Quincy Jones, in a rare moment, is relaxing. He lounges on an overstuffed sofa in his home screening room while sipping from his frequent drink of choice these days — a protein-rich smoothie whipped up by his cook. It’s quite a change for this longtime wine connoisseur, whose favorites have ranged from a 1961 Château Pétrus to Italian Barbarescos.
The past year, during which Jones turned 85, has been nonstop: an international tour to celebrate his milestone birthday in March, a raft of new business deals and the debut of Quincy, the Netflix documentary about his career and personal life. But in this moment, he is taking stock.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on everything,” he says. “It’s just astounding. You realize how little we have to do with it. It’s all, ‘Let go and let God.’ I’m serious.”
He pauses to munch on freshly made kale chips. Amid health issues, Jones stopped drinking three years ago. “Alcohol numbs you, and I’m so un-numbed now,” he says. “I’ve never been so creative in my life.”
That’s difficult to digest when you look around the screening room and take in Jones’ accomplishments over the past seven decades. Decorated with posters of the various movies he has scored and soundtracked (The Pawnbroker, The Color Purple, In the Heat of the Night, The Italian Job), the memory-steeped space is adjacent to an equally mesmerizing entryway.
That area is packed with covers of Jones-produced albums, autographed sheet music for the star-studded charity single “We Are the World” and candid photos of Jones with greats such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra (“the first guy to call me ‘Q,’” says Jones), Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. Glass and wood display cases house his 27 Grammy Awards — including producer of the year (with Jackson) for 1983’s album of the year, Jackson’s Thriller. Not visible: his 1977 Emmy Award for outstanding music composition for a series (Roots), his 1994 Academy Award (he was the first African-American to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences [AMPAS]) and the 2016 Tony Award as a producer for the best revival of a musical (The Color Purple).
It’s a journey that has led to another extraordinary year. Jones was feted at four birthday concerts over the summer: at the O2 Arena in London (featuring Mark Ronson, Corinne Bailey Rae and Lalah Hathaway); Italy’s Umbria Jazz Festival (Take 6, Ivan Lins and Patti Austin); the Budapest Jazz Festival (Dee Dee Bridgewater and Jones’ protégé, the pianist Alfredo Rodriguez) and the Montreux Jazz Festival. The lattermost celebration — featuring Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Robert Glasper’s R+R=Now among its lineup of surprise guests — was filmed for Qwest TV, the first subscription, video-on-demand service for jazz that Jones co-founded.
At press time, Jones was preparing for yet another birthday celebration. Featuring a star-studded guest list including Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Dave Chappelle, LL Cool J and Gladys Knight, Q 85: A Musical Celebration for Quincy Jones is being produced by veteran Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich for BET Networks. Taped on Sept. 25 at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theatre, the special will air at a later date to be announced.
On the night of his birthday, March 14, Jones was up until 8 a.m. the following morning, holding court with several 20-something friends of his son Quincy Jones III — immigrants from Sweden and other countries — talking about technology of the future.
“That insatiable curiosity is what makes him tick,” says his daughter Rashida Jones as she recalls that evening. “It’s the philosophy that there’s never going to be a time when you stop learning. My dad doesn’t just say that. He really lives that way.”
But with the highs this year have come lows, most notably the death of longtime friend Aretha Franklin. She and Jones co-produced her 1973 Atlantic album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). “I don’t go to funerals anymore,” says Jones, who was a major-league fan of Franklin’s fried chicken and rhubarb-and-peach cobbler. “We’re losing so many people. I just can’t handle it.”
And earlier in 2018, Jones ignited a media firestorm with incendiary comments he made about Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, The Beatles and others in interviews with GQ and Vulture. After a family intervention by his six daughters, Jones tweeted a public apology.?
“I have LEARNED MY LESSON,” he wrote in part. “It’s apparent that ‘wordvomit’ & bad-mouthing is inexcusable … this has contradicted the very real messages I tried to relay about racism, inequality, homophobia, poverty.”
Looking back, Jones says: “My daughters kicked my ass. But I love them and my son, my babies, so much.” Asked if he was nervous about any revelations in Quincy — which Netflix premiered Sept. 21 — he replies, “I can’t get any more nervous after GQ. I’ll never do that again.”
