Quincy Jones Video Q&A: The Legend At 80

The maestro looks forward (and back). Q reflects on working with Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and more, embracing a milestone birthday while his creativity continues apace.

Stop. It’s the one concept Quincy Jones steers clear of while reflecting on his storied career on the eve of his milestone 80th birthday on March 14. In fact, it’s business as usual for the musician, songwriter, arranger, producer, composer and humanitarian who, in his words, “just keeps rolling.”

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And that rolling along entails a growing slate of upcoming projects. Inspired by the success of his Global Gumbo All-Stars group of international artists, Jones has started a management consulting business with a roster of artists to watch -- from jazz-pop singer Nikki Yanofsky to Asian girl group Blush.

And let’s not forget the series of 80th-birthday celebrations that kick off in Las Vegas on April 14 with longtime friend/actor Michael Caine and a stellar lists of friends and performers.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has chosen this milestone year to induct Jones at its annual event on April 18.

The Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl (June 15-16) will include a birthday salute to Jones by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with special guests Patti Austin and Hubert Laws. Jones will continue his celebration July 21 in Montreux, Switzerland, at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where he’ll also pay tribute to longtime friend and festival founder Claude Nobs, who died in January. Then it’s on to another event with Caine on July 24 at London’s Royal Opera House, followed by celebrations July 31 and Aug. 1 in Tokyo.

Sitting in the movie room of his Bel Air home, Jones reflects on his groundbreaking career during a freewheeling interview.

The bottom-line takeaway: Age ain’t nothing but a number.

You’re coming up on a significant birthday.

It’s one number I never thought would come out of my mouth [laughs].

And you’ll be celebrating the occasion with a series of birthday parties?

It’s going to be amazing, because I will be celebrating with my celestial twin, [actor] Michael Caine. We were born in the same year, month, day and hour, exactly. We hit Earth at the same time and have been friends for 44 years. We start the celebration in Las Vegas on April 14, which will benefit the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Michael is very excited. It’s going to be fun, especially together. Michael never stops. He’s just a very treasured friend.

And from Las Vegas, you’ll be going to Montreux, London and Tokyo for additional birthday celebrations. How do you get ready for partying like this, and what makes a good party?

I’m just going to wear something nice and roll with it. As for what makes a good party, it’s everything you know how to do—everything you’ve learned in 80 years. And boy, I’m telling you, between Michael and I, that’s a lot of stuff.

You’re also being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18.

It’s too early [laughs]. I’m too young. My age may be 80 but I feel 35.

Is another Quincy album coming?

Probably. But right now we’re trying to figure out how many minutes we have this year for everything [laughs]. There’s the Global Gumbo All-Stars, and we play all over the world. Then there’s Emily Bear; President Obama calls her “Baby Mozart.” She’s been writing for symphonies since she was 5 and also plays bossa nova and the blues. She sings “Celie’s Blues” from “Color Purple,” anything. When we first met her, her feet wouldn’t even touch the floor. She just did a concert at Carnegie Hall with a choir and a symphony orchestra.

We can safely say we have the most talented young people on the planet in our family. We’ve also got Nikki Yanofsky from Canada, Alfredo Rodriguez from Cuba, and Blush, a girl group who is one of everything. Angeli Flores is from the Philippines, Alisha Budhrani from India, Jihae Lee from South Korea, Natsuko Danjo from Japan and Victoria Chan from China. But they’re really talented and they get it. We have been to almost every place in the world. We just got a new kid from Nigeria, a teen guitar player named Andreas Varady, and another young lady named Gigi Radics—15 years old from Budapest, Hungary. She doesn’t speak one word of English and sounds like Aretha [Franklin].

The thing is, if you travel, you get to know and can feel what the hell is happening. And your instincts grow.

What key lessons are you teaching these new acts?

Everything I can think of about the things I was happy to learn. No. 1: humility with your creativity and grace with your success. I’m tired of attitude; I can’t handle it anymore. I’ve seen it all my life: El Divos and La Divas. I remember a major artist telling me, “Man, I’ve got everything I ever needed. I got me a Rolls Royce and da da da.” You can’t think like that. You have to make it bigger so you can hold onto your sense of humility. That’s important. We didn’t think about money or fame when we started. Not ever. It was to just be a good musician.

Looking back at your career, what one or two moments stand out?

