It’s no surprise that Quincy Jones is producing the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s invitation-only event Sept. 23 at the Kennedy Center and the dedication ceremony the next morning. The Q’s musical career spans generations and genres, and, at 83, his mind remains as tight as the orchestra he led behind Frank Sinatra at the Sands. Nobody alive can talk about the sweep of the African American experience — or any experience — through music like Jones.
Jones talked for two hours after a recent walk-through at the museum. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Q: What were you struck by?
A: Everything. Number one, my biggest pet peeve: We’re the only country outside of Germany that does not have a minister of culture. That’s unforgivable. It’s ridiculous, man. The kids do not know who they are. That’s why they kill each other every weekend. That’s why I’m so glad this museum’s here. Finally.
Q: I don’t think people totally understand how much music can change a life. It was in Seattle where you started?
A: I wanted to be a gangster because that’s all I saw in Chicago. . . . My father’s best friend was a tough guy from St. Louis, and they had to take five guys with sawed-off shotguns to kill him. So he comes and gets us when they run us out of town. My brother and I. Puts us on a bus. Out there, we were the little 11-year-old gangsters. We’d steal all the stuff out of the stores. We’d know there was coming in some lemon meringue pie and three kinds of ice cream. . . . I saw a spinet piano in the dark and something inside me said — I walked over to that piano, and every cell in my body said, “You do this the rest of your life.”
Q: What did your experience in music teach you about race relations?
A: I went to the greatest school in America. Garfield High School [in Seattle]. The most diversified school in the ’40s in America. The richest whites, Jews, blacks, Filipino, Chinese — everything. I had never seen white people in Chicago. Not until I got up to 11 years old out there. It was so diversified. In fact, my first wife, Jeri, I met her when I was 15.
Q: So this set an example for you.
A: It set a great example for me until I went on the road with Lionel Hampton at 18 and went to the South and they had white and colored faucets; they’d separate the dancers with chairs, black and white. It was pitiful. . . . By the time we got to Dallas, the biggest church in town, on the top steeple, they’d have a rope tied around an effigy of a black dummy. It was fierce.
Q: You’re often mentioned as a pioneer. Tell me about other guys that followed you and the lessons you think they followed.
A: I don’t have time to think about that. I’ve been too busy trying to go ahead and trying to figure out how to go ahead. Because all of the firsts I’ve been — and there’s been a lot of them — it pisses me off, because it means only. First producer for the Oscars. First conductor for the Oscars. First black picture to win 11 nominations for Oscars. First to be on the executive board. First to receive the Jean Hersholt award. That means only. I’m glad I got it, but I wish it was open for everyone to do that.
Q: They’ve got Michael Jackson’s fedora and Victory tour jacket in the museum. “Bad” was the last record you did with him. Did you stay in touch?
A: When he was dying, he wanted [writer] Rod [Temperton] and I to work with him again.
Q: How was he?
A: He was scuffling with a lot of issues. I mean, from all the surgery. I said a lot of stupid things back then because I talked to him about that before he died. You can’t make those kinds of records without having love, respect and trust. We had that, profound. I was informed that “Thriller” just hit 110 million albums. You can’t do that accidentally.
Q: Is there a way to describe how you guided him in being a child to being a grown artist?
A: That was a sole destination. His only love song was about a rat [“Ben”]. And I was holding a song that Tommy Bahler wrote. He wrote a song called “She’s Out of My Life” when his wife left him. And I was saving it for Sinatra. But I said, “Michael needs it more.” When he got through it, he could not help but cry. I left it on the record. I left the tears on the record.
Q: You could see, even when he was doing “The Wiz,” that Michael would be huge.
A: That’s part of my gift. I can’t drive a car. But I can see it when they come in with a James Ingram. Brothers Johnson. Whatever. I see them coming in the door. Will Smith. I can see it.
Q: I’d be interested in where you first heard rap or hip-hop and how it struck you. Do you remember hearing Run-DMC?
A: Before that. I heard Last Poets. And I had the Last Poets on my album in 1975. Rap didn’t hit it until later. The Sugar Hill Gang is the first one that broke through. “Hotel, motel, Holiday Inn.” But I mean, you got to understand we were rapping in Chicago in 1939, brother. The dirty dozens [verbal faceoffs] was a part of black culture. The gangs started their fight with dirty dozens. They learned it from Ubangi, who were the praise shouters out of the south of Africa.
Q: Tupac said some bad things about you. But you eventually embraced him.
A: My daughter took him out. She doesn’t play, man. She said, “You wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for my daddy.” We fell in love after that. I snuck up behind him and put my arms around him. I could have got shot if he had a gun. I said, “I’ve got to talk with you.” He was trying to look like a gangster, but I was a real gangster in Chicago. You can’t fool me.
Q: People thought rap was a fad.
A: One of the reasons I broke up with Michael is I wanted to do a rap record on anti-crack. With Grandmaster Flash and Michael. On “Bad.” And he told the management: “Quincy’s getting old. He doesn’t understand the market.” He doesn’t know rap is dead in 1987. It hadn’t even started yet.
I didn’t think it was a fad. It’s got too much creativity and it’s too influenced by jazz. Half of the hip-hop culture slang. Lester Young was calling Basie “homeboy” 90 years ago. Get out of here.
Q: How hard was it to get Miles Davis to perform his Gil Evans work as you did in 1991?
A: Hard. Fifteen years hard. He’d say, “Listen, I don’t do anything I did before.” And, “This is going to be hard.” I said: “What do you mean? We’ve got the Gil Evans band.” Miles used to say, “You don’t have to pay me, man, just get me a Ferrari.” I loved Miles.
Q: That’s a beautiful-sounding record.
A: He loved it, too. That’s the only time I’ve seen him look out and smile and wave a towel at the audience. Usually he turned his back on everybody. He was shocked. Because the crowd freaked out.
Q: I know you’re busy. But when they asked you to do this for the museum, did you have to think about it?
A: No, this is too important, man. Two of the most important things in my life. It’s like after the black president. When I saw the exterior on pictures that [museum director] Lonnie Bunch sent me, it’s something I’ve wanted all my life to see.
Q: Basie. Ray Charles. Sarah Vaughan. Ella Fitzgerald. It must mean something to go into the museum and see exhibitions dedicated to them.
A: Now even Prince and Michael Jackson are gone. And Donny Hathaway. Louis Johnson, from Brothers Johnson. They’re all gone, man. It hurts. Dizzy, Miles, all of them — they’re all like my brothers. Like that record you have [“Back on the Block.”]. That was Ella’s last record and Sarah’s last record. I loved Ella and Sarah. You know what that means. They were gods, you know.
Q: How does it feel to see them in the museum?
A: It makes my soul smile. Finally, young kids can come in and see what they come from. Because if you know where you come from, it’s easy to get where you’re going.