Quincy Jones' appearance at the recent Martin Luther King Jr. gala at the Kennedy Center was all too brief. Introduced by Stevie Wonder to a rousing ovation, Jones simply raised his hand, gave the downbeat and quickly disappeared under a wave of singers and dancers providing an all-star rendition of "Happy Birthday."
His last job with a giant chorale, of course, was a year earlier with "We Are the World," where he conducted 45 superstars, many of whom he'd worked with over the past 25 years, including Michael Jackson. Their first collaboration, 1981's "Off the Wall," sold a respectable 8 million copies. Their next, "Thriller," broke the bank, selling 40 million copies worldwide. Nobody's likely to break that record soon, unless it's Jackson and Jones, who go into the studio this week for "Thriller's" follow-up.
At the reception following the concert, Jones, looking handsome and self-assured, ran into three members of the same family: a grandmother, a daughter and a granddaughter. "They were all from different eras," he recalls proudly. "One was from the jazz records I made in the '60s, the mother was from 'Body Heat' on, and the little one was from Michael and 'We Are the World.' That's an incredible feeling -- you're looking at your own life and seeing the length of time you've been in the business."
Time. That's what Jones would need just to list his career accomplishments, and the list keeps growing. While the Jackson album is the most immediate project, there are others. Jones recently joined Chick Corea and Hubert Laws on a classical album project and he's finally getting back to work on his next solo album. Having spent the last 18 months coproducing "The Color Purple," he is now inundated with film scripts as well as demo tapes. There is talk of a Broadway show, "Speak Easy," and somewhere down the line, the resolution of a two-decades-old project, "The Evolution of Black Music."
Already, Jones has been involved in more than a thousand recording sessions as producer, arranger, composer and musician. Over the past decade, he has become the world's most successful, influential (and sought after) record producer, one whose work has earned more than 60 Grammy nominations (he's won 16). Recent production chores have included albums by Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Diana Ross and Donna Summer. One of his own albums, "The Dude," earned 12 nominations (a record) and won Grammys. There are 23 other albums under the Jones name.
Then there are the 35 film scores (ranging from "The Pawnbroker" and "In Cold Blood" to the film version of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel), seven television series themes, 30 sheet music and instructional books. There have been television specials like "Duke Ellington, We Love You Madly" and the score for the "Roots" mini-series. Little wonder that when Jones instructed the USA for Africa singers to leave their egos at the door, they did exactly that.
Obviously, there's no keeping up with this Jones, a man with golden ears and a platinum touch. It's hardly surprising that his workday often begins at 6 in the morning and ends after midnight.
"It's been like that and it's gotta stop," Jones insists the morning after the King holiday gala. "But how do you say no to (the King concert), a day you've been waiting for all your life? How do you say no to 'We Are the World?' How do you say no to Alice Walker?
"I do say no to almost everything. When you say yes and you look up, it's two years past, like 'Purple.' "
Like a Datsun, Quincy Jones -- known to friends and fans as "Q" -- is driven (which is also literally true, since he's never learned how to drive). It's not by any desire for fame or riches, both of which he has more than enough of. It's something else, something he discovered in 1974 when an aneurysm burst in the carotid artery that supplies blood to the right side of the brain (the same thing killed kung fu master Bruce Lee). Jones was rushed to the hospital and eventually underwent two dramatic operations in which part of his skull was removed in order to insert Heifetz clips on the arteries. Metal plates replaced the portions of the skull that had to be removed for the operation.
"That's God giving you as much love as you can get, to stop something like that and not take you out," Jones says. After his brushes with death, he found himself refocused. If he'd been busy before, he was now also redirected.
His projects "are all accelerated because when you get your head cut open two times, you're not sure how much time you have. It may be bad because it makes you think about time in a different way, and the first thing is you think 'I haven't done this or that and in 15 minutes, that may be it' . . ."
