Musician Quincy Jones

Music impresario talks about his new CD, and his new book, and explains how music became the mother he never had.

A creative force in American popular culture, Quincy Jones developed a passion for the trumpet in elementary school and had a vocal quartet at age 10. As a teen in the Seattle area, he played jazz clubs with the slightly older Ray Charles and got his break with Lionel Hampton. Over the course of a prolific six-decade career, he's won more than two dozen Grammys and worked with the who's who of entertainment. He's also branched out into movies, TV series and publishing. Jones' newest project is the star-studded tribute album, "Q: Soul Bossa Nostra."



Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Quincy Jones to this program. The iconic musician, producer, composer, all-around Renaissance man is as busy as ever this year. In addition to a new book, Q on Producing, you can also get a copy of his latest CD, “Q: Soul Bossa Nostra.” The disc includes collaboration with everybody. It’s like hip-hop tribute to Quincy Jones, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dog and everybody else. From the disc, here is some of the video for the title track featuring Ludacris and Naturally 7.
Tavis: You’re so cool. I love that gangster fedora, that hat.
Quincy Jones: [Laugh] Yeah, that’s some Godfather stuff there. Looks like a gangster some, doesn’t it?
Tavis: [Laugh] How you doing, man?
Jones: I’m doing fine. Glad to see you, man.
Tavis: Glad to see you. Looking well.
Jones: You run more than I do.
Tavis: No, that’s impossible.
Jones: Yes, you do.
Tavis: I can’t keep up with you, man. I noticed you got this shirt. The fabric on this is so nice. I see you got the Dude emblem on your shirt.
Jones: That was my name in Chinese, in Mandarin.
Tavis: Wow.
Jones: Yeah. I’m studying Mandarin now and Arabic, writing and speaking. That’s my hobby, you know. Eighteen languages now. It’s fun.
Tavis: How do you –
Jones: – I can’t even speak English [laugh].
Tavis: How did you become – I know a little about this because I’ve traveled with you a few places around the world – how did you become such a citizen of the world?
Jones: You know, the truth? It’s probably because I never had a mother. I made a deal very early – my mother took away in a straightjacket. She knew 12 languages, Boston University, and they took her away in a straightjacket, you know. I was seven years old. And the second mother was like Precious, you know.
Tavis: Like the movie.
Jones: Yeah. So I made a deal with myself that, if I didn’t have one, I was gonna have music as my mother. Who knows, if I had the proper upbringing, I may have been a sad musician. I’ll never know.
Tavis: Yeah. You know what’s amazing about this story is that you didn’t – to your point – they take your mother away, your biological mother. They take her away literally in a straightjacket. Your second mother, as you said, was like the Precious character, the character Monique plays in Precious.
I’m not saying this to butter you up. Anybody who knows you knows that you are the sweetest, most gentle, kindest person you could ever meet. I’m trying to figure out how you got all of that when you didn’t get that from your mama.
Jones: I don’t know, I don’t know. You just try to get to the next step. Because my daddy worked so hard, man. He had eight kids and all and $55 a week, so was no call at home for the money, you know. So he was always in my corner, but he didn’t have time to be there because he was working so hard.
You just figure it out. You have to figure it out, so you don’t have a childhood really. Because from the time we were born in Chicago, daddy worked building homes. He was a master carpenter for the Jones boys who were the most notorious Black gangsters in the history of America.
Tavis: In Chicago, yeah.
Jones: Oh, man, they did not play. They started the policy racket, the first Black businesses, five and dime stores. In fact, I want to do a movie on it. I really do, because the whole first [unintelligible] of my life was to them [unintelligible].
Harriet, his daughter, is one of the sweetest ladies I ever met in my life. When she was five, she asked me to cut her hair at a birthday party and I cut all her hair off and my daddy kicked my booty [laugh]. He said, “Do you know who her father is?”
Tavis: [Laugh] You cut the wrong –
Jones: – but she is just the most elegant person in the world. We exchange stories and everything. Life is amazing. It really is.
Tavis: So how did – take me back to Chicago and Seattle – how did music, to your own phrase, become your mother? How did this relationship get forged? You and music.
