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Jazz writers and critics heighten our awareness of and appreciation for what’s going on in the music.
Zan Stewart’s writings about Jazz have always been among the editorial staff at JazzProfiles’ favorites and you can read why in the following April 1985 Downbeat interview he conducted with Quincy Jones.
Twenty-eight years after its publication, “Q” is still going strong, with now over 60 years in the music business!
© -Zan Stewart/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Quincy Jones, even if you didn't know his name from Adam, even if you didn't know that he is one of contemporary music's main creative sparks, that he was 1983's Producer of the Year, that he's scored 33 films and been responsible for 30 albums, that he's won 15 Grammys, that he's been in the entertainment business for 35 years, even if you didn't know his middle name is Delight, a leisurely look around his Los Angeles office would start to fill in the picture. The walls are adorned with photographs, mementos and awards. There are pictures of heroes and friends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and pictures of associates, such as Quincy with Michael Jackson or Quincy with his arms around Count Basie. On a side table, next to a phone with 10 lines that never stop flashing, there are blank notepads printed with The Color Purple, the name of the film he's producing. There's a framed collection of platinum discs of Jackson's Thriller, a Jones production which sold an unimaginable-but-true 37 million copies. More or less office center sits a Yamaha electric grand piano. Behind Jones' clutter-free, glass-topped desk is a stained-glass logo for his Qwest label, which he launched in 1981. Beyond all this, there's something intangible, and without getting too cosmic, let's just say there's a presence. After all, Quincy Jones is a man who makes things happen.
Born in 1933, Jones was raised in Seattle and began playing trumpet at an early age. Ray Charles was a childhood friend, and the two often worked and jammed together. A prodigy, Jones was employed by 14 and joined Lionel Hampton at 15. Later, he took a break and began studies at Boston's Berklee College of Music. Soon he was back with Hampton as a trumpeter and arranger, and was quickly adding his touch to sessions with Charles, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Cannonball Adderley and others. He toured the Middle East and South America with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra, then joined Mercury Records as an A&R man. There he recorded his own dates, such as The Birth of a Band, as well as producing pop hits like Leslie Gore's 1963 smash, "It's My Party."
The year 1963 found Jones composing his first film score, for Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, and in 1969 he signed with A&M Records, an association that lasted 12 years and resulted in such albums as Walking in Space, Body Heat, and Sounds... And Stuff Like That, the latter his first platinum disc. In 1978 he scored Lumet's film of The Wiz, and made the acquaintance of Michael Jackson. He produced Jackson's 1981 Off the Wall, which was a mere prelude to the stunning success of 1983's Thriller. In addition to The Color Purple, Jones is currently working on a new solo album, which will spotlight Sarah Vaughan and organist Jimmy Smith among as-yet-unnamed others, and is due for May release.
Jones arrived to meet his visitor attired casually in faded denims, a yellow T-shirt, a cardigan sweater composed of bands of warm colors that blended softly together and tan loafers with pale blue and yellow socks. Sipping apple cider (he drinks wine as well, but only with meals, since recovering from two aneurysms in 1974), the personable, convivial Jones talked at length about his life and achievements.
Zan Stewart: I'm one of those who really enjoys your earlier albums, like
Quintessence. Yet in listening to Thriller, I hear a lot of basic stuff there, too, a basic bluesy feel to many tunes...
Quincy Jones: That's why I get so confused. People get all hung up with the evolution of this music and saying, "You're not into jazz anymore." Bullshit. It's all the same thing to me.
Zan Stewart: Do you feel your jazz background is essential to your role of producer of non-jazz music?
Jones: Oh, yeah, sure, in many ways. Philosophically, musically, because those skills enable you to turn on a dime. You don't get hung up with the way things are supposed to be.
Zan Stewart: You've made so many hit records. Is that something you always wanted to do?
Jones: You know, I think every musician in the world would like to make hit records — every musician that ever picked up any instrument. Even a 12-tone player wants what he puts together to appeal to a lot of people. The ideal situation is to do something you like and have everybody in the world like it and buy it, too. I think everybody feels that.