For all his career accomplishments, Jones reveals that music substituted for the absence of his mother throughout his life. After introducing him to music at an early age, she was hospitalized for mental illness when he was 7 years old. “I said, ‘If I don’t have a mother, I’m going to let music be my mother,’” he recalls. “The only fear in my life after she was taken away to a state mental hospital was to not ever be thoroughly prepared for a great opportunity.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Bremerton, Wash., and later Seattle, Quincy Delight Jones Jr. immersed himself in music. Learning piano, then the trumpet, a 14-year-old Jones met running buddy/mentor Ray Charles at a Seattle club after word spread around town about a talented, 17-year-old blind musician-singer who had relocated from Florida. “I miss him so much,” says a wistful Jones. “If he was around right now, we’d probably be getting into trouble. Ray was a wild sucker who made me appreciate all kinds of music. He taught me my first music in braille.”
Soon afterward, Jones was playing trumpet in bands behind singers Billie Holiday (at age 14) and Billy Eckstine (at 15); he would perform at bar mitzvahs as well as at strip clubs. After moving east to attend Berklee College of Music, Jones left the school to launch his career as a trumpeter, pianist and arranger for Lionel Hampton’s big band. That led to a move to New York, where Jones began arranging and recording songs for his good friend Charles as well as for Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Basie and Sinatra (the latter two teamed with Jones for a swinging take on “Fly Me to the Moon”).
Beyond all those Grammys, his career milestones range from 4 million-selling singles by 1960s pop superstar Lesley Gore (including the anthem “You Don’t Own Me”) to the historic triumph of Jackson’s 1982 LP, Thriller. There are also the critically acclaimed film and stage productions, in 1985 and 2005 respectively, of The Color Purple, and victories at the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tonys. Not to mention producing “We Are the World” for African famine relief in 1985.
Some of those achievements came at the expense of his health. In 1974, Jones was sidelined by two operations for brain aneurysms. Three years ago, he fell into a diabetic coma. More recently, as shown in the documentary, he was hospitalized by another health scare: a blood clot. But he’s not ready to be counted out just yet.
“This is a guy who has gotten up every time he has fallen,” says Quincy Jones Productions president Adam Fell. “He just never gives up. And that, of course, leads us to continue fighting for projects that he’s passionate about doing.”
Jazz pioneer Herbie Hancock, who describes himself as Jones’ “brother,” says, “Quincy is a man of undeniable courage, tenacity, artistry, strength and integrity who sees barriers as challenges.” The two have known each other since the early ’60s when Jones had notched another breakthrough: the first black man to be named vice president at a major label, Mercury Records. “That’s a lesson that we can all learn from,” says Hancock, “and one that is particularly relevant today.”
Jones is overseeing a slate of projects that would be daunting for someone half his age. His artist management roster includes pianist Rodriguez, two-time Grammy winner Jacob Collier and blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin, along with Eli Teplin, Jonah Nilsson, Richard Bona, American Idol runner-up Clark Beckham and two recent signings: singer Shelea Frazier and trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf.
For Jones, it’s all about paying it forward. “These kids are going to turn music upside down,” he promises of the roster that he affectionately calls the “Global Gumbo All-Stars.” “I was lucky to have mentors like Count Basie, Ray Charles, Clark Terry and Benny Carter who put me on their shoulders when I was young and cared about me. Now it’s an honor to put these kids on my shoulders.”
Jones’ investments extend well beyond artists. After more than 20 years, Jones fulfilled his longtime dream of opening the first in a series of name-branded clubs. Through a licensing deal in association with Versace, Q’s Bar & Lounge opened in 2016 at the Versace Hotel in Dubai.
An early investor in Spotify and in companies such as Glympse and Zig, Jones recently helped back the startup Jammcard, billed by Forbes as “LinkedIn for musicians.” Jones, who has also launched a new shoe collection with fashion designer Jon Buscemi, still maintains his affiliation with Harman/JBL headphones and is working on a new project with Los Angeles-based clothing/apparel company Apolis.
