In celebration of the March 14th birthday of iconic Quincy Jones, a rewind to two interviews conducted by John Abbey in the ’70s…
Quincy Jones: Classic Soul 1975 Interview
After twenty years of giving others success, Quincy Jones is only now finally getting his just deserts — borne out by the rapid rise up both British and American charts with his newest A&M album, “Mellow Madness’. “I’ve actually been into music and the business for twenty five years,” the mellow gent explains, quite unassumingly. “But it’s really only the past couple of years that I’ve taken time to push myself. ‘Til then, it was all soundtracks and arrangements. Would you believe that I have scored fifty-two movies during my career? That’s one reason why it’s taken to long to start pushing for me. And I’ve also done the basic music to eight or nine TV series. But I’ve enjoyed every minute and I don’t have any regrets although I’m equally excited now that I am building my own career.”
The life of Quincy Jones began in Chicago although he grew up in Seattle and it was in that far western city that Q. teamed up with another then-teenager, Ray Charles, and together they worked in various small combos with Ray playing piano, Quincy trumpet and both singing. Quincy acknowledges Ray as his instigator for bringing him into the music world as a career. Q. graduated to music on a scholarship to Boston’s legendary Berkeley School Of Music — although he was sidelining by doing gigs at strip clubs and their ilk to pay the day to day bills. It was during this era that Oscar Pettiford invited him to make his first trip to the Big Apple, New York, to help on the arrangements for an album that Oscar was working on. Suffice to say, Quincy fell in love with New York’s jazz underground and decided at the tender age of seventeen to try his luck as a full-time musician. It lead to Q. making his first European tour with Lionel Hampton and he acknowledges that period as another important building phase in his musical education — “because Europe was the spawning ground for jazz at that particular time.” His European stay lasted longer than he planned and included visits to almost every mainland European country.
On returning to the States, Quincy joined Mercury Records as A&R director, becoming one of the very first Black men to achieve such a lofty rank in the record business. Seven years were spent in this role and our man learned to appreciate every side of the business and this left him a much richer man — not necessarily in terms of music but in experience. Finally, though, the desire to create again persuaded Q. to forsake his desk at Mercury and return to making music. Over the years, he has been responsible for arranging and/or producing for such names as Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Roberta Flack and Andy Williams. And he also started breaking into the film score business, being fortunate enough to have his first assignment end up winning its lead actor, Rod Steiger, an Academy Award. The movie was “The Pawnbroker”. In the ensuing years, Quincy has three times been nominated in his own right for an Academy Award.
Three years ago, Quincy signed with the prestigious A&M Record company and it was only at this point that he started to realise his own innermost ambitions — to make Quincy Jones a public figure in his own right. It all started with the first set, “Walking In Space”, which was a major jazz album and broke into the R&B market. The progression was speeded up for the second album, “Gula Matari” and continued through “Smack-water Jack”. But it was the fourth set that established Quincy in both pop and soul markets. Entitled “You’ve Got It Bad Girl”, it came at the time when jazz was just starting to encroach into the R&B charts in force. The fifth set, though, was “Body Heat”, and this was the one to really carry Quincy’s name into the young set. And now comes “Mellow Madness” and it, too, looks set to enjoy across-the-board success. “Yes, I’m very excited about “Mellow Madness”,” the man will tell you if you insist on a direct answer! “You see, I dream ideas all of the time and one of these ideas is to put a musical family together — and this album sees the next step in this process. It features some people who I happen to find particularly exciting. For example, there is a vocaliste called Paulette McWilliams and she was the original lead singer with Rufus — in fact, it was Paulette who recommended Chaka Khan to the group. And there are the Johnson brothers, George and Louis, who have been part of my travelling show for a couple of years now — in fact, I am working now on an album on them for A&M.”
The track that everyone is talking about in England is most definitely “Beautiful Black Girl”, a heavily laden percussion item that features poetry recited by the Watts Prophets. “It’s like casting for a film,” Quincy explains. “Everything has to be right and it wasn’t until we added the poetry that this track sounded right. I’m a great believer in letting things just happen in a natural way. I don’t like to resist the elements. The whole album took almost a year to complete because we began it back in March of last year. But during that period I was hospitalised.”