But when I started out, it was different. I have a funny kind of background. I came out of a gospel group, but I had an early interest in big bands, and also worked in an R&B band with Bumps Blackwell up in Seattle, and would go play bebop after hours. That was pure love. Ray Charles was 16; I was 14. Ray would play at clubs like the Black and Tan, and I also played all over town, and then we'd get together at the Elks Club after hours to play bop. In the clubs or at dances, you'd have to play schottisches [Scottish dances], pop songs, R&B, and so on, but when we played at the Elks Club, that was for us.
But at that time—and Cannonball [Adderley] and I used to laugh about this—we were conditioned to try to avoid having our music appreciated by a big audience, especially the young guys who were on the coattails of Bird and Diz. We were their disciples. It was very unhip to have a big following.
I remember playing with Lionel Hampton — who was really the first rock 'n' roll bandleader, even though he had a jazz background — and we were at the Bandbox in New York City, which was next door to Birdland. Clifford Brown, Art Farmer and I were in the trumpet section. We had to wear Bermuda shorts with purple jackets and Tyrolian hats, man, and when we played "Flying Home," Hamp marched the band outside. You have to imagine this — I was 19 years old, so hip it was pitiful, and didn't want to know about anything that was close to being commercial. So Hamp would be in front of the sax section, and beating the drumsticks all over the awning, and soon he had most of the band behind him. But Brownie and I would stop to tie our shoes or do something so we wouldn't have to go outside, because next door was Birdland and there was Monk and Dizzy and Bud Powell, all the bebop idols standing in front at intermission saying, "What is this shit?" You'd do anything to get away.
I was always on the edge. Even as a kid in Seattle, we'd play anything, for strippers, for comedy acts, while at the same time harboring our love for bebop. At that time you didn't want to communicate, but then you had to get it out of you. Herbie Hancock said he had the same problem. It's like that old Sid Caesar joke: "We used to have radar in the band to let us know when we got too close to the melody." It was that kind of attitude.
Stewart: Maybe you weren't asking for appreciation because it wasn't there anyway.
Jones: Well, a funny thing happened at the end of the '40s and the 52nd Street thing. I'm sure people who were closer to it might have a different attitude, but the way it looked from here was that at one point, between '44 and '46, many of the mavericks and rebels, the innovators, they left Jay McShann, Earl Hines and other leaders, and went with Billy Eckstine. It was like a sociological thing, as if they were saying, "We aren't interested in being entertainers anymore. We want to be recognized as artists. That was the first time black musicians ever took that position, at least en masse, like that.
Billy had the first crop of naturally feeling but thinking, seriously thinking musicians, people dealing with polytonals, trying to break a sound barrier, musically. But when they made that decision to not be entertainers, they were taking the risk of losing an audience. And at one point the audience fell totally out, so the musicians said, "Well, we don't care," and they withdrew. There was no interest in entertaining or communicating because there was this search for a new sound.
So we left that creative era and went into the '50s, which was the worst era for pop music. Coming from modern jazz to that poop was horrible. Remember the radio? Tunes like "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window," "Davy Crockett" and so on. It was unbelievable [laughs]. That was the pop scene, but Elvis Presley's appearance changed that whole thing for young white America, because he opened the way for black music to come in.
But back to this hit thing. People want hits — Miles Davis, too [laughs]. To me, there's something retarded about someone saying, "I don't want anybody to like my music." That's insane. But I can see saying, "I don't care if anybody likes what I do." We've all gone through that. Music is an incredible animal. It's an absolute, like math. You can't hold it; it just floats around out there.
Stewart: Speaking of your own music, we hear you have a new album in the works. How do you start a new project?
