Quincy Jones once produced a television show called The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a knockabout comedy starring Will Smith, a skinny young rapper from Philadelphia. But if Bel-Air was ever to have a king, it would have to be Jones himself. His house there is certainly fit for one – a vast property at the top of an impossibly steep hill, with an indoor garden, jaw-dropping views and some very well-heeled neighbours, including one Rupert Murdoch. But when I drive up on a winter’s afternoon it is deserted, except for a Latino gardener. He looks up in amusement as my car sputters by, the engine groaning as it struggles with the incline.
Who has more strings to their bow than Quincy Jones? A jazz and be-bop musician, he played every brass instrument he could get his hands on, and with the very best: Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie – Jones worked with them all. He is a publisher, media magnate, composer and orchestral conductor who arranged songs for Frank Sinatra: his is the definitive version of Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, which became the first record played by Buzz Aldrin on the moon itself! Oh, and he produced three Michael Jackson albums – including Thriller, still the bestselling album ever recorded by an individual artist.
I reach his house near the hill’s summit, pull up next to an intercom and announce myself. Wide gates swing open and I edge my car down a sweeping driveway, where I am met by a member of Jones’s household staff. He leads me through an atrium-like level, trees and plants growing up from the floor below, and into an enormous living room with a round, domed roof.
“You’re English?” Jones says in a deep, sonorous voice, when he comes in to greet me, before launching into a rapid-fire burst of cockney rhyming slang, testing my knowledge of the meanings behind ice-cream van, boat race and – ahem – Bristol City. “Michael Caine taught me cockney,” he says proudly. They have known each other for 45 years: Jones first worked with Caine on The Italian Job writing “Getta Bloomin’ Move On”, better known as “The Self-Preservation Society”. He hums a few bars. “Michael and I are exactly the same age, born on the same day at the same time, 3.40pm Chicago time. We’re celestial twins.”
Sporting the moustache he has had since he was a teenage trumpeter and dark blue flowing robes, he eases his sizable 78-year-old frame into the sofa next to me with difficulty. “The doctor wants me to lose 40 pounds,” he sighs. Over the course of our three-hour conversation he eats only some raw vegetables brought in by his sister-in-law, Gloria.
We are ostensibly meeting to discuss his appointment as chairman of the board of governors for the Asia Academy of Music Arts & Sciences, with the aim of developing a 21st-century music industry across a region of some 2.5 billion people. But we decide to start at the beginning: I want to know how Quincy Delight Jones Jnr, grandson of a slave, and born in heavily segregated 1930s Chicago ended up king of the hill in Bel-Air, a friend and confidant to the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
His remarkable story starts with the loss of his mother, who suffered from schizophrenia. “[She] was taken away to a mental home in a straitjacket when I was seven,” he explains. He and his brother, Lloyd, were raised by their father, Quincy Jones Snr, a carpenter who occasionally worked for Eddie Jones (no relation), a notorious gangster in the city’s black community. South Side Chicago in the run-up to the second world war was a rough place, Jones says. “We saw dead bodies every day. Machine guns … everything. That’s my medal.” He points to a scar on his hand. “Seven years old, I went to the wrong street and a guy nailed my hand to a fence. I got an ice pick here, too.” He points to a longer scar on the side of his forehead.
His father, a victim of Jim Crow-era racism, decided it would be safer to get his sons out of Chicago, so he moved the family to Bremerton, near Seattle. To the streetwise Jones and his new step-brothers – his father had remarried – it offered an opportunity: “We were like baby gangsters: we thought, we can take over this city.” One night Jones and his friends “heard about some ice cream and lemon meringue pie coming into the recreation centre, so we broke in to get it”. He got in through the supervisor’s office, where he saw his first piano. “It was dark and I almost closed the door but, thank God, that higher power said: ‘Idiot! Go back in that room!’ I went back in and when I touched the piano, I knew I would be a musician.” Thereafter, he laid his hands on every instrument he could. “I stayed after school – I played tuba, sousaphone, French horn, trumpet, trombone, everything.”