Every one of them. Meeting Ray Charles is No. 1. Playing with Billie Holiday at 14 years old at the Eagles Auditorium [in Seattle]. Playing with Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway. We were cocky like all young kids [laughs]. We had the experience of playing in nightclubs and the Washington social clubs for strippers. We played everything: Sousa, bar mitzvahs, polkas—we played anything walking. We played in our white jackets and bow ties at a Seattle tennis club and then we’d go to the hood clubs—the Black and Tan, the Rocking Chair, the Washington Educational and Social Club—and get down playing for the strippers and comedians.

[Lionel Hampton] tried to get me to join his band when I was 15. So I just went and got on the band bus. I didn’t want to take chances and ask anybody. I stayed on there about five hours until all the rest of them were ready to go. Then his wife and manager Gladys asked, “Who’s that child back there?” She told me to get off the bus and get my education, adding, “We’ll call you one day when you’re ready.”

Clark Terry and Ray were my teachers and friends. Then, playing later with Hamp’s band was like school. These guys had been out there with the racism, traveling 700 miles a night. I watched old guys take their pants, fold them and put them under the mattress. They’d wash their white shirts in the bathroom, put coats up there too and turn hot water on to steam them. And then they’d [dampen] their handkerchiefs and put them up wet on the mirror. The next day it was like they’d been ironed. They knew all the tricks.

Then one thing happened after another. I got to work with almost every major influence in America. From Louis Armstrong to Billie [Holiday], Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [Vaughan], Ray, Aretha, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

Marvin Hamlisch was 15 years old when I met him. I did his first record. He was graduating from Professional Children’s School in New York. My dentist called me and says, “I have a kid, one of my patients, and he wants you to hear a song.” The song was “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” [recorded by Lesley Gore]. He wrote that when he was 15. Then he went all the way to getting a Pulitzer Prize for writing “A Chorus Line” and two Oscars for “The Way We Were.”

It’s just amazing how things happen. I think of the Brothers Johnson, of finding Oprah Winfrey for “The Color Purple.” Will Smith and stuff like that. It’s just astounding. You can’t plan that. You might think you’re in charge, but it’s not true. They say coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. You look back and think about how you met your best friends.

You don’t phone and say, “Mr. Sinatra, I want to work with you.” You’ve got to wait till he calls you and says you’re good enough to work with him [laughs]. And he did.

When was that?

In 1958. I was in Paris with Barclay Records and studying with Nadia Boulanger. I‘d decided I was going to go all the way and learn my craft well. We got a message at the record company that Grace Kelly’s office had called and Mr. Sinatra wanted me to bring my whole 55-piece house orchestra to Monte Carlo.

We were playing the theme from “The Man With the Golden Arm,” waiting for him to come out from the side of the hall. But he comes from way in the back, giving high fives to Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Noel Coward and others. He starts to walk toward the stage, but stops and gets out his cigarette case. He puffs and then reaches the stage. The plan was we’d go into “Come Fly With Me.”

That’s when I saw the magic of what Frank was all about. He takes a puff and sings—“when I get you up there”—but there’s no smoke. When he gets to “where the air is rare,” he pulls all the smoke out. Herman Leonard, the great jazz photographer, was backstage and got that shot: Frank’s hand up in the air and the smoke coming out. Unbelievable.

And after we finished the date, he said five words: “Coo coo, good job, kid.” That was it. Four years later, he calls me from Hawaii. He called me Q, the first time I ever heard that. “Q, this is Francis. I heard an album you did with Basie last year. Would you consider doing an album with him and I?” That was the first arrangement I did for him.

I worked with Frank from 1964 till he left us. This is his signet ring [puts out his hand]. He was the best friend you could ever ask for. There was no gray. He either loved you or he would roll over you in reverse in a Mack truck [laughs] because he was a tough dude.

I don’t know... all those things when you look back and grow older. You realize you had nothing to do with it. It’s divinity. You just let go and let God.

Like working with Michael Jackson?

That was an accident. We were doing “The Wiz” and he asked if I could help him find a producer. I said, “Michael, look, you don’t even [have] a song in the picture yet. I don’t want to think about that. Let’s get you a song.” He was only on “Ease on Down the Road”; that’s all we had. He sang a bit of “A Brand New Day” but he didn’t have a featured song on the picture. So we finally got him “You Can’t Win.” Then I started to watch him. He was so curious, inquisitive. He knew everybody’s dialogue.

What is one thing you learned from him and vice versa?

We came from two totally different schools. But between the two of us we had everything. Mine was big band and amazing singers, jazz and all that stuff. And I remember when Berry Gordy first started Motown in Detroit. When I was with Lionel Hampton, Leo Fender brought the Fender bass to us, one of the first ones. And nobody knew what the hell it was. But it started the electric rhythm section. If there hadn’t been a Fender bass, there would be no rock’n’roll and no Motown.