Jones: Well, it's hard to say. It's like I sketch a physical thing in my mind — like colors, contours and shapes. I literally see pictures and colors. These undefined shapes come through first, then the secondary colors. Then I have to be patient; I have to sit and wait until it becomes clearer and clearer. I may formulate maybe 18 ideas of different things that I feel, that I really want to do and, in the end, I may use nine of them. Maybe in the last part of the project, I'll find two other things that'll divert you. But I just let it flow, let whatever happens happen, then I start boilin' and get specific. You can't capture anything until you get specific. Then you have to see if what you're hearing and seeing in your mind, you can execute in the studio. It's a funny process, man. I don't know a thing about it. I just do it.
Stewart: Will this album follow a process, like building track by track or will it be more like a "live" date?
Jones: Well, some things I start with a drum track and then add. Others won't take that form. I hope it's unlike anything I've ever done before. That's a nice feeling, to come out each time and try to pretend that you've never done any of this before. The worst thing is to say, "Well, this worked before, so we've got to do more of this." I could never get into that. But sometimes you can't help it, in that the sounds will be similar because it's your own soul. But what's great about producing your own album is that you play the orchestras, you play the singers. Nobody can tell you, "You can't do that." That's the real difference. Your own album should represent what you want to do. It's not like working with a singer, because no matter how good the relationship is, they may say, "Well, I don't know; let's try it my way." That's why the freedom is so nice.
Stewart: What's the difference between producing Michael Jackson and producing Frank Sinatra, whom you worked with on last year's LA Is My Lady.
Jones: Well, Michael starts with basic tracks, then adds overdubs, then fixing— you've got to put it together like an erector set, and try to help Michael realize, or embellish, what he had. As we said, the process takes about three months. Sinatra came into the office here, and started with a list of things he wanted to do. I had two or three suggestions. He came in at 2 p.m., and in less than two hours we had rehearsed, had keys and routines on 10 songs. That's the way he's always recorded. Two months later in New York, we record. Before he gets there, the band runs down all the tunes, because Frank is one take, that's it. If the band's not in shape, he leaves them behind. And when you're recording live like he does, you can't take that chance, because when his voice is in their mikes, you can't take it out if the band sounds like shit. His booth is open, and the horns are hitting his microphone, hitting him right in the face. So, on his last session, he came in at 7, and at 8:20, baby, we went home. None of that three-month stuff.
To me, there's no such thing as good and bad in either way you record. I started recording live, but it doesn't make any difference just as long as you're capturing the real feeling of what was supposed to happen. We have this expression: leave God a little room to come through, give him 20 to 30 percent in the room. In recording, you're talking magic; for it to really happen, a lot of magic has to go down.
Stewart: What else is on the front burner?
Jones: I'm producing my first film. I've wanted to do this for a long time. There's a book that tore my heart out—it's so beautiful, written by Alice Walker, called The Color Purple. Reading it has been one of the most incredible experiences I've had in my life. For 15 years people have wanted me as executive producer of films, mainly to get the musical connection and just have me be a spectator. But I want to be in the physical process of making the film. That's what's nice. It's an unbelievable project, just loaded with rich music that dates from 1905 to 1940, so the music of Scott Joplin, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Coleman Hawkins will be included. Imagine a film where part of the tapestry is a Hawk solo and one of the leads is just mumbling along with the solo. That turns me on.
That reminds me. There was an album, I think it was Back in Flight, which if you played at 45 rpm instead of 33 rpm, you'd hear a version of "There Will Never Be Another You" that sounds just like Bird. Hearing that blew me away because you could see the roots and the connection. It opened up a big door for my head; the nuances were identical, all of them.
Stewart: So the film gives you a chance to work on…
Jones: The evolution, yeah, exactly. It's amazing how things work out. You don't plan it. I started around 1970, just digging and digging — really didn't even know why, except I was just interested in it — the evolution of our music. After being in the business 25 years, I felt it would be fun to go back and see the exact sources.
Research. I thought it would take two to three months, but I got hung up, ultimately going back to 479 AD to the Moors, the Spanish inquisition, then following 34 tribes from West Africa to Brazil up to the West Indies, then on to New Orleans, Virginia and so forth. It just blew me away. The whole idea of drums being banned in 1672 because the slave owners knew it was a communication device. To ban the drum did something to the music. That was in the Protestant colonies. In the Catholic colonies they were getting down — the Spanish, French — with food, music, everything. That's where it all happened. A lot of people were oppressed and restricted by the Anglicans. But when it was time to get rhythmic again, everything had to be redefined rhythmically, so a hybrid music came out of this. The film plays a role in underscoring all this.