And with an eye for the ladies at a young age, music was also a means to an end: “I wanted to be in the marching band … with the majorettes.” He went on to marry three times and has seven children, aged 18 to 58. Yet his enduring relationship with music is more complex than his other loves. “Music saved me,” he says, emphatically. “My mother was gone and I thought, I’m going to make music my mother.”
After the racism and bigotry of Chicago, Jones was fortunate enough to attend Garfield High School in Seattle, a mixed, diverse school “that was like the United Nations”. It also encouraged its students to think about music: a decade after Jones studied there a young Jimi Hendrix would pass through its halls.
At 14, Jones met Ray Charles, triggering a friendship that lasted until the singer’s death in 2004: “We dreamed together, did everything together. He was my best friend.” Charles struggled with heroin for much of his adult life, as did many of Jones’s contemporaries in jazz – particularly Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Jones got off lightly, in comparison. “Ray was addicted to heroin for 30 years and it got me for three months. I was 15 and I fell down five flights of steps.” He speaks slowly, enunciating his words carefully. “That’s what they call ghetto rehab.” He laughs. “Man, a trumpet player falls down five flights of steps, you know you may never see your trumpet again. I did cold turkey and quit and I’m glad I did, because when I got to New York and was hanging out with Charlie Parker and those guys, I’d have been really messed up. But I learnt early, thank God.”
In the years that followed Jones would see the world, travelling first with Lionel Hampton’s band, and then with Dizzy Gillespie, visiting Europe at a time when big-band musicians were treated like rock stars. He went everywhere: Scandinavia, France, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon – nowhere was off limits. It was the early days of jazz, but the bands Jones played with were not limited to particular styles. “In the club you would play pop music, Christmas songs, strip music, polkas, bar mitzvahs, everything. When I worked with Michael [Jackson], people were saying I sold out. I said, shit, I’ve been doing that since I was 14 years old!”
The one constant in his musical life has been the orchestra, his ability to take separate musical parts and weave them into a living, breathing whole. “I’ve always looked at the world like that, through four trumpets, four trombones, five sax, drums, bass, piano, guitar … all doing something different, but working together.”
He also talks like an orchestral arranger: stories about the old days spin off at tangents like riffs. At one stage, while telling me about a visit to Iraq 54 years ago with Gillespie, he pulls harrowing photographs from a trip he made to the county in 2003, as part of a humanitarian mission to get injured children to US hospitals. “You have to go to these places man … You got to go to know,” he says.
In 1957 Jones went to Paris to study under Nadia Boulanger, the revered conductor, composer and composition teacher. “I was with her five years. She made it real clear, man … She said jazz musicians are different because they shack up with music first, and court it and marry it later. It’s true.”
While in France he first met Frank Sinatra, who summoned Jones and a 55-piece orchestra to play at a benefit in Monte Carlo. “Afterwards, he said six words: Cuckoo kid, good job, bye-bye. Four years later, he calls me: he’s in Hawaii, I’m in New York.” He affects a deep Sinatra growl. “‘Hey Q!’ He was the first person to call me Q. ‘This is Francis. I’ve just heard the album you did with [Count] Basie. Would you consider doing an album with me and Basie?’” It was the beginning of another long friendship. “He didn’t have any grey … he either loved you or he’d roll up your ass in the trunk – backwards.”
Sinatra left Jones a ring when he died, which he shows me proudly, on his pinkie finger. The singer’s friendship also proved invaluable in Las Vegas, which was still segregated when Jones began playing there in the early 1960s. “It was because of us [black musicians] and Sammy [Davis Jnr] that they had to break the segregation in 1964. Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and Sammy, they all had to eat in the casino kitchens when they played Vegas. The first time I went to Vegas was with Basie’s band. Frank calls us over to the slot machines and there are 17 goombahs [mobsters] standing there. Frank points to us and says to the goombahs, ‘If anyone looks at them funny, break their f***ing legs!” Needless to say, Jones and his friends didn’t get any trouble.
