Not withstanding his two autobiographies, including the recently published The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey & Passions (Insight Editions) summing up the career of Quincy Jones cannot be done in one book and certainly not in one article. To truly understand the man, who he really is and why he has been able to accomplish so much for so long, while still having plenty more left to do, one must spend time to talking to him. It was just that that I had the privilege to do.
In a lengthy interview that began in the afternoon and ended in the evening, Q, as his closest friends call him, revealed in conversation why he is more than just a man, but a life force. Any interviewer would be content to talk about his production of the biggest selling, non-greatest hits album of all time, Thriller by Michael Jackson, which has sold over a 100 million copies. Tracing the enfolding of the recording of “We Are the World,” which Jones produced, is a book unto itself. Then there are the countless movie soundtracks, solo recordings, sessions with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles, the recording of the last Miles Davis album, as well as the countless legendary jazz dates that Jones produced, arranged and through his sheer will and talent, has helped usher into jazz history.
There have been more than 200 recordings with which he has been involved, including, surprisingly, working with Lesley Gore, Ringo Starr and Paul Simon. His recording, “Soul Bossa Nova,” from his album Big Band Bossa Nova, is the theme song of the Austin Powers movies. Also noteworthy are the movies he’s produced, his stint as Vice-President of Mercury Records, the record company (Qwest) that he runs and his philanthropic endeavors and tireless humanitarian efforts. Yet, Jones had more to talk about than just what he’s accomplished. With such upcoming projects as films on Louis Armstrong and Carnaval, and his spearheading of the call to have a Secretary of Arts as a cabinet level position in the White House, Jones is interested more in the future than in recounting the past.
For someone who has achieved so much (including 79 Grammy nominations and 27 Grammy awards, both the most by anyone), Jones is amiable and soft-spoken and punctuates many of his answers with a self-deprecating laugh. Having recently traveled to such near and far destinations as Cairo, Shanghai and Texas, Jones began our conversation by getting his bearings straight and talking about Tony Bennett. Jones will be producing Bennett’s next album: a jazz album that is a collaboration with Stevie Wonder. As for Bennett, Jones said, “I’ve know him for 57 years. He’s the best. I’m really looking forward to this album. It’s going to be exciting.” Yet, before he even completed his thought, he started me on a conversation on music that began with the question, “Do you think vinyl is coming back?” From there, he talked about how the technology of recording and instruments has evolved and said, “None of it (technology) bothers me, because I’m always following it. One of the great things about getting older is you see how everything turns out.” Yet, at 76, Jones added, “The older you get, you realize how much you don’t know.”
In terms of how much he knows about music, one would doubt there’s very little left he doesn’t know. Surprisingly, Jones did not place being a record producer at the top of his list of what he feels he does best. He said number one would be composing, orchestrating and arranging. Yet, in his early days composing, orchestrating and arranging, he acted very much like a record producer. “I did the same things that the producer did and didn’t even know it and didn’t get paid for it either.” For Jones the challenge of being a record producer is “how to make 100 musicians play together at the same time, or 19. Understanding who you’re working with, their range and constraints. You have to investigate how far you can push and when you should stop. When you tell Ray Charles, Sinatra and these guys to jump without a net, you better know what you’re talking about, because they’re tough. They’ll know if you know what you’re doing.”
The sessions he has been involved in are countless and memorable. When I asked him if he had heard that the famed Capitol Studios in Hollywood was going to be torn down, he was incredulous and said, “I’m shocked.” He recounted how he produced Sinatra’s recording of “Fly Me to the Moon” in that very room.
The conversation touched on many topics – from culture and history to nanotechnology and respect for American culture, particularly jazz, to the countless languages Quincy can read and write (he’s currently learning Mandarin Chinese) and the love he has for his children. Before he ended the interview and prepared for his annual trip to London to spend his birthday with actor Michael Caine (something he has done for 40 years since the two were both born on the same years, day and hour), he kept coming back to two words that were integral to his life and artistic endeavors: love and respect. With all he’s done and all that still lies ahead, he said, “I’ve never been happier in my life.”