It was that hospitalisation period that at one stage threatened to not only cut short Quincy’s career but also his life. During last summer, at the peak of his newly-found career, he was struck down with a cerebral stroke. “It was back in August,” he reflects in a sobre way, “And I have to admit it was all pretty scary — checking out is always likely to scare, though, I guess! You know, you go through life and you think: Oh, it can never happen to me. What happened was that a blood vessel to my brain ballooned out and popped. In my case, though, two vessels burst and apparently there is only a 2 per cent survival rate so you can imagine how lucky I consider myself. I had the same surgeon that helped Stevie Wonder through his operations earlier — in fact, Stevie came to a concert at the Greek Theatre recently and got on stage to join me. And the doctor was there in the auditorium and he cried just seeing us. Just a few weeks back I went to Cannonball’s funeral and that was frightening for me because my mind went back to the fact that this could so easily have been me — and only a few short months earlier. But I’m really happy now just to be alive. I’ve seen that higher ground that Stevie sang about and no longer do I take anything for granted. It just saddens me now to realise that we humans have to be driven to that point before we acknowledge these things. Now I’m just thankful that I’m alive and I thank God every new day. At first, of course, there were after effects but now they’ve all thankfully worn off and I’m able to carry on pretty much as before — except that I’ll never let myself be driven as hard as that again.”
And so, with this second chance, what does Quincy plan for his future? “I’m ambitious by nature,” he admits. “And I guess my main aim is to get into more varied things. Right now, for example, I’m working on two film projects only this time it’s not just the music. The first one is about a lady called Mammy Pleasants, who ran a bordello in San Francisco back in 1860 or thereabouts. She was a world famous abolitionist, too, and contributed a great deal towards the history of Black America. And the other project deals with the Buffalo Soldiers, a subject that is very dear to me. You see, America has cleared away all of the Black heroes that this country has thrown up and the average Black American simply cannot associate with the John Wayne syndrome. We want to associate ourselves with our own heros and the Buffalo Soldiers were definitely a section of Black America that we can look up to and respect. And I’m working on another deep subject that traces back Black music to around 1510 and then right up to modern times.”
He continues, “Eventually, it will be released on record but it may span several volumes. It’s really almost a documentary because it goes right into the old slave chants and through all of the different phases of Black American music — right to the point of today’s musical revolution. The research has been going on for two years now and we keep unearthing all kinds of fascinating information that we never were even vaguely aware of before. And there’s a special section on gospel music because that has had so much influence on Black American music. You know something, we could do almost a whole album on each separate phase because there is so much to understand. The contrast between European music as an art form and African music as a life force is perhaps the most stark fact that keeps hitting home.”
Quincy reflects, “To the average African, music is a necessity whereas to the average European it was simply a relaxation. I was right slap bang in the middle of this evolution project when I was hospitalised but I’m back into it again now. And I can’t leave it alone because it fascinates me as well as interests me. You know, there are really folks here in America who sincerely believe that it was Elvis Presley who started the Blues! They just don’t know any better!”
All in all, Quincy Jones is a deep, thoughtful human being who possesses not only basic talent but the ability to channel it in the correct manner. And that is the key because there are a great many people who have talent but simply cannot learn to harness it. Q may well be mellow but there definitely isn’t a trace of madness in the man.
© 1975, John Abbey. Reprinted, courtesy John Abbey
Quincy Jones: Classic Soul 1978 Interview
Feelin’ Great In ’78
Quincy Jones finds that the ideas and his music are just flowing these days, he feels like a man on the sea, just going with the flow…
Composer, arranger, producer, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Quincy Jones is known by most to be the man of many hats, and if his schedule of events for 1978 is any indication, that handle isn’t likely to falter. Currently immersed in his 30th year in the entertainment industry, Quincy is glowing over what he calls the most creative period of his life. As he puts it, “The ideas and the music are just flowing and I feel just like a man on the sea, going with the flow.”
On the recording side of his career, “Q,” as he is known by most, is following the success of his million selling soundtrack to last year’s epic television series “Roots” with some new sounds on his latest A&M LP “Sounds…And Stuff Like That”. Quincy says he “went a little bit left” with the album and the public reaction has been resoundingly right. Both the album and the single release title tune are tearing up the charts and burning the airwaves from coast to coast.
“Essentially the album features a rhythm section of some of my friends in New York, like Steve Gadd on drums, Eric Gale on guitar, Ralph MacDonald on percussion, Richard Tee on keyboards, and Anthony Jackson on bass. The album is funky rhythmically, with pretty, lyrical, melodic horns, with strings and keyboards on top. “Patti Austin, who sings “Love Me By Name”, is one of New York’s finest session singers. Man, I’ve known her since she was a little girl and she’s turned into one of the biggest talents around. And Chaka Khan…what CAN’T you say about Chaka! Her style and vocal quality are so unique and so bad!…she’s just in a class by herself. There’s just nobody like her. Nick (Ashford) and Val (Simpson), I’ve loved them for years. Their music is just starting to get the recognition it deserves. And what was so beautiful was that when we got all these super-talented people in the studio together, they were each knocked out to be working with the other! They were all each others fans. These are all people whom I’ve admired for years, and it felt so great to be able to put them all together at last. I guess you’d say that this album really shows when I’m at in 1978.”
