When Quincy Jones teaches, he starts with the classics
By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; E01
"Youngblood," the jazz greats would whisper in whiskey-smooth voices to a young Quincy Jones, "step into my office." The office could have been a backstage hallway anywhere with musicians practicing bebop. Or a juke joint in downtown Seattle, where Billie Holiday had to be helped onstage. The office might have been a jazz club corridor with broken lights and a 17-year-old Ray Charles, who "might as well have been 100 because he had his own girlfriend and apartment." The office might have been a seat on a bus traveling with the Lionel Hampton Band.
In the "office," the older musicians would educate Jones about music and life.
"Youngblood, you gotta . . ." Jones recalls them saying as he sits at a corner table in the bar lounge at the Ritz-Carlton in Northwest Washington. Jones has come to town to promote his new book, "Q on Producing." In the book -- the first of three in "The Quincy Jones Legacy Series," written with Bill Gibson -- Jones dispenses advice to a younger generation, which he says doesn't seem to understand its music history or recognize its musical heroes.
The book is Jones's "step into my office" lesson for younger musicians.
"I talk a lot now," he says, "but I used to sit down, shut up and listen."
Jones was only 14 in 1947 when he joined a jazz band in Seattle. Throughout his career, there was always someone older on the scene to "school" Jones.
Jones pauses. Ice cubes clink in glasses at the bar. "Count Basie practically adopted me when I was 13. I would play hooky and go down to [Seattle's now-defunct] Palomar Theatre."
The jazz tenor saxophonist Ben Webster would say, "Step into my office. Let me pull your coat for a minute," Jones recalls. "That is the way they would say it then: Let me pull your coat for a minute. Come over here. I want to teach you something."
Basie would tell him, "This business is all about hills and valleys. You find out what you're made out of when you're in the valleys," Jones says. "That's why it comes easy for me to help young guys, because I was given a hand up when I was young."
John Coltrane reminded Jones to study Nicolas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns," which Jones read in school. "Coltrane always had Slonimsky's book with him," he says.
Nadia Boulanger, a famous composition teacher in France, told him, "Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being."
For more than six decades of his life, Jones has worked with music's greats: Duke Ellington, Coltrane, Basie, Miles Davis. His hits as a producer range from Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" to Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad," and Frank Sinatra's "Sinatra at the Sands." Jones's latest album, to be released this month, is "Q: Soul Bossa Nostra," which features contemporary artists such as Usher, Ludacris, Jennifer Hudson and Amy Winehouse singing Jones's hits.
Jones has won 27 Grammy Awards, the most of any living musician, and garnered 79 Grammy nominations, the most in music history. His influence on the entertainment industry is almost omnipresent: He helped Michael Jackson start his solo career; persuaded Davis to give a concert in Montreux, Switzerland; chose Oprah for a starring role in "The Color Purple," which he produced with Steven Spielberg. He also produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," which starred Will Smith. It was Jones who had the star power to put 46 celebrities in one room to sing "We Are the World" to raise money for famine relief.
It's a still day outside, but in the Ritz lounge, it might as well be around midnight. The light is low. Jones sits in a booth orchestrating the conversation, talking about his childhood, his passion for music. A parade of people recognize the producer. They reach over the table and he reaches out with his right hand, the one with the golden pinky ring Sinatra gave him. Jones is gracious, a silky man in a silky black suit, a gold earring in one ear. He acts like a man who has nothing to lose and a lot to teach. Everybody, Jones says, is interesting. Everybody has a story to tell. Everybody needs music and the life lessons music can teach.
What the greats do
A few years ago, Jones was visiting his high school alma mater in Seattle. Garfield High was renaming the performance arts center after him. Some students gathered around Jones after the ceremony. One youth told Jones he wanted to be a rapper and asked what he needed to do. Jones asked him, "Do you know who Louis Armstrong was? . . . Do you know who Duke Ellington was? . . . Do know about Dizzy Gillespie?"
The kid said no.
Did he know Davis, Coltrane, Thelonious Monk?
No, the kid said. The incident disturbed Jones. The student was there to help name a building after Jones, but "the young man had no idea who the men were who put me on their shoulders and helped me as a young musician."
For this lack of knowledge, Jones mostly faults public education, which he says does a poor job these days of teaching students the history of music in the United States. But he also says parents of children interested in music should "force-feed" them music, making them practice their scales at least four hours a day so they become proficient in music and eventually "have something to work with."
When young people ask Jones how they can break into the music industry or get better, he advises them to choose 10 songs they like best and play them repeatedly. Often, he gives them a copy of Davis's "Kind of Blue," telling them to "Take this every day, like it's orange juice."
Listen, he tells them, to Miles and Coltrane. Listen to Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley. The legendary musicians are important, he tells them, because everybody from "Marvin Gaye to Earth, Wind & Fire to Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson, owes a debt to that tradition."
Listen, he tells them, to the song "Baby Be Mine" on the album "Thriller," which Jones produced in 1982 with Jackson. "Thriller" became the best-selling album in U.S. music history. "The song," Jones says, "has pop lyrics and a beat, but that's Coltrane, baby, Coltrane all the way."
The new book includes practical advice: "You have to develop your skills until you really know what you're talking about -- really know deep down inside."
That's what the greats do, he says. Herbie Hancock, Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Patti Austin. "I've seen Aretha sit at a piano and sing a line over and over again," Jones says. "She might sing it 20 or more times, exploring her voice, developing it, finding out what its capabilities are."