Racial barriers were being broken down across the music industry at that time, but progress was slow. After taking his own band on tour to the UK, Jones racked up large debts. He returned to the US to take a job at Mercury Records – and became the first black vice-president of a major label. “I became a suit, and you know that’s not me.” Still, it was an invaluable experience. “The president said: ‘Q, you’re my man and you know the music business, but you don’t know the music business.’ He was right: if you don’t own the master, or copyright, you’re not in the music business.”
“The labels used to take all our stuff,” he adds, referring to Roulette Records, the label founded by Morris Levy in 1956. “Roulette controlled all the night clubs, all the booking agencies and all the record companies. I would do an album for Count Basie on Roulette and Levy would say, ‘You can ask for whatever you want, you’re only getting one per cent.’” Levy also used to repurpose black artists’ songs for white singers: “Every record I did with LaVern Baker, they’d send it to Georgia Gibbs. Fats Domino – they’d give his stuff to Pat Boone.”
I look at my watch and realise that we have been talking for more than two hours. I notice some pictures behind Jones; one of them is of him with Barack Obama. He backed Obama in 2008, but will he do so again? “You’re goddamn right I will … Everybody stumbles. You have to learn to get it right. You don’t know how it is until you play in the band for a while.”
Jones has played in plenty of bands over the years and his music consistently finds new audiences. Massive Attack recently sampled some of his solo work, while Mike Myers’ Austin Powers introduced new audiences to Soul Bossa Nova, a track Jones recorded in 1962. Laden with horns and Brazilian sounds, it is a recording that musicians would struggle to replicate today, he says. Indeed, he openly despairs of modern artists and singers who lack the musical grounding to “figure out” the complexity of orchestration.
He even had disagreements on this front with the late Michael Jackson on their first collaboration, Off the Wall. While they were recording it, “Michael sent me a note saying ‘Quincy, please, please take the strings off the beginning of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ because it’s messing up my groove.’ You know the strings, right?” He hums the opening few bars. “The strings are what made it work! It all went together, my background and his singing.”
The chart success of Off the Wall saw Jones invited back to produce a second Jackson album. The result was Thriller, which went on to sell an estimated 100 million copies. “I only had a $30,000 advance. That’s all they gave me for Thriller. [But] I got there in the end, with my [profit participation] points.”
He and Jackson also worked together on the “We Are the World” single, but parted ways after Bad. “He thought I was getting too old for the business because Bad didn’t sell 100 million. I said, ‘Michael, you can’t get used to 50, 60 million albums, come on man. You can’t tell me that 30 million is a bomb!’ Michael said: ‘Quincy is so old he doesn’t know that rap is dead’ – and this was 1987!” But their disagreements didn’t change the way he felt about Jackson. “You have to be in love to produce somebody right,” he says, sadly. Were they close to the end? “We were.” I ask how he feels when he looks back at that era – at the unprecedented success of Thriller. “It’s a good feeling because it’ll never happen again.”
One reason it will never happen again is because “we don’t have a music industry anymore”. Ravaged by piracy and digital file sharing, album sales have slumped in recent years, so Jones has turned his attention to a new frontier: the east. He has been spending an increasing amount of his time in China and was an artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, when he found himself under pressure to withdraw because of China’s ties to the Sudanese government. “I refused to pull out… You can’t do that with a country of 1.3 billion people.”
One of his closest friends is Yue-Sai Kan, the entrepreneur and media personality described as “the Chinese Oprah”: “Great lady … she goes to war for me.” Another ally is Miky Lee, the Korean heiress and scion of the family behind the Samsung group, who wants to help him promote indigenous Korean music. The main Asian push begins in March: in addition to being its chairman, Jones is now executive producer of the Asia Academy of Music Arts & Sciences’ inaugural awards show, envisaged as a kind of Asian Grammys.
How does he feel about the decline of the music industry? “It engages me. I’m not going to sit by and watch it die. Let’s reinvent it. We have to start in China.” The industry also needs Jones, I suggest. He has not been able to play his trumpet since 1974, when he suffered a brain aneurysm, but who else in music today knows more about music’s power, or better understands its evolution? The industry may be struggling, but that has not knocked his faith. “Music and water will be the last thing to leave this planet,” he says, as I get up to leave. I have to believe him: the man who made music his mother knows this better than anyone.
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent.