Quincy Jones' Best Stories About Working With MJ, Sinatra and Ray

The musician and producer talks new documentary 'Distortion of Sound' and half a century of music business memories

Quincy Jones Michael Jackson
Ron Galella/WireImage
Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.
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Quincy Jones, now 81 years old, has been not just an eyewitness to the evolution of 20th century music but one of its biggest players. He started as a jazz trumpeter and an arranger, and went on to be a bandleader, a film composer and a producer. Along the way, he worked with Ray Charles, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Paul Simon and Michael Jackson, to name a few. He produced the world's best-selling album (Michael Jackson's Thriller) and the all-star charity single "We Are the World." He's been nominated for 79 Grammys, winning 27 of them. His seven children include actress Rashida Jones: "She's a sweet little thing, so smart," he brags.

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Jones is featured in the forthcoming documentary Distortion of Sound, about how digital compression has compromised the music that we all hear today. We caught up with him in Los Angeles for a conversation about technology and his career.

Have you seen technology change music?
Yeah, that's what changes the world. I remember when Baryshnikov first came to New York in the Sixties. I asked him, "Mikhail, how the hell did you have the guts to pull out of Russia in those days?" He said, "Quincy, very simple – television. I saw Roland Petit at the Parisian Ballet, I saw ABT in NY, and I said, 'I can do that too.'" When I look back at my own lifetime, the things I saw change the most was jet planes and television. And then we got into faxes and satellites and email, and it was over, man. The Arab Spring couldn't have happened without e-mail.

How often do you play trumpet these days?
I can never play it again – I'd die. Dizzy [Gillespie] gave me his original horn, and I can't touch it. I had a brain operation: aneurysms. I have this clip in my brain. I got letters in five languages saying I can't go through anything magnetic. Given the alternative, it's an easy choice.

What did you learn from Ray Charles?
Well, everything. We met when I was 14 years old and he was 17. He used to teach me stuff in braille. He sang back then, like Nat Cole and Charles Brown, and he played alto like Charlie Parker. There was a lot of racism going on in the Forties, but every day we used to say to the world, "Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your opinion of me."

Frank Sinatra gave you your "Q" nickname?
I was living in France and one day they said, "Grace Kelly's office called, and Mr. Sinatra wants you to bring a 55-piece orchestra down to Monte Carlo for a benefit." We took a train down and at the end of the show, he said, "Great job, kid, koo-koo." I didn't hear from him for four years and then he called me and said, "Hey, Q, this is Francis, I'm in Hawaii directing a film called None But the Brave. I heard the record you did last year with Basie." It was a waltz – I did it in 4/4 with Basie so it would swing. He said, "That's the way I like to do it too. Would you consider doing an album with Basie and me?" I said hell to the yeah, went over to Hawaii, and I didn't leave Frank until he left earth.

Do you have a memory of Michael Jackson as a musician?
We started to work on The Wiz when he was about 19. He said, "I need a producer for my album," seeing if I had a personal interest in working with him. I said, "Michael, I don't want to talk about nothing but the film." But I was trying to find things that he hadn't done before. I had this song "She's Out of My Life" that Tommy Bahler wrote when his wife left him. I was saving that for Sinatra, but I said, "I want to try this with Michael, 'cause he's never had a real life experience, a genuine relationship with a woman." I saw him at the Oscars one year – he was doing "Ben," this romantic love story to a rat! So I gave the song to him, and every time we recorded it, he cried.