Jones: In the 1930s, Jones boys made $100 million dollars and the gangsters found out about this. That’s like a billion dollars back then. In 1943, the Capone guys ran him out of Chicago to Mexico. My daddy came to the barber shop and took me and my brother on a Trailways bus the next day to the northwest to go to Bremerton Shipyard because we were Jones’ to, but not related, you know.
We wanted to be gangsters. We were too, man. We burned down dance halls, you name it, everything. Stealing cases of honey, you know. I drank four bottles of honey. I never drank honey again for 20 years [laugh]. We broke in this armory one night, which was our recreation center, and this was during World War II and the army camp was right across from us with the barbed wire and the 50 caliber machine guns.
We broke in the armory. We heard this ice cream and meringue pie was coming in – we knew everything – at 11. After we ate it, we had a pie fight and then we went around individually and broke into rooms and I broke into this room and saw a spinet piano and almost closed the door and, thank God, I wasn’t stupid and listened to God’s whispers and went back in there and touched that piano. I knew then that’s what I’d do the rest of my life. I don’t know how, no.
Tavis: In other words, you were being mischievous.
Jones: Oh, worse than that.
Tavis: You were doing stuff you had no business doing.
Jones: My stepbrother was a full-fledged gangster now.
Tavis: You were breaking into places, stealing stuff and bumped into a piano.
Jones: That’s right, that’s right. That saved my life, though. From there on, no more sports and I started playing the tuba, sousaphone, B-flat baritone, french horn, trombone, so I could be up next to the girls in the marching band, you know [laugh]. I wanted to play the trumpet, but that was way in the back, you know.
Tavis: Yeah. That was too far back. Wasn’t no girls playing trumpet, yeah.
Jones: So in the concert band, I played the trumpet [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] In the marching band, up by the girls.
Jones: That’s right. The slides, you know.
Tavis: There’s so much to talk to you about in 30 minutes. Every time you come on, you stay for the whole show and I still feel like I don’t scratch the surface of your life and your legacy.
But I’m gonna jump around here to this new book, Q on Producing. A whole lot of folk have been waiting for you to write this particular text because, if there’s anybody in this business who you want to emulate when it comes to being successful as a producer, this is the man you want to emulate. So what am I gonna learn, what’s the reader gonna learn, about how to be a great producer from Quincy?
Jones: What do you want to be a producer for, man? It’ll run you crazy.
Tavis: You know what the short answer is? I learned this from you. Because that’s where the money is [laugh]. Ain’t no money like music money because music money don’t stop.
Jones: [Laugh] That’s true.
Tavis: I know it’s true [laugh].
Jones: If it starts [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] If it ever starts.
Jones: If it doesn’t start, it will stop [laugh].
Tavis: But if it starts, it’ll just keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny.
Jones: You’re crazy, man.
Tavis: I’m gonna come back to that concert just to prove that point. I’m gonna come back to this CD in just a second, just to prove Quincy’s point. This CD is a tribute. The whole hip-hop industry, as I said earlier, has done a CD basically in tribute to Quincy. But you know whose music they’re doing in tribute to Quincy? Quincy’s music. So a whole lot of the stuff he’s written over the years, they have taken and put their own spin on it. It’s still Q’s music all these years later. I’ll come back to that in a second. But back to the producing thing.
So what’s the trick to being a great producer?
Jones: I don’t know. At the time I decided, I didn’t know. I was an arranger and, like Leslie Gore, I didn’t get paid one cent in royalties on Leslie Gore because I didn’t know what a producer was. The arranges were doing mostly what producers do, you know, but they come from engineers or singes or songwriters anywhere, you know. There’s no rules in any of this stuff. But I just stayed in the studio all the time.
I was lucky enough to be able to do Big Maybelle Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Dinah Washington who really put me in business and James Moody, God bless him, who started me off. You know, New York scuffled me. Like Sinatra, if you make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. But, boy, New York was rough then. I mean, that’s the school you want to come from.
Tavis: Do you think you became good at this just by staying in the studio or were you always, Quincy, gifted? This is just a God-given gift?