All of which may account for the curious mix of serenity and energy suggested by his presence. By his own definition, he's still a work junkie, and "it's a killer, especially if it's passionate. People always say to me 'Why do you work so hard?' It's got nothing to do with bread when you think this is all the time you've got left. I wish that the ideas would stop coming, or at least level out, I really do. But one thing leads to another and it feels good . . . "
Still, "I've got to find a balance," he says. "Family life has got to suffer when that goes down. I have a wife and lots of kids and I want to be with them more."
He's married to former actress Peggy Lipton and has five children, three from a pair of previous marriages. His oldest child is 32, his youngest 9, and though he doesn't look it, Jones is a grandfather. He's in solid trim, extremely health- and diet-conscious, looking much younger than 52.
One thing has been leading to another for more than four decades now for Quincy Delight Jones Jr. Born in Chicago, raised in Seattle, he knew his calling early on.
"It locked in at about 13. Ever since then I've felt my instrument has been the whole orchestra, the singers," Jones explains. He'd started studying trumpet in elementary school and singing with gospel quartets at age 12. A few years later he was in his first band with a teen-aged piano player and singer.
"Ray Charles," Jones laughs. "I was 15, he was 16, the old man. He was like 30, he knew everything. He lived by himself, had two or three suits, two or three girlfriends. He was unbelievable."
And it was Charles, the blind musician, who first taught Jones about orchestrations. "He knew what the notation was and I was just trying to figure that out. I didn't know what keys were or anything but Ray knew it all, had it down, and he passed that information on to me. He's something else."
By this time, the precocious Jones was already sitting in with such jazz legends as Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine, sending his arrangements to Count Basie. Lionel Hampton asked him to join his big band, but Gladys Hampton felt that 15 was a tad young for the road and kicked Jones off the band bus. He wound up with a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, earning pocket money by playing strip joints at night.
Jones eventually dropped out of Berklee to finally go on the road with Hampton (he would receive an honorary doctorate in 1983). At 18 he was the band's trumpeter, arranger and occasional pianist. In between tours, he was beginning to develop a reputation in the New York recording studios, doing arrangements and session work for artists like Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and his old band mate Ray Charles.
At 21, he was a member/arranger with Dizzy Gillespie's big band, touring the Middle East and South America. He took his own big band to France, but the costs of touring with 18 musicians left him bankrupt and stranded. So he went to work for a French record label and began to study with the fabled Nadia Boulanger, the midwife of modern American classical music (she was tutor to the likes of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein). What Jones learned from her was not, surprisingly, discipline.
"It was too late for me," he explains. "I had been in nightclubs since I was 14 . . . and while I probably should have paid more attention to the discipline, it was not the most valuable thing I got from her. Nadia was heavy into the spirit of what everything was about. She would talk about the music that you come from and how you should try and take that to another place, not just want to become the great symphonic composer.
"She was, in many ways, pushing me back into my roots and trying to show me why melody, not rhythm and harmony, was king. She'd say, 'Until you have a periphery, a boundary, you don't have any freedom.' It was hard for me to deal with that and it wasn't until 10, 20 years later, that everything she was talking about made sense."
The encounters with Boulanger were low-key, almost after hours, when her other students had already left. "She liked American canned peaches, and we'd sit there and talk about Charlie Parker. That was real strange because she'd say, 'I don't understand (jazz). The improvisation can be very good or can be very bad. It is inconsistent.' She couldn't deal with that. And she'd introduced me to Stravinsky!"
By 1958, Jones had made his first power move, joining New York's Mercury Records (with whom he'd signed as a jazz artist in 1957) as A & R director. He eventually became vice president, the first black to achieve that management level at a major record company. He was also establishing himself as a producer, a role that up to then was not as glorified as it would become in the late '60s and especially in the '70s.
"When I was first producing, I didn't know what a producer was," Jones says. "He was the guy who called up the arranger and said 'We're going in with Chuck Willis or Big Maybelle or the Clovers next Tuesday, here's a couple of songs and the date's 4 o'clock.' You had to figure out everything else, conducting and rearranging right on the sessions."