For Jones, whose prior entrepreneurial ventures have included TV shows (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and Vibe magazine, everything has stemmed from his aversion to one word: impossible. “I’ve been told all the time that something’s impossible or nobody has ever done anything like that before,” he says. “I’ve since realized how important it is to be underestimated. When you’re underestimated, people get out of your way. That’s how I made The Color Purple.”
Jones’ production company is involved in several other film and TV projects. In a deal with ABC-owned Lincoln Square Productions, Jones and Fell are at work on a scripted miniseries about Jones’ life. The first draft of a screenplay for another long-gestating film — about black gangsters the Jones Boys from Chicago, where Jones (no relation) spent his early childhood — has been completed. Jones also has teamed with former AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs to co-produce a documentary about the black experience in American film, and he’s reportedly eyeing potential Broadway ventures in partnership with Arcara, co-producer of Wicked and The Book of Mormon.
Meanwhile, music still drives him. When Quincy premiered Sept. 21, so did an original song from Jones and Mark Ronson, “Keep Reachin’,” featuring Chaka Khan. In late 2017, Jones’ Qwest Records released Dangerous Man, the debut album by Barbra Streisand’s son Jason Gould, which Jones co-produced. Later this year, Jones will debut a tribute to Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki that was co-composed with Rodriguez.
“I used to sit up at night and write so long that my eyes would bleed,” says Jones of his fervor for orchestration that dates back to his Seattle days. “It was always raining there, so I just wrote and wrote all the time. I don’t think I’d have become a composer and arranger if I hadn’t been living in Seattle.”
To this day, Jones starts writing music at midnight (“that’s when the muses are out”) and goes to bed between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Then it’s back into the swing of things starting from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
That vision powers a busy schedule that now stretches beyond 2019 and into 2020. In his role as artist ambassador to the Montreux Jazz Festival, he helped secure Elton John for the 2019 edition, where John will play two of the last shows of his career. In New York next spring, he and director Steve McQueen will collaborate on the opening ceremony for The Shed, a new performing-arts center that’s part of the High Line public space. In 2020, plans are afoot to break ground on the very first Quincy Jones Music School, on Turtle Island in Indonesia. Architect Frank Gehry is consulting with Cherie Liem, who is redeveloping the entire island.
“I was thinking about retiring,” says Jones with a chuckle, “but I think I’m going to let somebody else do that. With everything that’s going on, it’s too exciting. But looking back, this journey fascinates me because it’s mostly about divine intervention. The ideal state of mind for a creative person is the ability to balance between making it happen and letting it happen.”
One thing he’d like to see happen in the industry: ensuring that creatives are equitably compensated. “I want us to figure out how to guarantee a business that will take care of the people that create it. There are too many bean counters sitting there trying to take all the money.
“And that’s on a parallel path with racism,” continues Jones, a fervent social activist who worked with civil rights pioneers such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Nelson Mandela. “This is a time of change. God is pushing this shit right in our faces so we can do something about fixing it.”
As for predicting the next trend in music, Jones says he doesn’t know what that will be just yet. But whatever it is, it has to represent the current generation. “Hip-hop does some of that, but I think there’s much more to say,” he says. “Like Hamilton. I hadn’t seen anything like that since 1958, when I spent my last dollar to see Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. I also see it coming out of youngsters like Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar.”
When the interview ultimately turns to how he views his legacy, Jones quickly fires back with a definitive answer. “I don’t think about that. It’s not my decision. That’s up to others. All I know is that I feel like 19 or 20 years old again.” Invoking his favorite phrase, “YOLO KOKO” (an acronym for “you only live once, keep on keepin’ on”), Jones concludes: “It’s an exciting time to be alive. I just want to stay vertical for a while longer.”
‘Quincy’ On Netflix: An ‘Incredibly Candid’ Portrait
After debuting on Netflix, the intimate documentary Quincy, co-directed by daughter Rashida Jones, will have a limited theatrical release.
