Quincy Jones likes to get into things. Even at 81, he’s got his fingers in more pies than you can ever even think of baking. The man is still producing, composing, conducting, teaching, publicizing, fundraising, discovering. He’s so busy, and has so many credits and causes and points of pride, that you can talk to him for 45 minutes and never get around to mentioning Thriller, “We Are the World,” Sanford and Son, or the viewable-from-space acreage required to house all of his Grammys, Emmys, and humanitarian awards.
The musical legend’s latest project is Keep on Keepin’ On, a documentary about his mentor, the jazz trumpeter Clark Terry. Jones serves as a producer of the film alongside Oscar-winner Paula DuPré Pesmen (The Cove), as well as living proof of its subject’s genius and generosity. The film recounts the moment that a barely teenaged Jones pursued Terry after a series of shows in Chicago, begging to be taken on as a student. The veteran musician relented, and with Jones as his first protégé, embarked upon what would become his greatest calling — serving as a tireless, beloved, and at 93 years old, still active mentor to everyone from Wynton Marsalis to the film’s director, Alan Hicks. True to that spirit, Keep On serves as a dual portrait of Terry and his young ward Justin Kauflin, a talented blind jazz pianist, as the former struggles with diabetes and the latter’s fights to make headway in a competitive field.
Over wine and cookies, high above Columbus Circle at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the man they simply call “Q” holds court about everything from music, movies, and mythology to mentorship, mathematics, and Mike Tyson. After all, when he drops names like Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, and Will Smith, Quincy is invoking people who probably spend at least as much time bragging about knowing him. This is a man who wears a pinkie ring given to him by Frank Sinatra and who, after he’s done giggling at your grade-school joke about Whoopi Goldberg’s name, lightly reminds you, “I discovered her, you know. Oprah too.” What follows is only a sample of what happens when Q gets into it.
Clark Terry is 93, and as we see in the movie, still stays up until 4am to talk music. You’re 81 — does it even seem fathomable that you’re in your 80s, considering your lifestyle and all that you do?
Johnny Mandel, he’s one of my oldest friends — we go back to before electricity. And he always says, “Q, we’re going to be the only two guys who ever went from infancy to Alzheimer’s without passing through grown up.” I don’t want to grow up, do you? Boring, man. To my kids I say I’d rather you be my friends than my children. We hang out. We party. I can out-party my kids, too.
You’ve been conducting orchestras, running labels, and guiding whole industries from a very young age. How have you been able to preside over such major talent and serve as the glue between them?
It takes love and amazing respect, man. I never thought about it until I hit 80, but I have been blessed to work with every major music star in the history of America — including Louie Armstrong. You can’t plan that. You can’t say, “Mr. Sinatra, I want to work with you.” No. You have to wait until he calls you.
So you were never a precocious 16 year-old going, “I want to work with Ellington and Sinatra?”
Hell no. I remember working in Paris and coming in one day, and they say Grace Kelly’s office called, and Mr. Sinatra wants you to bring your 55-piece house orchestra down to Monte Carlo to the Sporting Club to play an event. Frank Sinatra — are you kidding? That’s like gong to heaven, man. At that time I had Kenny Clarke on drums, I had Lucky Thompson on tenor, I had Stéphane Grappelli, who was with Django Reinhardt, the Double Six, the vocal group — they were all in my house orchestra.
So we took the train down there and played with Frank, and it was like working with a magician. We played “ba-ba-ba-bum bwam, bo-dee-do-do”…it’s “The Man With a Golden Arm,” you know? Frank is back there high-fiving with Cary Grant and Noel Coward and Grace Kelly and all these people, and I’m stupid enough to think, “I hope he heard because I don’t want the applause to run out.” So he hangs, has a drink, and we’re like “ba-ba-ba-bum” you know. He was in the back of the room, and then he stops on his way up, he’s got his little velvet shoes on. And he’s looking for his cigarette holder, takes one out, lights a cigarette, and I’m like, come on man, hurry up. And as soon as he gets to the stage we go into “Come Fly With Me.” You know, “ba-da-da, da-da-da-do-da-di-do-di-do.”
And I saw something that night…I thought I was on Mars. Frank is singing and he takes a puff off his cigarette — cut down to pin, spotlight is dark. He sings, “when I get you up there”—no smoke. Then: “where the air is rare” and then there was smoke. Herman Leonard, the greatest photographer in the world, he takes that picture, a classic picture now, of him from behind with the smoke. That’s from Sporting Club in ’58. Afterwards, I didn’t hear a word he said. “Great job, kid. Cuckoo.” That was it. I didn’t know how it registered on the scale. You don’t know. But you pray, because that’s a dream.
I don’t want to grow up, do you? Boring, man. I can out-party my kids, too.
Four years later, I get a call. “Hey, Q.” Nobody had ever called me that before. “This is Francis. I’m in Kaua’i, and I’m directing a film called None But The Brave, and I just heard that record you did with Basie last year, ‘In Other Words.'” So that was the first arrangement I wrote for him, in a hotel room in Lake Tahoe. Except Frank changed the title to “Fly Me to the Moon.” I remember Sonny Burke said, “You can’t change the title.” And Frank said, “What’s the first words you hear?” “Fly me to the moon.” “That’s the title.” [Laughs] Frank didn’t take no shit from nobody.
Clearly he was a musical genius, but I’d imagine your relationship extended to a whole lot more than that, right?