Jones: No. I must say this. You may have a gift, you know, but if you don’t – music and mathematics are absolutes. The difference is, music is the only thing that engages left and right brain simultaneously. And the intellect and emotion are there all the time, so if you don’t study your science, you know, your emotion is limited. And I seen this happen with Aretha and a lot of people, Marvin Gaye. You can tell the people, Donny Hathaway, Earth, Wind and Fire, you know, that know their jazz roots and know where they come from and really know.
I went on to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris who was Stravinsky’s mentor and Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. I said I want to go all the way. She was funny because she said, “It’s too late to try to treat you like a classical musician because you been around Ray Charles too long.” I was working clubs at 13, you know [laugh]. She says, “And jazz musicians are strange because they shack up with music first and then they court it and marry it later.” [laugh]
They learn the science, they learn the science. Because without the science, I said I want to go all the way, so no kind of music scares me. Ravel, Stravinsky, Alban Berg, whatever. Duke Ellington, why does he put the [unintelligible] over the second tenor sax and all? I don’t know. That orchestration and arranging was just part of my soul all my life.
Tavis: How hard, then, how aggressive are you in pressing that message to all these young folk who adore you and love you that you have to get outside of your box, outside of your comfort zone, and learn it all, expose yourself to all of it?
Jones: Well, we’ve had a hard time, but now we have to organize it and really put in an organized basis, which we have now. Madeline Bono and a lot of people like Bill Banfield and David Baker or Herbie Hancock, people are working with us. All the universities, Alan Kay, Shawn Fanning, all these musicians, you know, to put together a curriculum. We’re the only country in the world that does not have a minister of culture, the only country, and the most loved music on the planet. Everywhere I go in the world, I hear it.
Tavis: What do you make of that – you and I have discussed this before – what do you make of the fact that we don’t have in this country a minister of culture when everybody else in the world does?
Jones: I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s about. I have a clue, but I’ll save that for later when we get our curriculum policy. We’ve had four meetings and it’s almost multiplied every time we have a consortium meeting and it’s going there. The real thing of how this music came about because this is an amazing saga, you know, from Africa, Spanish Inquisition, the Berbers, the Moors and all those influences, everything. It’s astounding. I spent 35 years on it.
Tavis: I’ll come back to the CD now. I said I was gonna bounce around here, so forgive me. Quincy just got so much product [laugh]. But his new CD, Soul Bossa Nostra, it’s, as I said, everybody. I couldn’t even do justice to all the names. They’re listed on the cover. Everybody is on this thing. Tell me about the project and what it must feel like when everybody in the hip-hop world wants to do a project to celebrate you.
Jones: Well, what feels best about it to me is that [unintelligible] started this off six years ago, said they wanted to do it in South Beach. But what’s good about it is all of this is for my foundation. Every one of them, the earphones and everything is for my foundation because that’s what my passion is about is my babies and you know I got some babies.
Tavis: Yeah, I know you got a few [laugh].
Jones: All over the world. I don’t mean mine, but I got some too.
Tavis: You mentioned the headphones. I said you got so much product. So when you buy a set of headphones that Quincy Jones has put his name on, what am I hearing with your stuff that I’m not hearing some place else?
Jones: You’re feeling you’re hearing the best songs you ever heard in your life. I’ve been involved with them almost 40 years. It’s AKG who was, you know, JBL speakers in my studio ever since I’ve been almost recording. So it was a very natural alliance really and all the stuff’s the best. Like the [unintelligible] watches too, you know. I don’t know how all four of them hit together, because they’re wearing me out, man [laugh].
Tavis: I told you that you got too much product, man. I see up on the screen right now. I’m just glancing at this monitor here in front of me. I see a promotion here for a prime time special that I’m doing in December, December 29, with a guy who I have been following for the last few weeks to prepare for this one-hour special.
Here we are in conversation talking about classical music and his growing up in Venezuela and up into this conversation pops the name Quincy Jones.
Jones: Gustavo Dudamel.
Tavis: Gustavo Dudamel. I can’t talk to nobody without your name coming into the conversation.
Jones: Oh, that little brother’s something else.
