a lot of energy because minds aren’t trailing off, thinking about the news, or what’s on the stock market or anything today, or what you have to get for groceries, or what’s for dinner. It’s exactly on what that thought is, the thought of the composer, whoever composed it, and the orchestrator, and performing it, reproducing it. It’s a very powerful experience. It’s a very rewarding, enriching experience, and it hits you in your soul. It goes through the ear, but it hits the soul. You can’t touch it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it, and it’s just so powerful for the soul.
What does it take to do what Quincy Jones has done?
Quincy Jones: Obsession. Humility. Everybody I know that really does their thing — and I have a lot of friends that are like that — when I see the ones that really do it, they’re junkies, they really are. I mean their thing takes them over. It really does. There is some kind of subconscious attraction to everything, even things you’re not even aware of that you’re interested in. My biggest problem in the world is going into a bookstore because everything — every subject from psychology to history to cuisine — everything in there I’m interested in. I love technology, biographies, history. Somehow all of those things reinforce each other.
I studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; she introduced me to Stravinsky, who she was like a mentor to, and I called him a genius. She said it was a stupid word, and if it has to be applied it should be applied to somebody that has achieved the highest level of involving sensation, feeling, believing, attachment and knowledge. All those things have to be pulled together. Stravinsky used to say the most important part of an artist’s responsibility is to be a great observer.
If it’s in human nature, or nature, or just to pay attention to see what it’s all about, because I think African music is so powerful, and probably governs the rhythm of every music in the world, because it’s taken straight from nature, you know. You know that the birds did not imitate flutes. It’s the reverse. And thunder didn’t imitate the drums. It was the reverse. And so, the elements of nature, what it comes from, that’s the most powerful force there is. It’s like a melody. You can study orchestration, you can study harmony and theory and everything else, but melodies come straight from God. There’s really no technique for melodies, really. I guess there’s something about music that’s always fascinated me and I apply what the essence of what that’s about in everything I do, whether we do film or magazines or whatever it is. You can’t touch it, you can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, you can’t see it. You just feel it and it hangs in the air. It owns — it dominates — every time period. String quartets had its own time period and nobody can ever change it, because it’s hanging up there in heaven some place.
We use a 440 to tune up the A, and I hear that the pulse of the universe is 454, that’s pretty close. So that A has something to do with much more than just a note. It has got something to do with the natural rhythm of life.
There are people who would say that Quincy Jones is a genius.
Quincy Jones: Or crazy. Thank you.
This was something.
I enjoyed it, too. God bless you.