“At each stage in his remarkable career, he’s been the first. He’s been somebody who’s walked through that door before everybody else has. That’s given people behind him enormous confidence. And he’s done it with grace.”
Those are the words President Obama uses to describe the writer-producer-arranger-composer Quincy Jones near the end of the new documentary Quincy. Jones is one of the great musical figures of the 20th century, a restless polymath who worked across jazz, the blues, pop, funk and rap. His work always balanced musical complexity and mass appeal, and he had a special gift for recording great singers, including several of the best in history — Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Michael Jackson.
Quincy, directed by Jones’ daughter Rashida, seesaws between past and present. No matter what year it is, Jones is wildly charming, a fountain of jokes and aphorisms. But he has lived such a rich life, touching on so many aspects of the arts, that it can be hard to keep track of his myriad accomplishments — and to recall of all the barriers he broke down to achieve them. Here are 10 takeaways from the doc.
Duke Ellington instructed Jones to “de-categorize American music.”
In terms of Quincy‘s pacing, this tidbit might work best near the introduction to the documentary rather than somewhere in the middle; it serves as a uniting theme that brings together all of Jones’ disparate projects. Ellington was famous for composing music that reached across genre lines, changing the shape of popular music and reaching a wide audience as he did so. “He passed the baton down [to me],” Jones says. That idea feels like a guiding principle in Jones’ career as he works with Ella Fitzgerald and Lesley Gore, string players and rappers, grizzled veterans and fresh-faced youngsters.
Jones was drawn to gang life as a child.
Jones was born in Chicago, where his father worked as a carpenter for a local gang known as the Jones Boys. “I wanted to be a gangster until I was 11,” Jones recalls. “You want to be what you see, and that’s all I saw.”
In that environment, he was exposed to brutal violence. “I went on the wrong street and they nailed my hand to a fence with a switch blade at seven years old,” Jones says. He also has a scar from being hit with an ice pick. “To know where you came from makes it easier for you to get where you’re going,” he says solemnly.
Jones got his first big break from the Queen of the Jukebox.
Jones had already befriended Ray Charles and toured with Lionel Hampton, who “had the rockingest band in America,” when he settled in New York and started writing arrangements for $12 a pop. But it was Washington, one of the most popular jazz-meets-pop singers of the 1950s, whom he credits with jump-starting his career. “She became a great friend to me,” Jones says. (According to his autobiography, they also had a brief romantic affair.) “Dinah said, ‘I want you to write my next record.’ Her label, Mercury Records, said, ‘Nope, we want a name.’ Dinah said, ‘Here’s a name for your ass: Dinah Washington with Quincy Jones as an arranger.’ The record was a big success. And after that, work started to flow.”
Jones went on to arrange for Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles, working with nearly every jazz star of the decade.
Jones studied with a titan of classical music.
Throughout Quincy, Jones’ musical ambitions are frequently endangered by pervasive racism. Even with all those impressive credits under his belt in New York, he hit a wall: “They wouldn’t let the black arrangers write for strings,” he says. So, in 1957, Jones went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the French composer who taught many of the leading classical musicians of the 20th century, notably Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. “In Paris, I did 200 sessions with huge string sections; I wrote for strings until it came out of my ears,” Jones says. Like a number of jazz musicians, he also found France more open-minded than pre-Civil-Rights-Movement America. “Paris made me feel free as an artist and a black man,” he says.
Debt drove Jones to pop music.
Many people pursue pop in the hopes of fame; Jones tried his hand at pop to pay off $145,000 of debt from a failed big-band tour of Europe. He joined the staff at Mercury Records, telling himself, “pop music isn’t that big a deal to do.” But initially, he found the experience humbling. “It turned out be a little harder than I thought, plowing through piles of demo tapes, listening to bad songs,” he says. “One afternoon, they tossed a tape down the table. I said, ‘I’d like to take a shot with this.’ It was a 16-year-old kid from New Jersey named Lesley Gore. We cut a single called ‘It’s My Party.’ It went to Number One. We had 18 hits with Lesley.” Later, when working with Michael Jackson, Jones would apply the same rigorous approach to finding songs, listening to as many as 600 demos to find just 12 that he considered worthy.
Frank Sinatra fought to desegregate Las Vegas casinos in order to continue his work with Jones.
One of Jones’ many fruitful musical partnerships was with Sinatra, who admired Jones’ work with Count Basie and wanted some of that swing on his own albums. “He tested me in the beginning,” Jones recalls. “He said, ‘That instrumentation is a little too dense in the first eight bars.’ I’d say, ‘No problem, man.'”
Jones and Basie brought their entire band to back Sinatra in Las Vegas, but at the time, the Mob ruled the town and black people weren’t allowed in casinos. “No black entertainer in their right mind would wander around those casinos alone,” Jones remembers. “Frank said, ‘No, we gonna fix this shit.'” At times, that meant he hired Jones a personal bodyguard.
After battling segregation in the arranger community, Jones set his sights on scoring.
When he wrapped up with Sinatra in Vegas, Jones traveled to Hollywood in the hopes of writing music for movies. Few of his competitors could boast that they had backed up Sinatra, studied with Boulanger and arranged for Washington, but executives ignored Jones’ resume. “I didn’t see any black names on the screen as composers,” Jones says. “There was a lot of reluctance. How can you write for a white star?”
He found advocates like Henry Mancini and eventually forged a connection with Sidney Lumet. Jones’ first Hollywood credit was scoring Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. It didn’t take long for Jones to excel in Hollywood, just as he did everywhere else, racking up credits on classics like In the Heat of the Night.
Jones saw Michael Jackson as a kindred spirit.
Lumet later directed The Wiz, which featured Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and musical supervision from Jones. “I saw his discipline,” Jones remembers of Jackson. “He showed up at five in the morning for a four-hour makeup job. He stood around, knew everybody’s songs, all of their lines, lyrics, dance steps, everything. He absorbed everything. I started to see the maturity in him.”
As the two artists became close, Jackson decided Jones would make a good producer for what would become his Off the Wall album. Epic Records objected, just like Mercury had when Jones was set to arrange Washington. But Jackson insisted that Jones was the right producer, and he got his way.
The two pushed “to go way behind that wonderful trademark bubblegum he’d done on Motown with the Jackson 5,” Jones says. “We tried all kinds of things I’d learned over the years to help him with his artistic growth. Things like dropping keys a minor third to give him more flexibility and a more mature range. He was so shy sometimes, he’d sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me.”
When most gatekeepers were disparaging rap, Jones advocated for it.
When rap became a cultural force in the 1980s, many musicians of Jones’ generation complained. But Jones had always shown remarkable willingness to engage with new instruments, new artists and new styles. On his 1989 album Back on the Block he attempted to illustrate the musical connections between rap (as represented by the likes of Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane) and jazz (Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie). He later played a role in starting Vibe magazine, which became a hip-hop bible, and hosted a hip-hop symposium in New York City.
Jones’ relentless work ethic has taken a physical toll.
Quincy begins in the present, charting the many health scares that have threatened Jones several times throughout his career and their lasting effects. During his scoring days, he almost died due to a brain aneurysm that required two neurosurgeries. He recovered, despite a one-in-10 chance of survival; he’s been unable to play the trumpet ever since, for fear that the pressure from blowing through the horn would undo the staples in his brain. Later in his career, he had what he describes as a “nervous breakdown” that required him to take some time away from music. After a recent stroke and a blood clot, he has stopped drinking alcohol.