Everything. I’d be in my hotel room writing on Thanksgiving, and he’d be like, “What the hell are you doing? I’m coming to get your ass.” They lived at 700 Nimes Road [in Los Angeles]. That’s where Elizabeth Taylor died — she moved in afterwards. And it’s where Nancy Sinatra lived, and where I met Michael Caine. We were running after girls back then. Oh god, so much fun. We had some fun, man. You forget that Harry James was married to Betty Grable. Artie Shaw had Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Rosalind Russell, all those girls were his girlfriends. Forget the movie stars, man — the bandleaders had them all. And Sinatra. Sinatra was with everybody.
Them cats didn’t play. Whoo.
The first thing you asked me when I sat down was where I’m from — where my people come from. Why is that important to you?
Each state in this country had a major influence. Kansas City had Lester Young, New Jersey had Basie. Philadelphia — Jimmie Smith. Columbus — Nancy Wilson. Jackson — Big Maybelle. St. Louis — Miles, Clark Perry.
Could you hear it in their playing?
Oh yeah. They used to have territory bands. The genesis and the evolution of our music has just been astounding. And Americans don’t know shit about it.
In the film, we learn that Duke Ellington mentored Clark Terry, that Clark Terry in turn mentored you, and you’ve famously mentored countless musicians from James Ingram and Patti Austin to Michael Jackson. Where does that impulse come from, to both guide and be guided?
It’s ancient, [the idea of] mentorship and apprenticeship. Ravi Shankar told me in 1956 that “my students can not play in public for 14 years when they study with me.” 14 years, man.!
That’s a strict regime. But that’s not the situation in jazz, is it?
It’s a similar situation. You don’t go out until you’re ready, is what they’re telling you.
How did you know when it was time for you to start passing things on?
If it happens to you, you know. [Count] Basie got to me at 13, Clark around the same age. Ray Charles was there since I was 14 — when he was just 17. And Benny Carter, he walked me straight into television as a composer. And if that happens to you, it’s an automatic instinct for you [to give back]. Automatic. You don’t even have to think about it.
And you knew to pursue mentors when you were young?
No, it’s just part of your subconscious mind. Now, all these years later, can you imagine what it feels like to look at the guy who taught you when you were 13 years old? It’s ridiculous.
What’s it like to watch another young musician, Justin Kauflin, get taken under Clark’s wing?
It’s fantastic, man. You can identify with him every step of the way. In fact, I was shocked to hear Justin using all the vernacular, talking about “your crib,” “your pad.” That’s all Forties and Fifties talk, man. Every word is all jazz. It’s like cockney, or prison language. There were the jazz guys, and the hip-hop guys took it from them. Lester Young was calling Count Basie “homeboy” 90 years ago.
And it remains alive because it’s always an “in” language?
Yeah, it’s a prison language. Speaking of, you know I did The Italian Job 45 years ago? After I leave here I’m going to London where there’s going to be a celebration with Michael Caine, and I’m going to conduct the London Philharmonic with songs from The Italian Job. Michael Caine, we were born the same year, month, day and hour.
Same hour? Seriously?
Celestial twins. Truly, celestial twins. That’s like magic and all.
When did you get involved with this movie?
Accidentally, about a year and a half ago, when I went down to Arkansas to start working on a Clark album we’d planned to do with Snoop Dogg. He’d rap, and Clark would do [his scat character] Mumbles. It fits; they’re both from St. Louis, too. But Snoop had an injury to his leg, so we just talked, and Clark said I want you to listen to this blind Japanese piano player. And it was over. Now Justin is one of my Global Gumbo All Stars. That’s a group of, to me, the most talented young people on the planet.
Who else did you consider a mentor?
Other than those four I mentioned before, it was Armando Travioli, and Henry Mancini when I got into films. Morricone.
Really, Ennio Morricone?
I just talked to him yesterday. He’s a great guy. He did 408 movies. We helped get him that [honorary] Oscar.
How do you balance out the need for the history of jazz music to be understood and honored, while at the same time keep the music alive and in the moment?
You make it alive. And it’s alive already. Everything you hear Justin play, in the movie, they blazed that trail years ago. Can you imagine Stravinsky’s ears, from the days of the three B’s — Brahms, Bach and Beethoven — when he first heard “shhh-tish-shh-shhh-tish, shhh-tish-shh-shhh-tish.” It didn’t exist before. Nowhere on the planet! He made all this stuff up, invented it all. It’s gotta be told, the story about the genesis and evolution of jazz music. People don’t know. It’s very complex, man. All we’ve got are 12 notes, and you have to know what everybody did with them in order to set your priorities and to make it your own. You’ve got rhythm, harmony and melody — to me, melody is the voice of god, and it hangs out there in the universe. You married?
No, but I was.
Ok, well you remember when you had a wife. And you had “our song” right? Nobody can change that. That’s hanging out in the universe. You can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it. But you can feel it.
It’s like the conversation in the film between Clark and Justin, where the older man is saying that the music has to come from you. It has to get inside you and become yours.
Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. You make it yours. It’s astounding. And it’s always been a challenge. Now, Stravinksy was Nadia Boulanger’s mentor, and he said, “You’ll never get it all. But if you keep working at it you’ll get as much as you can.” There’s a lot too eat in music — retrograde inversion, counterpoint. It’s heavy, man. [Pause] Sorry to veer off. I can’t help it. I’ve got a jazz mind.