Tavis: But he’s an amazing guy.
Jones: He’s 28 years old.
Tavis: The conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Jones: And he could be a movie star and he could be a dancer. Man, he does everything and has the most biggest heart, you know, and humility. He has humility with his talent and grace with his success. He’s incredible.
Tavis: I raise that only because, to make my point, that everybody I talk to around the world has met you, has worked with you, has done something with you, how is that you end up connecting with these people before the rest of us hear about it? How do you know Gustavo Dudamel before he becomes the rage as the conductor of the L.A. Phil?
Jones: El Sistema.
Tavis: The program, yeah.
Jones: That’s a big program. He saved 300,000 kids from gangs with knife cuts and bullet wounds and everything else and had them playing them clarinets and violins and everything. His mentor, Dr. Jose Abreau, was the one that really started the El Sistema and it’s building. It’s spreading all over the world, you know. But this man is frightening. That’s the next Leonard Bernstein.
Tavis: Gustavo Dudamel.
Jones: We have a pianist from Cuba now that we have that’s 24 years old who’s one of the best piano players I’ve ever heard in my life. I met him when he was 20 in Switzerland. He’s writing a piece for Gustavo now. Gustavo is the monster.
Tavis: Speaking of Switzerland, you and I were there together.
Jones: He’s on the show on the 29th?
Tavis: Who? Gustavo?
Jones: Gustavo.
Tavis: It’s all about him. It’s airing on PBS. It’s all about Gustavo. It’s about him, but it’s about this program, El Sistema, that you referenced earlier.
Jones: Astounding man.
Tavis: And the question that we wrestled with in this special is what is the price that our country pays for abandoning music education for kids. Because he comes out of a program, as you mentioned, that gives him to the world. But what’s the price our country is paying, America, for abandoning music education for kids?
Jones: Number one, being labeled as isolationist. I travel more than anybody on the planet. I don’t care who they are.
Tavis: That’s true [laugh].
Jones: I’m sorry. You know, if I can keep up with you.
Tavis: I’m trying to follow you.
Jones: You know what I’m saying, man. You got to go to know. I was lucky enough to go at 19 years old with Lionel Hampton playing trumpet. Ben Webster, the great jazz saxophonist, said, “Young blood, step into my office. Let me pull your coat.”
You know, a lot of the hip-hop slang is being about slang. “Step over here. I want to give you some knowledge. Everywhere you go in the world with Lionel Hampton, you should eat the food that real people eat, listen to music they listen to and speak 30 to 40 words in every language.” When I was young, I realized why you got two ears and one mouth. You’re supposed to talk half as much as you listen and listen twice as much.
Tavis: So wherever you go, eat their food, listen to their music and learn a few words of their language.
Jones: Absolutely.
Tavis: And that makes you a –
Jones: – that’s right, and you’re into their culture, not dragging your culture with you. I feel at home everywhere in the world. It’s a great feeling, man, everywhere.
Tavis: I mentioned Switzerland because you mentioned it first. When we were in Switzerland, I guess, a couple years ago when you were being honored at the Montreux Jazz Festival, I was there with you. This group, Naturally 7, performed a tribute to you. Next thing I know, you got them signed up and working with you. They’re amazing. We got them on this show, these a cappella guys.
Jones: They’re fantastic. They’re into mime, they imitate – everything on that record, with them, there’s no instruments on it. It’s all a cappella. They’re incredible, man. I think they’re the new wave of hip-hop, you know. And they sing. We’ve got some Take 6 on there.
Tavis: You and I have talked, of course, a number of times since then, but this is the first time you’ve been back on this program since Michael passed away just over a year ago now.
Jones: Yeah, that’s right, June.
Tavis: Yeah, it’s the first time you’ve been back on the show since he passed. You still think about him, I assume?
Jones: How can you forget him? He’s in my soul. The relationship with an artist and a producer is stronger than anything you can imagine because it starts with love and then there’s trust, tremendous trust, because all you care about is that they are presented in the best possible way they can.
That’s all a producer should care about, you know. Everything, the album cover, everything, the right musicians, the right tempos, everything, babysitter, psychologist, everything. You have to know whether you can push them for three more takes or it’s time to take a break and go shoot some pool or something, you know.
