Quincy Jones is a man with an opinion on everything – and a story about everyone who is anyone. Recently clebrating his 85th birthday on March 14 (the date this was originally published on new sister blog HK Beats & Eats), the legendary producer remains in the limelight with a forthcoming Netflix documentary – and a headline-grabbing press tour which has seen barely a day go by without a resulting explosive newsbite. It feels pointedly prescient that, in the very age of the celebrity apology, journalists from Vanity Fair to Vice’s Noisey have spoken up with active regret that Jones felt it necessary to say sorry about some of his more contentious recent proclamations.
This churn of clickbait has inevitably reminded me of the three times I interviewed Jones – giddying, joyous encounters, gregariously punctuated with a gluttonous spread of celebrity names and unlikely contrivances, drawn from more than six decades in music (and film, and business, and philanthropy, and…). I look back today on the incredulous euphoria I felt hearing for myself, first-hand, about the time Miles Davis cooked Quincy’s breakfast eggs and gangsters nailed his hand to a fence – about partying with Ray Charles at 14 and crafting the best-selling album ever, Michael Jackson’s Thriller – and I vividly recall the three times I knelt down to reverently brush the ring Jones was left by Frank Sinatra (“Sicilian family gold, yes sir!”). Indeed, so road-worn are some of these war stories, now repackaged in the attention deficit digital age – that at times he seems to be sharing familiar anecdotes almost word for word.
Unlike GQ’s interviewer, however, I found Jones’ most-used word to be not “motherfucker”, but “unbelievable” – and it really, truly, is utterly, motherfuckingly unbelievable that a single human being has achieved and experienced so much in one fleeting, fragile, life. Here’s to you, Q – don’t ever stop.
I’ve been lucky enough to spend more than two hours collectively with Jones in total, over three interviews between 2011 and 2016. So, to celebrate the impending birthday, doc, Oprah special, mooted biopic series (starring Danny Glover?) and much-deserved Q-naissance – and in response to fears Jones has given up interviews for good over the furore his last two caused – I’ve gone back through the transcripts and tapes of my three previous meetings to compile some of the juiciest quotes, the bulk of which have been unpublished until now. All for the record, and for the love.
For the discerning reader: Each meeting took place in Dubai, where I was stationed at the time with Time Out Dubai and later at regional broadsheet The National – the first took place at One&Only The Palm Dubai, in November 2011, celebrating the launch of charity single Tomorrow-Bokra; the second at Jumeirah Emirates Towers in 2014, ahead of a Montegrappa gala dinner alongside friend Buzz Aldrin; and the third in December 2016 at Q’s – Jones’ first jazz club, then newly opened at Palazzo Versace Dubai. Throughout this final interview, cameras flittered around as we talked in late afternoon breeze, and I was later asked to sign a release allowing the footage to be used in the then-hush-hush forthcoming Netflix documentary – “You’re in Quincy’s film,” a beaming cameraman told me. We’ll soon see if I make the cut.
On nearly turning out a gangster (2016)
“I wanted to be a gangster at first. I was born in Chicago, my father was a master carpenter who used to build homes for the most notorious black gangsters in America. We’re doing a film on that.
“I lost my mother at seven years old to dementia, to a mental home, [my father] went to work and my brother and I – every day we saw dead bodies, tommy guns, stoogies, we’d go in the back room see piles of money – I’ve been a member of the mafia all my life.
“I wanted to be a gangster until I was 11 – the thirties in Chicago, it’s bad now, but you should have seen it in then. I wanted it to be my life, because that’s all I ever saw, and when you’re a kid, you want to be what you see.
“Then [in 1943, after moving to Bremerton, Washington]… we broke into this armoury, for some pie and ice cream one night, and I found a piano. And I touched that piano and said ‘that’s the rest of your life’ – I would have been dead or in prison. Thank god, that’s amazing.
“Music saved life – yes sir. The day after I found that piano I started learning saxophone, tuba, B-flat baritone, E-flat alto horn, French horn, trombone, and [finally] trumpet – that’s why I love to write for brass, because I played all the brass instruments.”
On betting, along with McCartney and Lennon, that The Beatles would bomb in the USA (2014)
“I knew [Paul] McCartney and [Mick] Jagger before they came to America. Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon] bet with me against the other Beatles, at the Mayfair Hotel, that The Beatles wouldn’t happen in America. We all bet on that – I didn’t see it coming, and neither did they. The Beatles were just average musicians, but they were the greatest songwriters in the world.