During the recording of “Sounds…And Stuff Like That” Q juggled his recording schedule to allow for his role of producer for The Brothers Johnson, whose first two platinum plus albums he produced and arranged. Their third album, entitled “Blam”, promises to follow its predecessors down the platinum brick road of success. Quincy showed himself to be a man who truly enjoys his work as he described recording with The Brothers: “It’s really a job to work with George and Louis…they’re so talented, both as musicians and as songwriters, with a totally open mind to new ideas. We spend hours in the studio toying with concepts for tunes, and when one of those ideas comes to life it’s really great. Basically on this third Brothers album we are using the first two albums as a point of reference, but taking the music a step further. Everyone said that the second album, “Right On Time”, was totally different than the first, “Look Out For Number One”, and that is precisely what we were after. George and Louis and I have this thing about not making the same album twice and we constantly want to pursue new directions and diverse possibilities. I feel that “Blam” is the best album that The Brothers have made.”
The third phase of 1978 is the taskmaster according to Q, for he is involved in something that he promised himself he would never get into again. “In an eight-year period, I scored about fifty-two films, and was fortunate enough to receive three Academy Award nominations for my work. After going nearly out of my mind doing films, I decided that I wanted to get out of it altogether, and redirect my interest toward the record business. I felt essentially the same about television, but when Alex Haley called me and asked if I would get involved in the music for Roots, I found myself bending my principles. Roots was the kind of project that I had to be a part of. Well, I’ve bent once again…”
Quincy continues, “Early last spring my good friend Sidney Lumet called me. As everyone undoubtedly knows, Sidney is one of the finest film directors in the world. He directed, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Equus, just to name his most recent work. He called me to tell me that he was going to be directing a film version of The Wiz, and wanted me to be musical director. At first I told him that I couldn’t get in it, I had too many projects to deal with as it was, and that getting back into film wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. Well, my subconscious mind was in total control, which meant I couldn’t sleep at night. All I could think about was the original film of The Wizard of Oz and the longlasting effect it had on me, and how turned on I was when I saw the original Broadway cast of The Wiz. About two days later Sidney called me back hoping to convince me to change my mind, and before he could even attempt to pitch me on how great it would be, I said, “I’ll do it”. So much for my principles.
“The Wiz is a 24 million dollar musical based loosely on the original film version, and the Broadway adaptation, starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, and Ted Ross, from the original Broadway cast, as the Lion. Lena Horne plays the Good Witch and Sidney does an impeccable job of directing. “The hardest part of describing The Wiz for me is to not sound like I’m hyping it; but I’ve never seen anything quite like this movie. Diana is incredible. She has the uncanny ability to just capture and enrapture you with her emotion. Michael Jackson is making his acting debut after being a star all of his life with The Jackson Five. He is the epitome of a natural actor. Scenes that take seasoned veterans a while to pull off, Michael does in one take. The kid is going to be a major motion picture star, and this movie is going to let everyone know. Musically, my task was really a challenge, for it involved rearranging some of the original score written by Charlie Smalls, to make the music more workable for the screen, as opposed to the stage, as well as composing four new songs. I got together with my friends Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson and wrote “Is This What Feeling Gets?” which is Diana’s big song in the picture, as well as “Can I Go On?” which is her opening song. I also composed the “Emerald City Theme” which is the biggest scene in the film when Diana, Michael, Nipsey and Ted arrive at the palace of the Wiz.
If all of that is not enough, Quincy’s other businesses are thriving as well. His publishing company, Kidada Music, is on the upswing, having recently had three copyrighted songs recorded by artists like Noel Pointer, Henry Mancini, Dusty Springfield, as well as being broadcast on the hit series “Saturday Night Live” and “Wide World of Sports”. His management company is kept busy handling his career and, in co-partnership with The Fitz-Gerald-Hartley Company, the career of his protegees, The Brothers Johnson. Quincy summarizes the current rush of activity with a warm glow of satisfaction: “Honestly I’ve never felt better or more creative in my entire life. I feel like I have gotten a second wind and the juices are just continuously flowing. I guess the only way to look at it is by saying I am feeling great in ’78 and I’ll be a whole lot finer in ’79…Well, I never said I was a poet!”
© 1978, John Abbey. Reprinted, courtesy John Abbey