Actress, writer and producer Rashida Jones recalls with a laugh that when Tribeca Productions CEO/co-founder and family friend Jane Rosenthal approached her to co-direct a documentary about her legendary father, Quincy Jones, “I had an immediate sinking feeling. It was joy and dread all at the same time, because I knew it would be a monstrous mountain to climb. But Jane was right — I had to do it.”
Armed with a rented 5D camera (“I had also never used a camera in my life”), Rashida began to scale that mountain by filming her dad at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival. The result, five years later, is the intimate, two-hour Quincy, co-directed by Alan Hicks (Keep On Keepin’ On). Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 9), the documentary launched globally on Netflix (Sept. 21) and will have a limited theatrical release.
The toughest challenge Quincy presented was figuring out a story to tell that hadn’t already been chronicled in detail in previous documentaries, like Quincy Jones: In the Pocket, filmed in 2001 for the PBS American Masters series, or books such as the producer’s 2002 autobiography.
Rashida settled on creating an intimate, authentic look at her father from the perspective of his inner circle — “a full-spectrum portrait of what he’s actually like with family and friends,” as she puts it, adding: “This is a love letter to my dad in a lot of ways, because he’s done a lot of incredible things. However, I didn’t want to do that at the expense of telling the real story.”
Indeed, some of the most emotional — and, occasionally, jarring — scenes in Quincy play out during his recent hospital stays and a particularly shaky moment during an onstage presentation.
“My instinct as his daughter is to be very protective of him,” says Rashida. “So the hospital stuff was a big conversation. But the reason we decided that it was fine was because this isn’t an exploitative movie. I wanted to be honest about who he is. Part of that is someone who pushes himself really hard and stops taking care of himself at the expense of forward motion.
“He knows that,” she continues. “Every couple of decades or so, he’ll have an incredibly sobering moment where he almost doesn’t make it and has to recalibrate.”
While nothing was off-limits when it came to the film’s subject matter — “My dad is incredibly candid and was OK with it,” says Rashida — the filmmakers decided against re-editing the finished film to revisit the magazine firestorm that occurred earlier in 2018, with Jones’ blunt remarks in interviews.
The overriding theme of Quincy focuses not only on Jones’ exceptional success but also how hard-won that level of achievement was for a black man in America.
Viewers are given a front-row seat to Jones’ childhood in the 1930s, his fight for equality in the civil rights era and current advocacy in today’s turmoil-wracked world. Throughout his life, Jones has tried to break down societal and cultural barriers through his exceptional musicianship.
“People ask, ‘Why this film now? He’s 85 and his story has been covered,’ ” says Rashida. “The truth is, we’re at a crossroads in this country. The seed of this movie — my dad’s contributions and pushback plus inevitable relationship with being a black man in America — is an important theme. This is the right time for that message.”
Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV Showcases Global Scope of Jazz
French musical director Reza Ackbaraly teams with Jones to launch an on-demand TV platform.
What started as a casual chat about jazz in 2015 at the Jazz à Vienne festival in France has emerged as an online video channel dedicated to the American art form.
Festival musical director Reza Ackbaraly met Jazz à Vienne honoree Quincy Jones at the event, where their conversation led to grousing about the dearth of jazz on cable TV in the United States. “Quincy asked me to develop a channel because he knew I was involved in video. I said, ‘Really?’ And he replied, ‘I don’t joke.’ ”
Ackbaraly began building a subscription-based, on-demand channel relying on his 12 years of experience as the producer of new jazz/world music programming at French TV music channel Mezzo.
“We see Qwest TV as the Netflix for jazz and ‘beyond’ music, like African and traditional styles,” says Ackbaraly. Still in beta, Qwest will launch in October on iOS, Android and Amazon Fire TV, with Roku following in December. It already features archival concerts from such jazz greats as Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, and jazz documentaries. Live sets are planned by currrent stars.
Ackbaraly says that working with Jones is awe-inducing. “Quincy is 85 and he’s still so enthusiastic, so curious. We’re both open-minded in the way we see the jazz world connected to classical, Brazilian, African, and we’re into the multigenerational. We talk about jazz values a lot — the tradition, the respect, the hard work, the diversity, the transitions between genres. That’s our vision.”
— DAN OUELLETTE
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 29 issue of Billboard.