“Three weeks later, 50,000 people met them at the airport [JFK Airport in New York, February 7 1964] and Ringo [Starr] called me from the hotel and said [adopts cartoon Liverpudlian accent] ‘alright mate, take me to the Apollo and we call the bet off’. It was only $100 – but it was funny because we didn’t think they would make it. They had a hard time in France – big in Hamburg, Germany – but not in France. They fixed that.
“The Beatles’ songs were not even about rock n’ roll – Yesterday, that’s one of the greatest songs ever written. The Long and Winding Road. But it’s changed – who writes songs like that today?”
On smuggling smoked salmon into McCartney’s strictly veggie house (2016)
“Paul, I was with him three weeks ago, he’s like my brother, I knew [daughter] Stella since she was 11 years old. Have I heard his new record? No, not yet, I’ve got it at home.
“Paul is like my family, a great man, really beautiful man – he used to cook for me every time I was out in London – his vegetarian speciality. I used to have my girlfriend always carry my smoke salmon with me, my tabasco sauce, in case there’s only veg – because I’m a carnivore.”
On why he still considers Frank Sinatra the greatest singer who ever lived (2011)
“Yes he was. Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being. Frank was that person, that’s who he was. He told me every night we got off with [Count] Basie that he thought it was one of the best gigs he had, and I felt the same way. The three of us together in Las Vegas – it was ridiculous. He said, ‘live every day like it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right’. And we partied man, you’ve gotta know how to party – you know how to party? You know! – it’s very important.”
On making the transition from his jazz roots and orchestration to producing pure, sheen-stained pop, with Michael Jackson’s debut Off the Wall in 1979 (2016)
“I didn’t have to learn anything to do Michael, you think I had to listen to somebody else? Uh-uh, we played it all our life. Hell, no – we were already ready.
“It was easy? Nothing’s easy if you’re going to do it big – it’s not easy, but it’s not new. People act like I had to go out and learn from somebody else to do a pop record – that’s garbage, that’s ridiculous. It happened before there – we had 18 hit records with Lesley [Gore]. I had nothing to learn.”
On the posthumous, assembled-in-the-studio Jackson album Xscape (2014)
“That’s a private, personal move. I couldn’t do that, no. That’s why we went through 800 songs to get nine [for Thriller]. It’s all about sequencing… sequencing is the power of the record. But they’ve got ten producers, you can’t get that going.”
On legendary architect, and friend, Frank Gehry (2014)
“Frank Gehry always says to me, ‘Quincy, if architecture is frozen music, then music must be liquid architecture’ – and it is, emotional architecture. I think as an orchestrator, I think like an architect.”
On who of his celebrity pals partied the hardest (2014)
“You can’t compare the experiences – the experiences I had on the road with Sinatra, with Ray Charles as a kid – 14 years old in nightclubs – that’s how it started – and Michael, we never partied…not like that.
“Sinatra, Ray Charles… man you can’t mess with those two. Ray Charles is something – I met him when I was 14 and worked with him until I was 17. And I met Frank when I was 30 and it was like walking to another planet, man, we had so much fun. Musically and as human beings.”
And the legendary hedonism abuses of bebop architects Bird and Diz (2014)
“Sensible? Dizzy [Gillespie]? Get out of here. Dizzy was capable of everything – being rational and smart – but I remember one night we went down to the Village Vanguard… and he almost died. But Bird was all the way. [Bird] always had problems, man. Always. I used to watch Bird [Charlie Parker] in Charlie’s Tavern [’40s New York musicians’ hangout], he’d hang over the jukebox and listen to country and western – but mainly Stravinsky. They didn’t want to have to dance and sing and entertain people. They wanted to be pure artists.”
Interviewing Quincy in 2011 (photo by Isidora Bojovic)
On the Arab Spring (2011)
“What blows my mind is that everybody knows what everybody else is doing. Back in the days of Genghis Khan and the Holocaust people had no idea if people were living better than them or as good as them. You’ve got to understand that it wasn’t Kennedy and Regan who brought down the Berlin Wall – it was television. The Arab Spring could never have happened without the internet.
“Where’s it going? Wherever it can go – they go wherever they can and they have no fear. We’ve gone from silicon to microchips, which is like the dinosaur. In ten years there’ll be a $1,000 computer and nanotechnology – which is carbon and hydrogen atoms – a billion times faster than the stuff we’ve got. It’s coming man, you can count on it. It takes a million people to think the equivalent of that, so it can go wherever they take it man.”