It’s a very complex thing which you have to get into to know what to do because it’s very personal and there’s no formula that can happen on everybody. It doesn’t work like that. You have to know that they need another fourth range at the top, another fourth at the bottom, which I felt before we did Thriller, you know, because there was some things we wanted to try that he hadn’t tried before, you know. It’s a process like anything else, Tavis.
Tavis: When the movie –
Jones: – you pay attention, and you pay attention more than anybody I know.
Tavis: I try to pay attention.
Jones: To everything.
Tavis: When the movie is done about your life and your legacy, how do you know what the pinnacle is? Is it Michael? Is it Frank Sinatra? Is it Dizzy? You’ve done everything with everybody twice at least. How do you contextualize –
Jones: – there’s no pinnacle. It’s infinity. It is infinity. It’s different, you know, from Aretha, Ray Charles or Sinatra or Billie Holiday when I was 14, Sarah, Basie, Duke, and all. There’s no pinnacle.
Tavis: Yeah. Just infinity.
Jones: I was lucky enough to work with, I would say, the most influential people in the history of the last 50 years of American music, though.
Tavis: That’s an understatement.
Jones: And that’s something I don’t how it happened because you cannot plan that. You cannot make that happen. Age or nothing else is gonna make that happen. You have to just do what you know how to do and hope that somebody says do it with me, you know.
It’s like with Frank. We worked with him in 1958 when I was in Paris. I was a musical director for Barclay Records and somebody said, “Grace Kelly’s office just called. Mr. Sinatra wants him to bring his whole house band, 55 musicians and a vocal group, down by train to Monaco to the Sporting Club for a fundraiser for Sinatra.” I didn’t know him, you know. It was like a dream for an arranger. We went down.
I never heard from him for four years. I had a call from Hawaii one day. The first guy that called me “Q.” “Q, I heard that arrangement you did for Count Basie on Matt Howard’s ‘In Other Words’.” It was a waltz, but he said, “I liked the one you did in 4-4. Would you consider doing an album with me?” Man, is the Pope a Catholic?
Tavis: Is the Pope a Catholic [laugh]?
Jones: Are you kidding me? You better believe it, and I worked with him from ’64 until he left. His daughter Tina gave me this ring. This is the ring he wore. This has the family crest on it.
Tavis: Sinatra’s ring, yeah.
Jones: In Sicily, I don’t even need a passport [laugh].
Tavis: Just show them Sinatra’s ring and you get all the respect you want [laugh]. And you still ain’t done. That’s the thing that cracks me up. You’re gonna live to be a hundred and what?
Jones: Ten.
Tavis: 110 [laugh].
Jones: The Nobel doctor said if I lose this belly – it’s about 33 pounds – and do what they say, they’ll keep me here until 110 because we have nano technology coming in and color-coded gnome breakthrough from Cal Tech.
These are guys that are building our future. MIT and Alan Kay and these guys and the Nobel doctors. So I’m fortunate enough to be around them all the time, so I know – Keith Black – I know what’s coming. Man, it is gonna blow your mind. It’s happening already really.
Tavis: Everything you do blows my mind. Words you told me years ago, Tavis, and he’s the epitome of it. Live every day like it’s your last because –
Jones: – and one day you’ll be right [laugh].
Tavis: [Laugh] And that’s what he does.
Jones: Sinatra told me.
Tavis: Sinatra told him, he told me. I love it. So Q’s got new headphones out that sound like nobody’s business. The new CD, “Soul Bossa Nostra,” everybody celebrating. Who knew when you wrote this lit years ago, who knew that Austin Powers was gonna bring this back?
Jones: That’s right. Twenty minutes.
Tavis: And it’s back.
Jones: It won’t go away [laugh].
Tavis: That’s the new CD. And the new book, if you want to be a producer, you better read Quincy’s book, Q on Producing, the first in the Quincy Jones legacy series. Q, I love you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Glad to have you.
Jones: God bless you, man. Love you too.
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Last modified: August 18, 2014 at 7:07 pm