In those days, [you had to] stay right on the path of the true jazz thing. But rock’n’roll kind of blew the big bands out, and folk and doo-wop. So Herbie [Hancock] wrote “Watermelon Man.” Cannonball [Adderley] did “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” I did Walking in Space and Miles [Davis] did Bitches Brew with the electric rhythm section. So I didn’t have to listen to anybody to learn how to do Michael.

But I was looking to see what he could do that hadn’t been done before. I was thinking about the range of his voice. That’s the stuff you do, the architecture of your production. Michael was so smart and intuitive. He just hooked onto everything and watched everybody. Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown. We put our back­grounds together and we did it.

What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

I don’t know. [People] may take it for granted, but I was the first black conductor for the Oscars. The first black producer for the Oscars. The first black VP with a major label. The first doesn’t impress me because that means “only.” It’s not a sign of being there yet. That’s still a problem.

Sidney Poitier and Sidney Lumet were instrumental in helping me get started as the first black composer to get name credit for movie scores. [Poitier] had the same problem as an actor. He handed me the wand for black composers. They didn’t have black composers back then. They were all Middle Eastern and European names. But they both gave me pictures. See that? [points to movie posters on the wall] “Brother John,” “Lost Man,” “Slender Thread,” “The Pawnbroker,” “In the Heat of the Night.”

If you were relaxing on a desert island, what album would you have to have with you?

That’s hard. There’s too much stuff I like. But it would probably be Kind of Blue and Miles Ahead first. But my taste is much wider than that, so I’d probably have to have other stuff. Brazilian music like Gilberto Gil. African music. Ravel.

So it would be equally difficult for you to name the one project or achievement you’d like to be most remembered for?

It’s impossible because you’re dealing with Ray, Michael, Sinatra, Aretha, Lady Day, Ella, Basie, Duke.

Is there one key lesson you learned from a failure?

Absolutely. The Vibe magazine TV show. That was a serious bomb. I’ve got several of them. Like getting stranded in Europe with 33 people. I was 26 and just determined to keep my big band going. We were No. 3 to Ellington and Basie, one of the biggest joys you can have. We were stranded there for 10 months. No manager. No agent. No nothing. And it took me seven years to pay off all the money.

But make all the mistakes you can because that’s the way you really learn. It also gets you away from your fear. If you make a step of defeat, you retreat and become cautious about everything. And if you make a step of victory, you make giant steps next time. And even if you fall down [slaps hands], you get right back up and keep going. Nobody can stop you. When I was going, nobody could stop me. Nobody. I didn’t care what they said.

I think part of that’s because I didn’t have a mother. I lost my mother when I was 7 and they put her in a mental hospital. My brother and I watched her being taken away in a strait jacket. That’s something you never forget. And my stepmother was like in the movie “Precious.” I couldn’t handle it. So I said to myself, “I don’t have a mother. I don’t need one. I’m going to let music be my mother.” And I treat music like that.

How would you describe your legacy?

Born: 1933. Died: 2043. [laughs] Something like that. However, the Nobel doctors say they can keep me here until I’m 110, what with the color-coded genome breakthroughs and the nano technology that’s coming out in 12 years with a computer that will be capable of 1 trillion transactions a second. Everything that’s happened in the movies is going to happen. We used to laugh at Buck Rogers in space. Dick Tracy with the watches and cellphones. Not anymore.

Any closing thoughts?

Everybody, no matter what vocation they’re looking at, should add music as an essential to their curriculum. Music can be a very important part of your soul and your growth as a human being. It’s so powerful. To me it’s no accident that all the symphony orchestras around the world tune up to the note A. And A is 440 cycles, except in Germany where it’s 444. But the universe is 450 cycles.

So what I’m trying to say is, I think it’s God’s voice, melody especially. Counterpoint, retrograde inversion, harmony... that’s the science and the craft. But melody is the voice of God. And that’s what touches you before the lyrics touch you.

As I look back on my career, I think about a couple of things that I discovered. First was know who you are. Second was learn to love who you are because you can’t love anybody else if you don’t love yourself. Ray and I used to say every day in Seattle: “Not one drop of my self worth depends on your acceptance of me.” That was the deal with racism and everything. Because you don’t want an external force defining who the hell you are. We didn’t play that.

We also talked about our dreams. Ray said he wanted to own three airplanes in 20 years. And he did.

And what was your dream?

All the stuff I’m doing, and to have a family.