Music is "a science, too, and if you don't deal with the science, the soul can't play or sing the way it should."
'In my DNA'
When Jones was 11, music became his mother. You can still see the pain in his face 66 years later. As a child, Jones watched as his mother, Sarah, who was suffering from dementia, was sent away to a mental institution. "They put her in a straitjacket," he says, the expression in his eyes deepening. The loss of his mother was profound.
"For me that was the end of what mother meant. Whoever has had a mother does not know what I am talking about. And I don't know what they are talking about."
After his mother was hospitalized, Jones and his younger brother Lloyd were sent to Louisville to live with their grandmother, a former slave. She used to send them to catch river rats. And she would fry them.
In 1943, the boys went back to Chicago to live with their father, Quincy Delight Jones Sr., who worked as a carpenter for the Jones Boys, one of the most notorious black gangs in Chicago.
"Chicago had the biggest black ghetto in America," he says. "It made Compton and Harlem look like Boys Town." The city's African Americans "were buying music before they bought clothes or food, just to keep their souls together."
Gangsters controlled every block. One day Jones ended up on the wrong street and some gangsters grabbed him. "They put my hand up against a fence and stabbed it with a switchblade." Then, he said, they took an ice pick "and stabbed it into my temple." Quincy thought he would die.
Jones's father found the young Quincy and beat off the young criminals. The gang situation heated up in Chicago, Al Capone's gang members put pressure on the Jones Boys, and Quincy's father, who was not a gang member, left town because his name was associated with the Jones Boys. The family headed by bus to the state of Washington, settling in Bremerton near Seattle.
"Lloyd and I had a stepmother that I don't even like to think about," he says. "She was illiterate and mean. . . . Daddy was working all the time. He did the best he could."
The hard life shaped him, he says. "If I had a good family, I might have been a terrible musician," he says.
In Bremerton, Jones says, he and Lloyd were "baby gangsters." "We were stealing everything in sight." One night they heard about a shipment of lemon pies coming into the armory. They broke in, ate pie and then, "just for the hell of it," Jones recalls, he broke into other rooms. Inside one room was a spinet piano.
"I almost closed the door," Jones says. "But God said, 'Go back in that room!' And that saved my life." Jones walked over to the piano and touched it. "Every cell in my body, every drop of blood said, 'This is where you will live the rest of your life.' "
He went back to school and studied piano. Before long he had learned all the instruments in the band. At 12, he could hear the roles of different instruments in a song. "That's when I knew it was in my DNA to be an arranger and composer."
Jones stops his story and shakes someone's hand and hugs a skinny woman in a red dress. He continues.
At Garfield High, Jones wrote his first composition, "Suite to the Four Winds." He sent a copy to the Schillinger House, now called Berklee College of Music, where he was given a scholarship. A year later he left school to tour with Lionel Hampton. Jones began his producing career, rising in 1961 to become vice president of Mercury Records. He won his first Grammy in 1963.
He left the record company and went to California, where he wrote scores for film, including "The Pawnbroker," "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Color Purple." In 1967, he received two Oscar nominations, for Best Original Score for "In Cold Blood" and Best Original Song for "The Eyes of Love" from the film "Banning." He composed the themes for "Ironside," "Sanford and Son" and "The Bill Cosby Show," and wrote the score for "Roots."
Working with Michael
In 1977, Jones was asked to work on the score for "The Wiz."
This time it would be Jones's turn to ask a younger artist to step into his office.
Michael Jackson had been cast in "The Wiz" to play the part of the Scarecrow. Jackson's character pulled pieces of paper out of his chest and read quotes from philosophers.
"He'd say the quote and then the philosopher's name," Jones recalls.
Jackson would read the quote, then say "Confucius." Then he'd read the next quote. When Jackson got to Socrates, he pronounced it "So-KRAY-teez."
"He kept saying 'So-KRAY-teez.' Diana didn't interrupt him," Jones says, referring to Diana Ross. Neither did Sidney Lumet, nor Nipsey Russell. The second day, Jones asked Jackson to step into his office.
"Michael, it's 'SOCK-ra-teez,' not 'So-KRAY-teez.' "
Jackson said, "Really!"
And Jones saw "the sweetest look" on Jackson's face. "I saw something in him I'd never seen before: a special kind of innocence and sensitivity."
In that moment, Jones saw more potential in Jackson. He says, "Everybody said, 'You can't make Michael any bigger than he was in the Jackson 5.' I said, 'We'll see.' "
Jones told Jackson he'd work with him on an album. But Epic Records said no -- "Quincy's too jazzy. He's a jazz arranger and composer," he recalls. But Jackson's managers insisted on Jones producing the album.
Jones was interested in Jackson singing in a lower key. He had seen Jackson on the Oscars singing "Ben," a love song about a rat. "I said, 'Let's try a woman.' . . . I'd been hanging onto a song called 'She's Out of My Life.' " "Off the Wall" became one of the top-selling albums in music history.
Jackson was one of the hardest-working musicians he had ever seen, Jones says. In the studio, he let Jackson dance and perform while he was recording. They would dim the studio and put a pin light on Jackson, who would dance. Jones left the sound of Jackson's dancing on the recordings.
What is the music industry like without Jackson?
"There is a spiritual energy and a chemical energy," Jones says. "The chemical energy leaves you. We are left with his creative spirit." He stops as if on cue. An assistant breaks in and tells him a children's choir is waiting to meet him. The producer rises, blows kisses, makes his way through the crowd at the Ritz, heading for his "office." He has more young people to school.