Jones Recalls Early Days and Highlights of A Rich Career
"I wanted to be a gangster until I was 11."
That's how Quincy Jones sums up his career aspirations before music became his all-consuming focus.
Born March 14, 1933, on Chicago's South Side, Jones recalls his daily life in the Windy City was "gangs, stogies, dead bodies, tommy guns and piles of money," owing to his father's work as a master carpenter for the Jones Boys--one of the area's biggest black gangster outfits operating a policy racket and five-and-dime stores. His mother, who introduced Jones to music, attended Boston University and spoke several languages, but also suffered from mental illness.
Jones credits his family's subsequent relocation to Seattle suburb Bremerton, when he was 10, as the move "that saved my life. I would have been dead or in prison, no question."
Everything changed when, after breaking into a local recreation center called the Armory, with his brothers and others to indulge in pie and ice cream, Jones wandered into a room where he found a spinet piano.
"Thank God somebody up there said, 'Go back in there, idiot.' I'd heard a lot of music and all but now my body was saying, 'This is what you'll do the rest of your life.'" Jones was 11.
Joining the school choir and band, an inquisitive Jones played everything from the tuba to the French horn and trombone (the latter "to be up front next to the majorettes") before settling on the trumpet, a gift from his dad.
Taking the young teen under their wings when their tours hit town were such early mentors/friends as fellow trumpeter Clark Terry and Count Basie.
Gigging with Jones, as well as around town at clubs, weddings and other events, was another up-and-coming Seattle talent and lifelong friend, Ray Charles.
"He taught me in Braille," Jones recalls. "Some of my notations are in Braille."
High school graduation gave way to a scholarship to Boston's Berklee College of Music, then known as the Schillinger House of Music. And that provided a gateway to New York, where he interacted with such artists as Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and bandleader Lionel Hampton, who later invited Jones to join him on the road. From there, Jones became a freelance arranger for the likes of Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Clifford Brown, Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley.
"When we were young," Jones says, "we were beboppers, the younger generation to our idols like Miles and Dizzy. God, we were so addicted. But big band was first. I knew I'd end up basically being a composer and orchestrator. Then I accidentally stumbled into producing."
The late 1950s found a multitasking Jones recording his first albums as a bandleader for ABC Paramount, studying composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and working as music director for Mercury's French distributor Barclay Records. When he became stranded and in mounting debt with his big band in Europe, Jones segued into the first of many firsts.
He became the first African-American to serve as a VP at a major label when he began helming A&R for Mercury Records in 1961. That affiliation led to pop success with teen singer Lesley Gore and her debut hit, "It's My Party."
Another first: Jones helped break the color barrier as the first black composer to get name recognition for his work. With support from allies like Henry Mancini, Sidney Lumet and Sidney Poitier, Jones scored such films as "The Pawnbroker," "The Slender Thread," "In Cold Blood" and "In the Heat of the Night."
That success spilled over into TV with him writing and producing theme songs for a host of series, including "Sanford and Son," "Ironside" and the groundbreaking miniseries "Roots."
Hitting the charts with his own spate of A&M solo albums (including "Body Heat" and "The Dude"), Jones was temporarily sidelined in 1974 by two neurological operations after suffering a cerebral aneurysm.
In 1978, he returned to his scoring element on the film "The Wiz" with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Then he teamed with the soon-to-be-anointed King of Pop for a series of classic albums including the top-selling "Thriller."
Then came the Grammy Award-winning USA for Africa benefit single "We Are the World." The all-star recording session laid claim to Jones' famous directive: "Check your ego at the door."
Jones revisited his label executive roots with the 1980 launch of his Warner Bros.-distributed Qwest Records. George Benson and Frank Sinatra made up the roster, as well as Jones himself, whose albums showcased a diverse lineup of new and established artists (Patti Austin, James Ingram, Tamia, Tevin Campbell) and creative mashups (Ella Fitzgerald on the same album as Barry White and rappers Melle Mel and Kool Moe Dee). His later partnership with TV executive David Salzman (with whom he staged President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration concert) led to such successful ventures as hip-hop magazine Vibe and the TV shows "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and "MADtv."
In between, Jones co-produced the 1985 film "The Color Purple" and its 2005 Broadway version, scored 50 Cent's autobiographical film "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" and collaborated on the theme song for the 2007 Special Olympics in China. He's also a dedicated philanthropist, working through his own foundation and other groups.
Jones now is embarking on a slew of ventures including new musical app Playground Sessions, branded merchandise from watches to headphones, the upcoming Peace Concert in Hiroshima and the launch of Dubai Music Week--all while toasting his 80th birthday with various celebrations around the world, plus his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year.
And yes, there's still his mainstay: discovering and nurturing talent. That next generation includes singer Nikki Yanofsky, musician/singer Emily Bear and Pan-Asian girl group Blush.
Musician, composer, songwriter, arranger, producer, entrepreneur, humanitarian: Jones is a creative chameleon who credits his longevity to being "just the nosiest dude. I always wanted to know how and why."Others sum up Jones' enduring legacy as Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds did when he spoke with Billboard in 2008: "He's truly the ambassador for music for America. His biggest lesson for me has been, 'Don't stop. There are so many different things you can do in music.'"