On the secret meeting between Prince and Michael Jackson – which saw The Purple One walk away from what would have been one of the defining musical moments of the decade – a duet on 1987 mega-hit Bad (2016)
“Prince was always competing with Michael – always. I used to play with his father – his father was a jazz piano player in Minneapolis, we used to jazz with him – but Prince was always competing with Michael. He [first] came by the studio when we were doing Off the Wall in 1977, and his manager was worried because another manager was looking to steal him, and Prince looked like a deer in the headlight, y’know, clothes and shirt off – but he was always competing with Michael.
[‘Do we really want to go into Prince stuff on record?’ interrupts Jones’ minder with a grimace. ‘I don’t care man, it’s reality – the truth is the truth,’ retorts Jones.]
“[Later, in the mid-1980s] we invited [Prince] out to Michaels’ house to sing on Bad, and he was very intelligent about it. I told Michael, ‘you sit there, and Prince sits there, so it won’t look like we’re ganging up on him to do the record’. It was a beautiful meeting, a funny meeting, and [Prince] said ‘you don’t need me on this, it’s going to be a number one anyway’ – which it was.
“He gave [Jackson] a lot of funny presents, addressed to Camille [oddly, apparently Prince’s nickname for Jackson], and it was very interesting. It could have been history – that’s why I wanted to do it… I wanted to see them fight and come together and run together.”
On his first encounter with Miles Davis (2016)
“I came down to [NYC] with Oscar Pettiford from Boston to do a session for him, at 18. We went to the [club] to see [Charles] Mingus and I heard a guy behind me saying ‘I was with my girls last night, and I heard some young mofo trying to sound like me’ – I was trying to sound like Miles. I was improvising from day one, because bebop was it when I was young – it was like a religion, a revolution – unbelievable.”
On what Jones said, some four decades later, to convince the notoriously forward-facing Davis to record his swansong, Miles & Quincy Live at Montreux, which revisited Davis’s classic orchestral recordings with Gil Evans from 1957-1960 (2011)
“I had been trying 15 years to get him to do that. I’ve known Miles all my life, we were close friends; I was there in recording session in 1958 when they did Miles Ahead with Gil Evans conducting – it was amazing. I said, ‘Dewey, this one we’ve got to do a tribute to’. We kept talking and talking, we were at his home in Central Park West – he was upstairs with Flavor Flav putting an album together – he says ‘man this is going to be expensive,’ he says, ‘and it’s hard to play.’
“Finally, I got him to say yes – I know Miles. It was fantastic man, he played very softly, with no vibrato or anything. That night, I waved and said ‘Miles Davis’ [to the crowd] and he waved his towel at this audience – I’ve never seen him do that before – and he growled ‘screw you’ at me.
“He was like Sinatra. Those guys both had their big tough thing but they’re extremely subtle, they’ll cook breakfast for you, they’re beautiful man. Frank was exactly the same, that’s why I always wear his ring he left me. Sicilian family press – I don’t even need a passport to go to Sicily. [Cue the first of three times I touched Sinatra’s ring…].
On working with Sinatra (2014)
“My biggest fear was always that I’d get an opportunity that I was not prepared to do. When Sinatra called me, imagine how that would feel if I got with him and wasn’t ready, musically? He’d have killed me. To get a big gig and to mess it up – that’s a disaster. I’d shoot myself if it happened.
“We first worked together in Monte Carlo [in 1958]. I was working for a record company in Paris and we got a message that Grace Kelly had called for Sinatra, and he said, ‘can you bring your entire house band to Paris?’ I had a 55-piece house band – Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, Stéphane Grappelli, the best musicians in the world – and we took them down and played with him one night. And (afterwards) six [sic] words [from Sinatra]: ‘Good job kid, cuckoo,’ and that’s it.
“Four years I didn’t hear from him. And then he called from Hawaii and said ‘Q’ – first time I was ever called that… and two days later I was with him in Hawaii. I worked with him until he died and he left me this ring [second touch of the ring]. And that was one of the highest honours I’ve ever had in my life.”
On who, apart from everyone he has worked with, Jones missed out on… (2014)
“Marvin [Gaye] and Stevie [Wonder] – but they said I was too jazzy. Marvin wanted me to work on What’s Going On, and Stevie was [working] right next to me at the Record Plant [in New York] for two years.”
On kick-starting Will Smith’s career with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air [which Jones co-produced, and penned the iconic theme track to]….
