Quincy Jones is showing me his gold pinky ring. We’re seated across from one another at Asiate, a swank restaurant in Midtown Manhattan whose walls are lined with wine bottles. After inhaling a bowl of noodles, the jazz legend/music maestro extends his right pinky and wiggles the antique treasure at me while flashing an ear-to-ear grin.
“Sinatra left this to me when he died,” says Jones. “He was something, man. It has his family crest on it and everything.”
I crack a joke about the ring getting him out of New York City parking tickets and past Italian customs, and he unleashes a big laugh.
“It’ll get me into Sicily, no problem! All I gotta do is show them this.”
It’s hard to distill the 81-year-old’s achievements in the world of music; they could, taken as a whole, reach Proustian lengths. Suffice it to say that the onetime ace jazz trumpeter is a living legend, accumulating a record 79 Grammy nominations and 27 wins; has scored 33 films, resulting in seven Academy Award nominations; and even produced the first music ever played on the moon—Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” These days, in addition to his work with Ol’ Blue Eyes, he’s probably best known as the producer of the Michael Jackson albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, which have sold a combined 175 million copies. There’s even a movement to make Jones the United States’ first minister of culture (more on that later).
Jones’ latest project is as one of the producers (along with Paula DuPré Pesmen) of Keep On Keepin’ On, a fantastic new documentary by filmmaker Alan Hicks. The movie traces the four-year mentorship mission of jazz legend Clark Terry as he prepares 23-year-old blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin for an international competition that could jump-start the young talent’s career. The film holds a special resonance for Jones, since Terry also served as his mentor.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the music god discussed his rough early days in Chicago, the state of the industry, and much more.
You and Clark Terry go way back.
Since we were 12, 13 years old. I used to play hooky and go to The Paramount Theatre and that’s where we hooked up with the guys from East Chicago—Billy Eckstein, Sammy Davis, and Mel Tormé. Basie came, and he didn’t have a big band and lost his money and only had four horns, and Clark was one of them. I used to hang out with them all day and begged him to teach me. I used to play my horn here [points to upper lip] and it’d bleed over the High C, and he told me to put it here [points to philtrum]. When I was young, I knew why God gave us two ears and one mouth: You’re supposed to listen twice as much as you talk. I talk a lot now, but back then I listened.
Around that time you also got hooked up with Ray Charles.
Ray Charles and I spent our whole lives together. We were booked at clubs five nights a week when I was just 13. Ray was incredible. It just doesn’t get any better than that. And I didn’t get to school ‘til 11 o’clock, but my teacher, Parker Cook, told me, “This is what God wants you to do, and what you should be doing.” He never scolded me. I thanked him for it on my 50th birthday.
I was introduced to Ray Charles in The Blues Brothers, and then started listening to his music. Aretha Franklin’s in that, too.
I met Aretha when she was 12. I met Ray at 17. Stevie Wonder at 12. Michael Jackson at 12. It’s the magic number, 12.
You’re from the South Side of Chicago, right?
Oh, yeah. That’s my medal from back then [points to a scar on his wrist]. When I was 7 years old, I went to the wrong street and they nailed my hand to a fence with a switchblade, and then stuck an ice pick in the back of my head. They don’t play in Chicago, man. When I left Chicago, Harlem and Compton looked like Boy’s Town to me. Chicago is rough. We used to take a clothespin, slice an inner tube, tie it with a string, and then take the tongue from a shoe and put it there, and then take a big steel egg, and those slingshots would mess you up, man—worse than a 9mm. Those were like our guns, you know?
Wow. I read that you worked for a pimp at one point, too?
Two—SP, or Short Patrol, and another guy. I was 11 years old when I worked for the pimps. I used to take care of the girls and get their clothes clean, and they taught me like a mother. I didn’t have a mother when I was 7, so the prostitutes would scold me and so forth. But they were sweet, you know. You have to grow up fast when you don’t have a mother.
The situation in Chicago is pretty dire right now, too.
