Quincy Jones has done it all. From a jazzman to a bandleader to a civil rights soldier to a producer of pop’s greatest triumphs, he’s earned his legendary status a dozen times over. Without him, Leslie Gore and Michael Jackson as we knew them wouldn’t have existed — but he also indelibly marked the careers of Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Tevin Campbell and scores more. Along the way, he’s earned the highest honors, and at 85 he’s as fiery as ever. In the new Netflix documentary Quincy, directed by Alan Hicks and Jones’ daughter Rashida, we get a distinctive look at the restless polymath who worked across jazz, the blues, pop, funk and rap. Here’s an A-to-Z guide to Jones’ accomplishments as both an entertainer and an architect of popular culture.
Jones is renowned for his music, but he’s had a parallel career as a philanthropist and activist. In addition to working with Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson in the Sixties and Seventies on everything from civil rights to economic development in inner cities. But his roles as activist and musician have often overlapped; his many accomplishments include the cofounding of the Institute for Black American Music and founding the Quincy Jones Listen Up Foundation.
Back on the Block
By 1989, Jones could have rested on the laurels he’d earned by catapulting and cementing the legacy of Michael Jackson. Instead, he returned to releasing his own music — but not alone. Back on the Block, Jones’ album from that year, drew together R&B, pop, jazz and rap with the help of a myriad of top-tier guest vocalists and musicians, from Miles Davis to Chaka Khan. Bracing and joyous, the album proved that the 56-year-old Jones still had plenty of juice left in him.
Jones’ career has taken him across the globe, and he spent his formative teenage years in Seattle. But his birthplace of Chicago has always remained closest to his heart. It was there, in his family’s South Side home, that he fell in love with music as a boy, thanks to his mother’s love of gospel and his neighbor’s piano. After he grew to fame, he cofounded the annual Black Arts Festival, currently held at Columbia College in Chicago’s South Loop.
A huge fan of Dizzy Gillespie since he was a kid, Jones first got to work with his hero in 1956 as a trumpeter and musical director of Gillespie’s big band. It began a warm association that lasted many years, as Jones ascended the ranks of the Gillespie organization, eventually producing albums for his boss such as 1963’s New Wave! and ultimately inviting Gillespie to make a spirited guest appearance on Back on the Block.
The world first became Jones’ oyster in 1952, when the wet-behind-the-ears trumpeter joined Lionel Hampton’s band for a tour of Europe. It was an eye-opening experience regarding the racism in his home country, and when Jones toured Europe with Dizzy Gillespie in 1957, it broadened his horizons even further. He wound up spending much of the Fifties on the road overseas, and the experience helped Jones realize that his ambitions should be global rather than just local — a goal that helped him become one of the most successful producers on the planet.
Jones scored a huge coup when Frank Sinatra tapped him for various arranging and conducting gigs, both live and on record, in the Fifties and Sixties. In doing so, the young Jones joined a legendary line of Sinatra arranger-conductors that included Nelson Riddle and Billy May. But he also forged a bond with Ol’ Blue Eyes that would resurface in the ’80s, when Jones produced Sinatra’s L.A. Is My Lady album, which Jones also released on his label Qwest Records.
The Grammys Awards first recognized Jones in 1961, when his album The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones was nominated for Best Jazz Performance Large Group. He snagged his first win three years later for arranging Count Basie’s rendition of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” From there, the Grammys could not get enough Jones. He’s taken home 27 to date — tied with Alison Krauss for the most Grammys won by a living person—and in 1992 he scored the ultimate accolade, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)
Aretha Franklin took a stylistic detour in 1973 with her album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), and Jones was at her side. The late Queen of Soul enlisted him to produce the record, which sprawled and simmered with a lush, subtle progressiveness. Neither particularly funky nor bluesy, Hey Now Hey allowed Franklin to explore her musical and emotional depths in a way she never had before. And it gave Jones a taste for reinventing pop icons that would serve him well soon after when he began working with Michael Jackson.
“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 used to describe the writer-producer-arranger-composer. Need we say more?
Jones did his share of playing in jook joints early in life, when his fledgling career often took him on the chitlin circuit. So when it came to naming his freewheeling 1995 album, it’s only natural that he settled on Q’s Jook Joint. What else can describe a record on which Stevie Wonder, Bono and Ray Charles sing (on the same track!) while younger voices like Brandy and Brian McKnight get their moment in the sun? Even more so than its predecessor, Back on the Block, Q’s Jook Joint exemplifies Jones’ love of studio-stuffed collaboration.
Kennedy Center Honors
“He can take whatever is your natural talent and exalt it,” Oprah Winfrey said of Jones when she introduced him during the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. One of the highest cultural accolades in America, the Honors chose to recognize Jones for his vision and accomplishments both in and the behind the scenes. And he was in strong company that year, alongside Jack Nicholson, Julie Andrews, Van Cliburn and Luciano Pavarotti. But the most moving moment was when Jones’ celebration was capped off with a performance by his childhood friend, Ray Charles.
Lesley Gore was a young unknown when Jones first heard her sing. But he recognized her vast potential, and it wasn’t long before he applied his orchestral flair and burgeoning pop acumen to “You Don’t Own Me.” The Jones-produced song became a feminist anthem upon its release in 1964. Not only did it launch Gore’s hallowed career, it showed Jones that his path forward was going to included popular music as much as jazz and soundtracks — and that he had a true gift for mentoring and refining raw talent that would serve him so well in years to come.
Of the many hats Jones has worn over the decades, the one that says “producer” will always be his crown. In addition to career-defining stints — both for him and them — for Lesley Gore and Michael Jackson, his production work for everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra has restlessly innovated while zeroing in on the strengths and essence of the artists. And with Thriller, Jones reached a height that perfectly combined studio craft, daring imagination, and finger-on-the-pulse savvy — in other words, the trademarks of any Jones production.
