Quincy Jones, The Music Man

UPDATED: July 20, 2009
PUBLISHED: July 20, 2009

Quincy Jones wanted some pie. That’s
what drove the 11-year-old
and his friends to
break into a rec center
in their Seattle-area
neighborhood one night.
After gorging on lemon
meringue pie and ice
cream and having a food
fight, Jones wandered into
an office and spotted a
piano in the corner.

I almost closed the door and left,” he says. “But something,
thank God, told me, ‘Go back in that room, fool.’ And I
did. I touched that piano and knew then that every part
of my soul would be in music forever.”

That moment changed the course of Jones’ life. He gave up the
role of petty thief and gang member to embrace music, eventually
becoming composer, artist, conductor, arranger, producer and
record company executive. Over his more than 60-year music
career, Jones has worked with the greats. Among them: Ray Charles
(a childhood friend), Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald,
Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson (Jones produced Jackson’s Thriller,
the best-selling album in history). Jones’ list of accolades is equally
impressive, including 27 Grammys (and 79 nominations, more than
anyone in history), the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award and the
Grammy Living Legend Award.

And that’s just his musical career. Jones, 75, has also found success
in TV and film, producing such hits as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
and the critically acclaimed The Color Purple, starring Whoopi
Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. He has also founded Quincy Jones
Entertainment, Quincy Jones Media Group, Qwest Records, Qwest
Broadcasting and Vibe magazine.

Such success was nowhere on the horizon for a young Quincy
Jones, born and reared in Chicago until the age of 10.

“My daddy worked for the biggest black gangsters in Chicago,”
Jones says. “He was a master carpenter who built their homes—the
Jones Boys, the Capones, all those people back then. That’s all I ever
saw in the ’30s: the machine guns, the stogies, piles of cash and all
the shootings… ice picks in bodies. It’s unbelievable.”

On top of that, his schizophrenic mother was institutionalized
when Jones was just 7. After moving with his father and siblings to
Seattle—and discovering the power of music—Jones made a decision:
“I made a deal with myself that, if I didn’t have a mother, I didn’t
need one, and I would let music be my mother, because it would
never let you down. It’s just something that touched me.”

Jones immersed himself in all things music. He tried piano, violin,
clarinet, percussion and five more instruments before settling on
the trumpet. He joined area bands, studied at the Berklee College of
Music in Boston and eventually took up with Lionel Hampton and
his big band—Jones’ big break into the music industry.

He credits that break to his devotion and diligence. “The dictionary
is the only place where success precedes work—that’s alphabetical,”
he says. “You have to get off your butt and do it. You have to have a
core skill and you have to study all aspects of it. The emotional side
is what will drive it, but the science is what will prepare you—if it’s
playing piano scales or if it’s a business course at Wharton, whatever.
The science will be there to back up all your ideals and dreams. You
know how they say, ‘Make the drunken dreams turn into
sober realities?’ It’s really true.”

In the years that followed, Jones was “always inquisitive,”
he says. “When I was young, I used to sit down, shut up and
listen to people who knew what they were talking about—
musicians and my mentors, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Benny
Carter and businessmen like Steve Ross at Time Warner and
Irving Green at Mercury Records.”

dictionary is
the only place
precedes WORK.”

While on the road with Hampton, Jones’ talent for arranging
songs became evident. But, even when he began arranging for
artists like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington in the mid-
1950s, Jones’ lessons from his band days remained relevant.

“The big band is my whole world,” he says. “That’s what I
look at everything like. [All the musicians] play something
different, but they do it together—the power of collective
creativity. In an orchestra, you have 120 musicians, a
composer and a conductor all thinking about one thing. It’s
very powerful. You can’t taste it, smell it, see it or touch it, but,
boy, you can sure feel it.”