Stewart: Any new musical projects besides the new album?
Jones: I'm going to do a musical with Mike Nichols after The Color Purple, and that will probably incorporate a lot of the evolutionary things. It's a piece called Speak Easy, so it's another thing about that time, the '20s and '30s.
Stewart: So here you are producing all this modern music like Michael Jackson, and then turn around and dig way back.
Jones: That's what's great about it — the whole menu. Why not, man? I love the notion of what that's all about, the whole range. It's so real and so strong. I love having the chance to go from a Michael Jackson situation to my own album to The Color Purple, where we have a really valid reason for using the music of that period, other than simply wanting to expose it.
Stewart: As the music changes, say from swing to bebop and so on, it seems
then moved to 2/4 with Dixie and even [Jimmie] Lunceford, and so forth. Then Basie, Benny Moten, you're talking four to the floor. Then it kept accelerating into eighth notes, then triplets and 16ths and then farther, like [Billy] Cobham and Elvin Jones incorporating the African polyrhythms. Then you come back to disco, and it's just the same thing as Basie. It's always fascinating. The current rhythm section sound changes almost every six months. That pendulum really swings, going from four to the floor to the most complex things with the drum machines. You get more flexibility with them, but the machines are just a reaction to the disco thing, so when they get out of that framework, it's like escaping from prison, so you get [Herbie Hancock's] "Rockit." Music is always reacting to itself, you get to max velocity, you've got to slow down.
You can see that pendulum swing throughout all American music. I wouldn't trade that era I came up in for anything. We got a taste of all of it. There I was involved with Swing Era people like Basie, Duke, Lionel, then Dizzy, and pop people like Stevie [Wonder] and Michael [Jackson].
Stewart: Working with both jazz and pop artists seems to be quite natural for you.
Jones: I was always ambidextrous. Of course, I did The Genius of Roy Charles in '58, but even before that, I was double-gated. I did a lot of things with Stitt, Brownie [Clifford Brown], Art Farmer; but by the same token, I was doing projects with Big Maybelle, Chuck Willis, the Clovers, LaVern Baker. It started as a kid, because I had to have that broad range of knowledge to work in Seattle. Ray Charles used to say, "If you just deal with the pure soul of all music, everything from the schottisches to blues, you'll be all right." What a musician he is. He taught me how to read music in Braille.
Stewart: Given your wide-ranging background, what, if anything, constitutes the Quincy Jones sound?
Jones: I don't know. I know that material is the key. The song is king; melody is king. I fight strongly to have the last word on material going into an album. If somebody else picks the songs, I don't know if I really want to participate. I get called a dictator for that, but I don't care. You cannot polish doo-doo. It's very important that you're hard on everybody, including yourself, in terms of selecting material. I'm always straddling a fence to get things that will penetrate and commu-
nicate, but still have a certain musical validity, not be musically idiotic. In pop music you're dealing with anything from 300,000 to 37 million records. I don't know how to figure out what 37 million people are going to like. So far we've been lucky We've had songs that make the hair go up on your arm. If it moves you, you're lucky if it gets to all those other people.
Stewart: While picking the songs for Thriller, did the hair go up on your arms?
Jones: Oh, sure. We cut nine songs, at first, and had it finished, and then threw four out to get four more that were really strong. That's a nice psychological thing to do, because you're competing with yourself. We had just come off an album that sold eight million [Off the Wall], and it's scary to go back in after that kind of home run. Our thinking was, "If we could just catch up with half of this thing, we'd be happy," and little did we know it'd do what it did. To me, half of commerciality is sincerity. It's gotta be real.
Stewart: How many times can you listen to a record like Thriller?
