What I've Learned: Quincy Jones
Mr Quincy Jones is a titan of the music industry. The American musician, producer, conductor, arranger, composer and film producer has amassed 79 Grammy Award nominations, 28 Grammys and seven Oscar nominations in his career. He is one of the most influential jazz mucians of the 20th Century and produced the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller. He told Esquire Middle East a few tales from his life while in Dubai to open Q’s bar and lounge at the Palazzo Versace.
The 1930s in Chicago. Me and my brother, we were street rats. Right here, see this scar on my hand? I went to the wrong neighbourhood where they had these tough street gangs and I didn't know the password. They nailed my hand to a fence with a switchblade knife. And right here [Points to his temple]. An ice pick in my head. Seven years old. You don't forget that.
In Seattle we’d tell the rednecks, “Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.” The ’30s, ’40s and ’50s were rough, y'know. You think it's rough now?
Not having a mother makes you pay attention. She had dementia break outs. A graduate of Boston University. Twelve languages, a brilliant lady. They took her away in a strait jacket when I was seven years old. It was painful.
Big bands were the absolute pinnacle back then. Every day in Seattle we’d watch Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman. All those great band leaders. I'd sit there like I was watching a beautiful girl, y'know? I was a junkie for it and I'm glad because it’s how I learned my craft. Because it's a long job learning to write for a band. You got all those instruments, you have to know how to put them together and voice them. You have to know harmony.
I was starving to death in New York, 1956, 22 years old. Dizzy Gillespie called me up and asked me to be musical director for a goodwill tour of the Middle East. We went to Aleppo, Damascus, Karachi, Fallujah, Kirkuk... everywhere. I got a really good early shot at it before all the chaos that has gone on since then. That's where I met Ravi Shankar, saw the Taj Mahal, learned to speak a little Farsi. What an opportunity.
My motto with my kids has always been ‘You gotta go to know’.
You learn the rules of the road when you work with a band as big as Lionel Hampton's, aged 18. Oh baby, on the band bus every night, girls in every city. Get out of here, it's amazing. And it's a science, an emotional science. You get in town at 5.30, play pool and eat. Go change into our uniforms at 7.30 and play the job. Get off at 1.30 and you’ve got till seven the next morning to find a girl, hit it, quit it and leave. You learn from watching the older guys!
I made every mistake on the planet but that’s how you learn. I was in Europe with my big band in 1957/58. Instead of taking the paid transportation home after the contract I kept them on for some more gigs. 26 years old and I kept 33 people in Europe for ten months. It gotto the point where I almost committed suicide in Helsinki. It was that painful. I had no manager, no agent, nothing. It took me seven years to pay off that money.
I met Marlon Brando in 1951 before he was a star. He'd just made A Streetcar Named Desire and I was with him till he died in 2004. We called each other Leroy.
Have I ever been star struck? Never! Frank Sinatra, Sidney Poitier, Michael Jackson… They're all just human beings, and most weren’t names when I first met them in any case. Ray Charles? You kidding? He was 17 years old, I was 14. You know he didn't become blind until he was six. He had chicken pox and scratched his eyes. This was Jacksonville, Florida, and he went to a white hospital that wouldn't take him in. By the time he got to the black hospital he was blind. He taught me how to read music in braille.
I never thought I'd live to see a black president. I waited all my life to see it. Oprah [Winfrey] brought him to my house in May 2007 with Michelle. She really helped make him.
Has Obama delivered? We'll never be completely happy with any of them. None. Do you know who got it all right? Hell no! Eisenhower, FDR… none of them. They do the best they can with what they know. I was in the White House for eight years with the Clintons so I got to see how it works.
Apprehension is not going to solve the problems we have in America right now. Mark Twain said: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” That's a very profound comment because we can freak out and get angry, but that protest, vandalism and violence doesn't work. We’ve gotta be smart now, to steer this turkey in the right direction.
Nelson Mandala always told me, “Quincy, the collective is always more important than the individual.” It’s not “I me mine” but “we us they”. And I learned that very early. That's what the big band's all about. It's only as strong as the weakest member.
I can't rate one project above another. I love all of them all. You can't compare Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles or Michael Jackson to Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald. I worked with Billie Halliday when I was fourteen. I worked with Count Baissie, did ten albums with Sarah Vaughan. Nina Simone... all of 'em.
“Fly me to the Moon” which I did with Frank Sinatra in 1964 was the first song Buzz Aldrin played after he stepped onto the Moon. My 1969 album Walking in Space was also taken up to space.
I love Buzz. He's such a character. You know he wants to be a rapper? I've spent a lot of time with him. Buzz's wives? Let's not go there.
My father said: "Once has task has just begun, never leave it till it's done. Be the labour great or small, do it well or not at all.”
You've gotta constantly figure it out and it never stops. I stopped drinking 22 months ago. My mind is so clear now and I'm reflecting on a lot of things that I never thought about in my life. How did this happen? Wow! Revelations, y'know. Getting all of the dark things out of my life. The judgmental thoughts. I'm trying to get all that out of my soul.
[Albert] Einstein had the same doctor that I had when I had my brain operation [Jones had two brain aneurysms in 1974]. He told her before he died, "Doctor, I do not want to live, I did not split the atom to nuke Nagasaki and Hiroshima."
The doctors promise me 30 more years. I'm 83 so that's 110. And your babies might live to 150.
Do you know what nanotechnology is all about? Using carbon and hydrogen atoms instead of microchips. I knew Marvin Minsky [1927-2016, co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AI laboratory] and he helped develop all this. In the next few years a $1,000 computer will be capable of one trillion transactions a second. That's gonna turn this world upside down. And you can't stop it.
What was the first reason to play the drums? Nobody know for sure but here’s my concept: They were trying to imitate thunder to encourage rain. In Africa music is life-force. Virginity rites, circumcision rites, work songs, field hollas… That's why it's so powerful. The blues and gospel helped make the slaves feel less depressed and less repressed.
We don't have a minister for culture in America and that upsets me. We started a petition but it hasn't happened yet. People don't know who they are, they don’t know where they come from. And you have to know who you are. Fix what's wrong. And love who you are. Because if you don't love who you are then you can't love anybody and they can't love you.