“We started Will Smith – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – he’d just lost a million dollars as a rapper in Philadelphia, and I used to see him at the bar. He was smart though.
“When he first did Fresh Prince, he didn’t even know where the cameras were. And NBC were terrified to put him on television because they thought he was too dangerous! I said man ‘he’s the least dangerous man on the planet’ – I tell them ODB [Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard], I show you some dangerous ones – but don’t get me into that, I don’t want to go there.”
… and Oprah’s with The Color Purple [also co-produced and scored by Jones] (both 2016)
“Oprah – in my first production The Color Purple, I found her and Whoopi [Goldberg] for that, I started both of them. She’s worth three billion dollars today.
“You can’t stop looking out [for talent], if you have the instinct, to be able to see it coming – sometimes before the people who have it even see it – I can’t drive but I can see it before they even know they have it.”
On cash – of which Jones is said to have a stash of around $400 million (2016)
“Never go after money or fame – not even Thriller – you do it because it’s something you love and it moves you, and then it will move everyone else. Never for fame or money – you do what you love, and the money’s already there. You have to work, though.”
On turning down the chance to invest with Mark Zuckerberg (and Facebook?) (2011)
“Google jumps up – nobody heard of Google ten years ago. Facebook – (Mark) Zuckerberg and Sean Parker came to see me first, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t feel like I missed out, we’re with Google now.”
And asked to revisit the story in 2014…
“We didn’t turn them down – we didn’t know what they were doing man. They came to the house ‘cause… Sean Parker came to the house with his app, Causes, when Facebook was in its infancy. Let’s get real, 75 percent of these things don’t work. I got introduced to Silicon Valley very early, 38 years ago.”
Interviewing Quincy in 2016…. we both look older (photo by Christopher Pike)
On hanging with Igor Stravinsky (2014)
“I sat with Stravinsky and that was a real thrill – phew, what a talent. What I loved about him is he was very cognisant of the effect jazz had made on the world. Stravinsky was so influenced by jazz, he even wrote (1945’s Ebony Concerto) for Woody Herman. Absolutely, Stravinsky.
“Jazz and blues man, it’s the power of music in the world. After classical music, that is music, and music is everyone on the planet, all over the world.”
On making Michael Jackson beg (2014)
“A producer’s role is to give the artist whatever they don’t have – and to pull out what they don’t want to pull out. It takes love to pull out what they naturally have. I remember recording Thriller – on The Lady in My Life I was like: ‘Michael, I want you to beg on this one.’ He said ‘whaaat?!’ He made me close the curtains because he was ashamed of it, but he did it.”
On being made eggs by Sinatra and Davis (2014)
“With (Miles) and Frank it’s all bark and no bite. There’s one thing that both of them said to me that I’ll never forget for as long as I live – and they don’t even know about each other. Miles was at the house Saturday morning, and said [imitates Davis’ trademark growl] ‘how’d you like your darn eggs?’, cooking my breakfast, right? And when I first started going with Frank I got locked in Dean Martin’s dressing room [over the weekend], and he came in on Monday and said [brashly], ‘Hey, Q – how’d you like your eggs?’
[The answer, I established, after hearing the same story in 2016, is scrambled]
“Both of them act like that – they pretend to be so tough, but they’re the sweetest. Frank was the sweetest friend you could ever ask for. Miles too.”
On how he, Miles, Herbie Hancock and Cannonball Adderley played an equal role in bridging jazz and rock (2014)
“Electric blues started with the first electric guitar in 1939 – yes sir – and that turned it upside down. There were four of us who used to hang out together. Herbie, Cannonball, myself and Mile s– all of us used to sit around Charlie’s Tavern, that’s where the musicians were, and say ‘these cats aren’t playing nothing,’ when rock n’ roll came in. I said, ‘if they’re not playing nothing, how come we’re sitting here on Saturday night with no jobs?’ We used to laugh about that. So everybody went away, and all four of us got hit records – Cannonball did Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (1966) and Country Preacher (1969), Herbie did Watermelon Man (remade in 1970), I did Walking in Space in ‘69 and Miles did Bitches Brew in 1970. That was new then – now everybody does it.
“We would never go after money or fame – that did not go with jazz, no. It was to be good, be part of a revolution, to contribute something and that will take it even further. And when you’re around Charlie Parker and Miles that’s hard to do. So you do your best. And I got criticised a lot for doing a lot of different kinds of music, but hell, that’s where I started.”
On upsetting Herbie Hancock, after turning down a joint business venture, as cuttingly described in the latter’s biography Possibilities (2016)
“We understand each other, we’re both from Chicago – I read the book, we talked about it, he’s just doing that for a little bling, bling. He’s okay – he don’t need controversy, we work together all the time. We’ve done everything together, he’s like my brother – there’s no controversy or any tension at all between us.
“Drama – who wants to read a book with no drama? It’s not fiction – he did ask me [to form a company], but Steve Ross gave me a joint venture with Time Warner, an amazing step, but I couldn’t invite anyone into that.” [“They’re like best friends,” interrupts his minder, at this point. I want to believe him, and think I do].
On studying with Nadia Boulanger – the legendary mentor of classical composers including Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla (2016)
“She said: Quincy – we have 12 notes, the same 12 notes for 700 years – Brahms, Beethoven, Bo Diddley, Bird, Basie, everybody – and until he gives us 13 I’m going to make you learn what everybody’s done with 12. That’s why no music scares me – none, I feel comfortable with every music on the planet.
“Twelve notes all over the world. That’s amazing psychologically because it pulls people together. Everybody has the same language – different languages, but that’s the same language all over the world.”
On the long-prophesised death of jazz (2014)
“Hell no – it’s too alive. You ever listen to [Davis’] Kind of Blue? That sounds like it was made yesterday [In 2011, Jones claimed to listen to Davis’ masterpiece daily].
“That’s rubbish. You haven’t been to Scandinavia. Have you heard of Dirty Boots? Catch them – there’s people out there that are ready to go back. They sing [Justin] Bieber in all bebop chords. It’s the same thing in Indonesia and China, Germany, Russia. Not even close to being gone. They know that’s the foundation. What’s it going to be? Hound Dog? I don’t think so.”
[True to his word, two years later, I was in the room when Jones introduced Dirty Boots to play the opening party of his first jazz club, Q’s. And this wasn’t the first Elvis dig I heard from Jones].
And the hidden Coltrane influence in MJ’s Thriller (2016)
“If you listen closely to Thriller, and you listen to Baby Be Mine… [mimes bass riff] – that’s Coltrane man. And I’m unaware of that stuff.”
On plans for a second autobiography [following 2001’s Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones] (2016)
“Is there anyone I don’t know? Not at 83. You’ll see. If you hear it, you’re happy you know all these beautiful people and they know you – they don’t let you in unless they wanna know you.
“We have to [do a second], you can’t put it all in one book – number one – and also, you know too much, so you can’t talk about it, a lot of heavy historical things you can’t talk about. We’re talking about it – you need a big book when you’ve got 83 years, old dear. A lotta friends.”
On the last song he’d like to hear before the lights go out (2014)
“I’d probably choose How Do You Keep the Music Playing’ [recorded with Sinatra in 1984] – ‘How do you keep the music playing?, How do you make it last?, How do you keep the song from fading too fast?’. That’s the real stuff. Because melody is the power, and you get that with good lyrics and it’s over. Sinatra had the best songs ever written.”
On the lot of the producer (from The Producers’ Seminar at Dubai Music Week, 2013)
“If the cover is messed up, you’ve got the wrong songs, the wrong arrangements, the wrong backing singers, the wrong tempos and the wrong [musical] keys – it’s the producer’s fault. If it’s a hit record – the artist did everything. It will never change; if it works, the artist did it all.
“To be a producer you have to babysit an artist, you have to tell them when to jump without notice – and if you tell them to jump, you have to know what you’re doing. The best relationship with artists is truth and love – you’ve got to love each other. It’s one of the closest relationships – even more than a marriage. They trust what they consider their lives to you. With Sinatra I realised intuitively a way to get things done.
“I learned quickly with these tough guys – Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Sinatra – that you don’t say it to them publicly; you suggest it to them privately. It’s love – respect and love. He’s giving up everything he has, and you’re giving up everything you have, and hopefully you don’t run into bumps.”
On being mentored by bebop trumpeter Clark Terry in his teens (2016 – one of Q’s parting words of wisdom at our final meeting)
“Keep on looking, keep on trying. ‘If you don’t succeed at first, keep on sucking until you succeed,’ – that’s Clark Terry. Those were such great mentors, that’s what’s great, these guys gave you examples of how you should be as a human being. Basie too, he was just so real – real man, no bullshit, I can’t bullshit.
“It’s unbelievable – each step you learn more, you’re shocked to get the opportunity, but you get the opportunity and you’ve got to do something with it. Because opportunities don’t mean shit if you don’t deliver.”