Jones: I can't listen to it anymore, no. The first six months after we made it, I couldn't touch it, except to listen to the singles we were going to release. We had a serious deadline on this record, since Donna Summer's album took longer than it should have, so when we got to Michael, we only had three months to do Thriller. That's pretty scary after a record that did eight million. On top of this, Steven Spielberg asked us to do the E.T Storybook, so we had three months to do both. It almost killed us, but we made it. I had two studios going. We just rocked around the clock until we finished.
Then we had a scary thing happen. We finished E.T, and Michael's record was down to mix and master. We were really tired by then, but you have to keep the enthusiasm up. So we mixed the record and were ready to have it mastered. We finished about 8 a.m., and Michael came by my house and slept on my couch. We had to be back at the studio by noon, and Bruce [Swedien, Quincy's No. 1 engineer] was going to bring the test pressing so we could listen to it before it went out. This is the record, you know? Everybody was nervous to hear what was going to happen. Well, we had been in such a hurry that we had put 25 and 27 minutes on a side, and you know that's a no-no, because it takes the sound away. We'd like 18 minutes on a side, max. That record sounded like shit, man. We knew it wouldn't hold. It was terrible. Michael cried. So we decided to hell with the deadline, 'cause they were really on our backs. So we took time off and came back, took one tune a day and brought this baby home. And that's what we did. If that record had gone out, it would have never been over, it would have been a disaster. I'll never forget that day. It was horrible.
Stewart: What was so bad about the record?
Jones: Basically the mixes were sloppy because we were hurrying. Overall, there were a lot of bad judgments from being hasty and tired. Adrenaline turns your ears into something else.
Stewart: Switching channels again, you were the first man to record an electric bass in 1953, and a synthesizer in 1964. How has the synthesizer affected modern music?
Jones: It's expanded the vocabulary. People always talk about it replacing acoustic instruments. I think that's ridiculous. If you've got that kind of an ear, maybe it can, but I think the effective usage is to have the synths do what they can do specifically. They expand the alphabet from 26 to 40 letters. They have a personality — millions of sonic designs — that can't come out of other instruments. The ear knows that the sounds aren't familiar, aren 't from an acoustic instrument. By the same token, there's no synth yet that can get the sound of 24 string players with bodies there, skin on skin.
Stewart: Still, electronics seem to be the way many players are going.
Jones: It's not the same thing; believe me, it's not. I've used all the string tricks and electronic strings, and there's nothing that replaces acoustic instruments. The vibratos are not the same, for instance. They're doing a good job with samplers, but mechanically, it's very difficult to deal with that kind of humanity with an electronic instrument. A joy for me is to have the synthesized-string sound set up the fabric of what the strings are going to be. and then have a lap dissolve and have the real strings come in right underneath it. That's what I love, when they really imvi each other head on in an accommodating way, join each other, strut their feathers in front of each other, enjoy being with each other. That might sound silly, but that's how I feel. I've been in the business for 35 years, and I've seen a lot of trends, but you've still got to have human beings. I don't see any machines blowing trumpet players out of work.
Stewart: Does your presence in the studio have an effect on the outcome of a product?
Jones: I think so, because I only work with artists I respect and love for what they do. Most of the time I try to put a musician in a situation where he should be comfortable. But there are times, like the world's greatest guitarist who couldn't read. You put him in a situation with 44 players, and there's a psychological tendency to freak out. I used to have that problem with Basie. I mean, he'd see seven sharps and head for the bathroom. But it doesn't matter, man, because there are guys who can read around the corner who couldn't touch Basie with two notes he'd play. So once the musician learns to trust me, learns that he can go without the net, that I won't let him fall, we have a great time. Toots Thielemans says, "You always push the right buttons on me and make me play my ass off." But that's only with someone you really love, you know. You put them in a situation where they can really be themselves.”
The following video tribute to Quincy features pianist Mike LeDonne's arrangement of Q's Jessica's Day on which he is joined by Ryan Kisor [trumpet], Joshua Redman, tenor sax, Peter Washington, bass and Lewis Nash, drums.
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