In 1957, Jones moved to Paris to study music composition
and theory under legendary tutor Nadia Boulanger. “When I
was with Nadia, she taught me—I had a hard time getting my
head around it. She’d say, ‘The more you restrict yourself, musically,
the more freedom you have,’ ” Jones says. “Which is hard to understand
as a jazz musician, but she’s right. A jazz musician doesn’t
just come out and play whatever they feel; they have a bottom, basic
structure that they’re dealing with. It enables them to have more
and more freedom. I look at business and
everything else the same way.”

Jones has applied those lessons to
several of his own albums throughout the
years, many featuring collaborations with
other well-known artists. His trademark
is creating musical hybrids, blending pop,
soul, hip-hop, jazz, classical, African and
Brazilian sounds. He was named one of the
most influential jazz musicians of the 20th
century by TIME, and one of his prized
possessions is a signed photograph from
Duke Ellington that bears the inscription:
“May you be the one to continue
to de-categorize American music.” Jones
says, “That’s my firm belief, to get away
from those categories.”

While in France in the late 1950s, Jones
began working with Barclay Disques,
Mercury Records’ French distributor. He
faced a financial crisis when a European tour with his own band
failed to make a profit. When dealing with such challenges, Jones
says, his past helps him to persevere: “There’s something inside that
never lets you give up. I guess that probably came as a child. It was
survive or die.”

Irving Green, head of Mercury, hired Jones as the musical director
of the label’s New York division. In 1964, he became vice president of
Mercury—and the first high-level black executive of a major record
company. He later resigned and moved to Hollywood to score music
for more than 30 movies. But, by 1974, Jones’ resolve was once again
tested when he suffered a near-fatal cerebral aneurysm that required
two major surgeries. He made it through that time by thinking positively,
he says.

“You can see darkness or light. I’ve always chosen light. One thing
that turns me on is if somebody says, ‘You’ll never get that done.
That’s impossible.’ That’s all I need to hear. I’ve always taken that
as the supreme challenge. ‘Oh, it’s impossible, huh? OK.’ I
love that.”

Although Jones’ history of humanitarian work began in
the 1960s, perhaps his most remembered charitable contribution
was when he produced and conducted the best-selling
single of all time, We Are the World, in 1985. The charity
effort, which raised more than $63 million for Ethiopian
famine relief, featured more than 30 popular musicians,
including Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Diana Ross,
Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder.

In 1990, Jones started the Quincy Jones Listen Up
Foundation, which has a self-proclaimed vision to help children
“build self-esteem, foster sustainable self-sufficiency
and develop those characteristics of leadership that can
drive change.” Among other initiatives, the foundation offers
mentorship programs and intercultural exchanges between
young people and leaders around the world, and works with
leading organizations such as UNICEF to promote children’s
health and well-being. The organization has disbursed more than
$20 million for various initiatives.

The foundation also established the Q Prize, an international
award named for Jones that honors outstanding young visionaries.
In November, the Q Prize went to the leaders of Venezuela’s El
Sistema, which provides early music education and a network of
youth orchestras for hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly
from impoverished families. The program’s alumni include Gustavo
Dudamel, music director-designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
and a conductor of El Sistema’s Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.

Jones says that philanthropy should be a part of everybody’s
life—whether celebrity or not. “That, to me, is like the laws of being
alive. To give and expect nothing in return—there’s nothing that
feels better.”

He has also shared the knowledge of his 75 years in his New
York Times
best-selling Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones, and
in two new books, The Complete Quincy
Jones: My Journey & Passions: Photos,
Letters, Memories & More from Q’s Personal
Collection and Quincy Jones: 60 Years of
American Music
(scheduled for a September
2009 release). Jones says the underlying message
of his books—and life—is, “Don’t ever give up, and
always believe.”

Those works are just a couple of the many projects that Jones has
brewing at any given time. He recently consulted on the Summer
Olympics in Beijing, and he’s working on a 3-D, high-def movie
centering on Brazil’s Carnival festival. In the future, Jones hopes
to write ballets and street operas, put together “something with a
symphony orchestra and [dancer] Savion Glover,” produce an album
with Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder—and much more.

“There’s no end to the possibilities,” he says.

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.