In 1963, Jones happened across a demo and asked to work with the unknown artist. "It was this little girl and we took her into the studio the following Saturday." The song was "It's My Party," and the little girl was 16-year-old Lesley Gore.
In the first half of the '60s, Jones swung into the high gear that has consumed him ever since, recording his own jazz albums and producing albums with Sinatra and Basie, Ray Charles and others. It was also a time he stepped into another arena -- film scores. Jones had been a student of the classic scores, sitting in theaters with his eyes closed, identifying the composers aurally.
His first film was a Swedish effort, "The Boy in the Tree" (1961), but Jones' break came with his first American score, for Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker" in 1965. His work was highly praised, but when he went to Hollywood, Jones found a closed shop.
"There were people like Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson, Horace Henderson and other fantastic black musicians working in film, but if it was a question of responsibility for a whole film, they just wouldn't open up. It became a slow process of opening the door."
After the plaudits for his work on "The Pawnbroker," Jones had expected "clearer sailing, but when I went out to California, they didn't know I was black. They weren't making black films, so you had to do white pictures until 'In the Heat of the Night.' It took some couragous moves from people like Henry Mancini, Lumet, Richard Brooks" (for whom he did "In Cold Blood").
Closed shop or no, Jones certainly found his niche, scoring 30 films between 1965 and 1972. In fact, he was so busy at one point that he named the film side of his business Scores R Us. He was a key figure in opening up sound track work to black composers and black-oriented music, but after "The Getaway" he pulled back to concentrate on making records, and by the mid-'70s, was hitting the gold standard with crossover albums like "Body Heat" and "The Dude."
It was Jones' last pre-"Color Purple" score, Lumet's film adapation of "The Wiz" in 1978, that estabished the Michael Jackson connection. Jones' platinum success with Jackson, Chaka Khan and George Benson prompted Warner Bros. to offer him his own label, Qwest.
In the context of constant growth, then, Jones' move into film production was not a surprise, though he seems distressed at some of the criticism "The Color Purple" has received (ironically, it's been called both overly sentimentalized and too harsh a portrayal of black culture). It was Jones, acting as the protector of Alice Walker's ideals and concerns, who persuaded Steven Spielberg to direct ("at scale"). They had worked together on Michael Jackson's recorded narrative of "E.T."
What Jones found in all these artists was "soul and craft and inspired imagination." He suggests that Spielberg is being stereotyped and straitjacketed in much the same way that black artists have been. "And I will fight that until I go down," he says emphatically.
He's proud of his complex score for the film (it was released as a double album last week). "It's a very mysterious element, this marriage of music and images." And having produced, it seems likely he'll eventually move into directing.
"Enthusiasm's showing, huh?" Jones says. Which doesn't mean he's ready to take on another film production right away. "After Michael and my album, I get back to my family."
And maybe after that he can get back to "The Evolution of Black Music," a project that has consumed much time and energy over the past 15 years. Envisioned as a two-record set, a symphonic score, a 13-part television series that will be part entertainment, part education, it will distill and crystallize the knowledge Jones has acquired over four decades, much as Bela Barto'k did with Hungarian folk music. It will trace "the chain of black musical evolution from Africa to here."
And so Jones has spent years collecting material, making field trips around the world, interweaving strands and often spinning off the information into projects like "Roots" and "The Color Purple."
"Everything that goes on is still a part of that," he says. "I want people to feel it, not just think it, because it's so enormous. African music is thousands of years old and if you feel it, you know it is. It came from the ground, man. It didn't come from any radio stations or TV sets."
It's not just entertainment, Jones says, but a central life force he's talking about. In European music, "there's a question of concert halls and virtuosity and concert viewers and all that kind of stuff. In Africa, music is for circumcision, virginity, elephant hunting, work, it's part of a life force. It's not all it is, but it's all it can be."
Meanwhile, full of "crazy passion, 'cause you don't know when the clock is running out," Quincy Jones goes about being all that he can be.