It’s crazy. I called Jennifer Hudson after that happened to her, poor baby. Her mother, brother, and nephew—and her brother-in-law did it, too. My personal feeling: I think a lot of the things that are happening to our young people, abusing each other, comes from us not having a minister of culture. Elem Klimov from Gorbachev’s posse came over and told 30 of us at Warner Bros.: “Do you people know the responsibility you have when you project images 33x the size of life onto a screen? What that does to the human psyche?” The human psyche takes images as direction, and it affects people and makes them violent. Grand Theft Auto? Come on, man. And without a minister of culture, kids don’t know who they are or where the culture comes from. The most powerful music in the world, jazz and blues? They don’t know it.
In Chicago, you have rappers like Chief Keef posing with guns, and the young kids there emulate that.
It’s always been like that. My Daddy was working for the Jones Brothers and we’re going to be making a movie on it, The Policy Kings—the most notorious black gangsters in the history of America. They were in the 1930s, and looked like black Italians. My father used to build homes for the Jones boys, and they had the policy racket and they made $110 million in 1941, which is the equivalent of $1 billion today. Capone chased them out of Chicago and to Mexico. One of these guys who was my father’s best friend and he was so tough, they had to get five guys with sawed-off shotguns to kill him. I saw all this as a kid. I saw a dead body every day of my life, tommyguns, stogies, money in back rooms. And as a kid, you don’t know how to interpret that. Two-Gun Pete, who was a black cop, was shooting teenagers in front of the Walgreens every weekend, like entertainment. There were guys hanging off telephone poles with icepicks in their necks. A young person gets used to that very fast.
Let’s talk about Michael Jackson. I remember being parked in front of MTV as a kid watching his videos.
Michael Jackson made MTV. He was the first black artist on there. They wouldn’t play black music on there and Rick James could never get “Super Freak” on there. We were down at the Time Warner villa in Acapulco and we’d just put out “The Girl Is Mine” by McCartney, and Steve Ross asked me, “What are you coming up with next?” I said, “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” and he said, “OK, that goes on next week.” And it was the first black artist on there. Eight months later, we did “Thriller,” and people didn’t know what the hell we were doing, man. We had Vincent Price narrating Edgar Allan Poe. Michael didn’t know what I was doing! That came out and took off all over the world. With Thriller, we took 800 songs and whittled them down to nine. Then, we took the four weakest out and replaced them with the four strongest: “The Lady in My Life,” “PYT,” “Human Nature,” and “Beat It.” We mixed that with “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” and BAM! You had a great album.
How do you feel the Michael Jackson estate is handling his music? The last album was pretty disappointing.
[Sighs] I get in trouble every time I talk about it. I can’t. I don’t want to go there with Michael, man.
Do you see anybody even touching Michael Jackson? Kanye West has often compared himself to Michael.
Come on, man! Not even close. You see, as far as passing the baton down, Michael used to look at Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and James Brown. You need to look at the masters first. You don’t even know how to be mediocre when you start without dealing with some masters. Clark [Terry] always had the ability to put young kids on his shoulders.
So you think there’s a lack of mentorship with modern-day musicians?
Absolutely. But the biggest problem is the minister of culture. They don’t know where the music comes from. I remember going to England with Lesley Gore in 1963, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, man, they’d never been here, but the Stones are still raking in $500 million a year at 70 years old because they know the foundation of music.
Blues and jazz.
You bet your bird—blues and jazz, man. It’s just as powerful as the Three Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. I’m doing a 3D animation film about it with the animators from Toy Story, as well as a Broadway show about it: the genesis and evolution of jazz and blues. Because Americans don’t have a clue!
Are you a Justin Bieber fan?
[Shakes head] Every time I talk about it I get in trouble. Are you?
Then why do you think I would be? [Laughs] Today, being a pop star is about two things: personality and scandal. Every time someone puts out an album now, you get a DUI or shoot somebody. It’s a problem.
What artists are you into today?
I like Common, Drake, Bruno Mars… Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson, they’re great singers, man. We’ve got this group called the Global Gumbo All-Stars that are going to change the world.
How do you feel about the state of the music industry today?
There is no music industry. There’s just concerts now. The record business is 98 percent piracy everywhere on the planet. We’ve got a few things we can’t talk about yet that we’re going to try to do to fix it. I always look at problems like a puzzle.