Born Quincy Delight Jones Jr. in 1933, Jones came into the world with a name that already sounded portentous. But as he rose to height after height in the entertainment world, he began to be known by the snappiest of nicknames: Q. It’s rare that a single figure in culture can almost entirely own a letter of the alphabet; Jones, however, has turned Q into not only a worldwide brand, but a stamp of quality and class — not to mention the title of his 2002 autobiography.
The Grammys aren’t the only awards that Jones has been repeatedly up for. Starting in 1968 with a pair of Oscar nominations, for his soundtrack work on both In Cold Blood and Banning, he’s been up for seven Academy Awards. His music for The Color Purple alone earned him three nominations in 1986. Taking home an Oscar, however, eluded him — that is, until 1994, when he was given the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in recognition of his many philanthropic efforts. Yes, Quincy Jones has his EGOT.
Born on March 14, 1933, Jones’ zodiac sign is Pisces. And he fits the profile. Pisces are generally considered to be highly creative, imaginative, musical, generous, and compassionate — all qualities that Jones has exhibited his entire life. Jones himself takes astrology seriously, even as he embraces the intuitiveness and emotionality of being a water sign.
Early on Jones realized that most musicians don’t last long in the industry without also understanding the music business. So in 1980, he launched Qwest Records in partnership with Warner Bros. Not only did it give Jones more of a financial foothold, it granted him the leeway to introduce and develop artist on his own terms. Qwest’s signees included George Benson, Patti Austin, Tevin Campbell, and New Order; in a show of just how far-ranging Jones’ vision was, it also made unlikely labelmates out of Frank Sinatra and, posthumously, Joy Division.
Jones met Ray Charles while both were musically precocious teenagers in Seattle. Instant and lifelong friends, the two would cross paths innumerable times in the studio throughout their respective, wildly divergent careers. Few moments in the history of pop culture are more poignant than Charles’ live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, where the pianist calls out his old pal and fellow musical titan from the stage and expresses his brotherly love in no unvarnished terms, causing Jones to tear up in the balcony.
As Jones sought his foothold in the pop world in the 1960s and Seventies, he found lucrative and rewarding work in Hollywood. His soundtracks for screens big and small — including films and shows such as In Cold Blood, The Italian Job, The Wiz, Roots, and the song “Streetbeater,” unforgettably funky theme to Sanford and Son — allowed him to explore a broad palette of sounds, textures, and techniques. It also gave him connections throughout the entertainment industry that served him well as a budding impresario.
Of the many roles Jones has played over the course of his life, one that gets mentioned less is his time as a trumpeter. His studies at the Berklee College of Music give him the chance to develop his jazz chops, and his association with world-class trumpeters such as Art Farmer and Dizzy Gillespie pointed toward a rich future on the instrument. But arranging, conducting, writing and producing gigs took over, and a brain aneurysm in 1974 all but ended his trumpeting career. But this talent as a trumpeter remains an intriguing, little-documented cornerstone of his legacy.
USA for Africa
Harry Belafonte chose Jones to produce “We Are the World,” the charity single by Belafonte’s brainchild, the one-off supergroup USA for Africa. The song was co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, who both also sang on it—but Jones was responsible for enlisting and organizing a dizzying gaggle of top-tier stars, a veritable roll call of pop royalty featuring Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, and many more. The song itself many not have gone down as a highwater mark in music history, but it remains one of the decade’s most impactful cultural phenomena.
Saying Jones has always been on the vanguard is an understatement. Throughout his career, Jones hasn’t just been ahead of the curve, he’s created the curve: From his majestic arrangements for Leslie Gore to his funk innovations with the Brothers Johnson, he’s always been able to anticipate or simply invent out of thin air the next huge trend in pop. And with Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, he took the dying trend of disco, whittled it down to its bones, and forged a fresh, post-disco direction that the future was destined to follow.
Jones’ mentorship of young artists is a thing of legend, but it goes beyond music. His film-and-television production company Quincy Jones Entertainment cast Will Smith — then known strictly as a rapper — for a new show that would become The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It rocketed Smith to a new and enduring level of stardom, and it was certainly aided by The Fresh Prince’s infectious theme song, whose music was composed by Jones.
After befriending author Alex Haley of Roots fame, Jones undertook a quest to find out where his genes came from. His genealogical search brought him some stunning revelations, among them that his ancestors included the Tikar people of what is now Cameroon; Betty Washington Lewis, sister of George Washington; and Edward I of England. And when it comes to passing down his chromosomes, he’s fathered seven children (six daughters, one son), including the acclaimed actor, writer and producer Rashida Jones.
“Yah Mo B There”
Jones enjoyed a profusion of success on the pop charts following his breakthrough with Michael Jackson in 1979, including hits he produced for the Brothers Johnson, George Benson and Donna Summer. One of his defining smashes of the Nineties, though, came from the pairing of James Ingram and Michael McDonald. The Jones-helmed 1983 single “Yah Mo B There” capitalized on the synergy between Ingram’s and McDonald’s smooth soul voices, cannily blended into Jones’ impeccable, sumptuous pop-R&B.
Few figures in popular culture can truly claim to have embodied the zeitgeist of their age. Jones doesn’t need to make that claim — it’s self-evident. He’s sculpted and resequenced pop in an era where sculpting and resequencing became music’s modus operandi. But it’s the way his pioneering spirit in the studio has never lost touch with the basics of song craft and emotional communication that have made Jones one of the primary musical architects of both the 20th and 21st centuries.