Born: March 14, 1933 Primary Instrument: Producer
The multitalented Quincy Jones began his remarkable career as a jazz prodigy and eventually progressed into pop music production, film, television scoring, and musical legend. He has won 25 Grammy awards, and has worked along side some of the biggest names in music. Yet Jones has managed to keep his accomplishments and prominence in perspective, maintaining a balance of passion, curiosity, and good humor that impresses his peers almost as much as do his more tangible achievements.
Born Quincy Delight Jones, in Chicago and raised in Seattle, he evinced an early aptitude for music; his mastery of the trumpet led him to bandstands with jazz ensembles by the age of 15. Of course, two years before that, he had felt sufficient confidence in his talents as an arranger to send some charts he'd done to legendary jazz bandleader Count Basie.
Much of Jones's education came at the feet of greats like pianist-singer Ray Charles and vibraphonist-bandleader Lionel Hampton; the latter hired Jones when the aspiring trumpeter was still a teenager. The talented youth also played with such brilliant jazz figures as singer Billie Holiday, bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and bandleader Billy Eckstine. Ultimately, however, he felt more comfortable as a composer and arranger than as a trumpeter. I always felt that the orchestra itself was my instrument, he explained,I had to make a commitment as some point, and I was more fearless with an arrangement than with a horn.
Jones did study formally, attending Boston's prestigious Berkelee School of Music and working with Parisian arranger Nadia Boulanger; Paris, in fact, became his home for some time. It was there that he worked as a jazz producer and led his own ensemble. On his return to the United States in 1960, Jones signed on at Mercury Records, becoming one of the industry's first black executives. At the company he produced albums, sat in on recording sessions with the orchestra, and wrote arrangements for artists at Mercury as well as other labels. Jones wrote for Sammy Davis, Jr., Andy Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Aretha Franklin, as well as arranged and conducted “It Might As Well Be Swing,” an album featuring Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Band.
In 1969 Jones signed a contract as a recording artist with Herb Alpert's A&M Records, and Quincy's first album with that label, “Walking in Space,” won a Grammy for best jazz instrumental album of 1969.
Jones proceeded to establish his own credibility as a recording artist, exploring funk, fusion, and other contemporary forms on albums like “Sounds ... and Stuff Like That.” While some of his harsher critics carped about his electronic leanings, he felt his background had led naturally to such projects. I was lucky to come up in an environment where I had to play everything, from bebop and blues to Debussy, I was playing trumpet in an R&B band in Seattle when I was 14, so what I'm doing now isn't exactly alien to me. That was in 1947, the heart of the bebop era, and there weren't a lot of cats who shared my view that you should explore music without wearing blinders. Jones demonstrated a similarly expansive outlook as producer, working with R&B sensations the Brothers Johnson, jazz guitarist George Benson, disco diva Donna Summer, and modern vocal giant Frank Sinatra, among many others.His 1980 album, The Dude, featured a host of talent directed by Jones, earned 12 Grammy nominations, and won five awards.
His work on “The Wiz” in the early '80's, led to the production of Michael Jackson's album “Off the Wall, and followed with “Thriller” in 1982. The biggest-selling album of all time--it moved some 25 million units--and earned Jones three Grammy awards as producer.He would produce and arrange one of Frank Sinatra's last albums, L.A. Is My Lady, in 1984.
Meanwhile, Jones had launched his own record label in 1981, Qwest, which was distributed by Warner Bros.; his own recordings, not to mention several by artists he produced, were released on the label. Jones had emerged as one of the most reliable--and relaxed--producers in popular music. In a field crowded with egomaniacs, Quincy works by hiding his ego. He's so modest and cool,the artists wind up doing exactly what he wants, no questions asked. That's why his records sound so relaxed. He's the ultimate mood maker and the most skilled manipulator in the business. Jones himself explained that producing is always an obsession and summarized his approach thus: Listeners get bored quickly. So vary the sound. Keep the ear engaged and excited.
In 1986, Jones involved himself in a massive undertaking to generate assistance for victims of African famine, a solar system of pop stars participated in Jones's charity single for the USA for Africa organization; We Are the World raising $50 million.
He did emerge with an ambitious recording of his own, 1991's “Back on the Block;” that album traced a lineage between bebop and rap and enlisted an impressive array of performing talent. Jones took home six Grammy awards as a result, including those for album of the year and best producer.
Meanwhile, the entertainment world's Renaissance Man continued to produce records for other artists, found time to appear at events like the Montreux Jazz Festival, and, in 1994, received the Polar Music Prize in Stockholm, Sweden.
Jones's next release, “Q's Jook Joint,” (1994) was in line with his ultimate goal of a historic view of black music. The album marked 50 years in the music business for Jones and in an interview he explained the vision for the record. On Back on the Block, we had Miles Davis, Dizzy, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald together--and now they're all gone, it hit me about what our roots are all about. He felt like all his idols were dying, so he focused on the idea of a presenting history in a music continuum. You go and lay out the '40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and you'll see a song here that almost represents each period, Jones added.
By the end of the decade, Jones was cashing in on the many investments he made, and Warner Music Group was buying out his label Qwest Records. Jones's final release on Qwest was 1999's “From Q With Love.” He continues his association with AOL Time Warner through the Quincy Jones Media Group. The entertainment projects from the media group still included television, films, and Internet projects as well as a first-look agreement with Warner Telepictures.
Jones's concern for the African continent, best expressed through his We Are the World, efforts, still endured as well. His Listen Up Foundation sponsored trips to South Africa for teens from South Central Los Angeles. While there, the teens helped build homes for the disadvantaged and learned unforgettable lessons. Jones noted in PR Newswire, One of the most valuable lessons that anyone can learn, that the world is a much bigger place than the communities that they live in, with much bigger problems. Jones also led an effort to encourage world leaders to help decrease the technological divide that exists in Africa during the World Economic Forum Conference of 2001.
Jones was still being honored during this time for his contributions to the music world. Harvard University established a new chair in his honor, The Quincy Jones Professorship of African-American Music, which was supported by the Time Warner Endowment in 2001. He also received the inaugural Ted Arison Award presented by the National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts (NFAA). The award, named after the late founder of the NFAA, is presented each year to someone who has greatly influenced and contributed to the development of young American artists. Jones was also the first U.S.-born musician to be named Commander of the French Legion of Honor.
With more than fifty years in music, the next step for Jones was the inevitable release of an autobiography. ‘The Autobiography of Quincy’ Jones was published in 2001. With a career that included over sixty albums as leader, a variety of mass communications and civic contribution, and working with entertainers from Billy Holiday and Charlie Parker through to Michael Jackson and beyond, Jones had many stories to tell. But through it all, Quincy Jones remained dedicated to the music. I used to sit and watch Charlie Parker at Charlie's Tavern, he recollected. I'd look at him with awe as he would walk over to the jukebox. He'd play [Stravinsky's] “Sacre Du Printemps,” “The Rite of Spring,” and then pull out another dime or whatever it was and listen to a country & western tune.... Everything! That's how it's supposed to be. Like Parker's jukebox, Quincy Jones's musical dreams combine the eclectic tributaries of American music into a symphonic ocean. He himself employed a culinary metaphor when discussing his occupational ideal in Interview: I just want to eat the whole menu, because, man, it's all so beautiful.