On Jan. 25, Harvard University gave its first Mentor of the Year award to musician Quincy Jones, the multi-Grammy-winning producer, arranger and songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Count Basie and Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles and Michael Jackson. Dr. Jay Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, which is honoring the artist, called Jones’s life “a testament to the power of mentoring” and noted that “through his spirit, insight, inspiration and caring, Quincy has touched and transformed many lives—ranging from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith to former gang members in South Central Los Angeles.” Recently Jones spoke with NEWSWEEK’S Nicki Gostin.
Gostin: How are you?
Quincy Jones: OK, honey, just tired of running, just got back from Africa with Oprah. It was a long trip but it was beautiful.
Don’t you have to be careful with all that travel? Didn’t you have a brain aneurism?
I got metal clips on it, it’s fine. I got titanium knees. I’m almost a robot.
So tell me about this Harvard award.
It’s a mentor award. I was the last one to hear about it but I’m happy about it. I’m much honored.
How do they know you’re a big mentor?
I don’t know. They just watched people like Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey. People I’ve been working with for a long time.
So they just decided you’re a mentor?
No, they looked at my body of work.
What’s the difference between being a mentor and just working with someone?
With Frank Sinatra I didn’t have to tell him anything. He was already there; he was doing me a favor. But the other ones were all brand new. Will Smith, nobody knew who he was.
Do these mentorees have your private cell-phone number?
I don’t carry a cell phone. I don’t want to be reached all the time. But I’m lucky, Glenn, my security guy, he always has his cell on him.
When you’re mentoring can you be really bossy?
Mentoring is watching younger people who haven’t had a chance to make mistakes benefit from yours. When I was 13, Count Basie sat me down and told me about the hills and the valleys.
Ray Charles was your mentor, right?
I had a lot. Count Basie, Ray, Steve Ross in business, Benny Carter, big time. When people give that to you it’s a natural instinct to do the same thing for somebody else.
Your nickname is Q. Were you ever contacted by QTips to be a spokesman?
[ Laughs ] No, God no. What are you? A comedy writer?
You’ve worked with every famous person in the planet. Who’s your favorite?
That’s impossible. Come on, baby—Basie, Ella, Sinatra. It’s like asking me which kid I love best. I mean Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Sinatra, who do you pick? No way.
Easy. Sinatra and if it’s between Sinatra and Louis Armstrong I pick Louis.
But they all have different voices, honey. I love all of them.
Is there any famous person you haven’t met?
Probably, but I really value the notion of being able to sit in Nelson Mandela’s house in South Africa or Jacques Chirac in Paris or King Gustav in Sweden. Connected to the planet, honey, that’s what’s living is all about.
How old were you when you started working?
Unbelievable. Aren’t you ever tired?
No way! I’m just starting, I’m just getting going. I’ve just been appointed along with Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg to be creative consultants to the Beijing Olympic Games.
You must be very proud of your daughter Rashida being in “The Office.”
Absolutely. I’m taking her for her birthday to the Oscars. That’s her birthday, Oscar night.
Hope you’re getting her a present, too.
’Course. The girls know how to work their Daddies. You guys are the biggest pimps that ever lived. You know how to pimp your Daddy, don’t you? “Daddy, I’ve been working so hard, can I go to Rome?” Girls are major pimps. I have six of them so I know. From 13 to 53 years old.
I gotta ask you. You worked with Michael Jackson. Doesn’t his physical appearance trouble you?
I don’t have anything to do with that, honey. I take care of the sonic sound.