Thursday, October 27, 2011

Q&A with Quincy Jones

Heather L. Smith / Aurora Sentinel

Earlier this month, Quincy Jones visited Denver to attend the "Be Beautiful, Be Yourself" fashion show, a fundraiser for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, benefiting the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome at the Anschutz Medical Campus. You can find the original story here. Sitting down with the legendary composer/musician/humanitarian was one of my most memorable run-ins as a reporter at the Sentinel, and I had to offer readers a fuller picture of the conversation. Click after the jump to check out Jones' feeback about activism, as well as his storied career in music.

Aurora Sentinel (Adam Goldstein): How did you get involved in the “Be Beautiful, Be Yourself” event?
Quincy Jones: The best thing you can do in life is form a relationship, and I formed that relationship with John Sie and his beautiful daughter, and her daughter, little Sophie, whom I just adore.

AS: What stands out to you about this event? What’s the special part for you?
QJ: It’s humanity, man. You come to grips with humanity and reality, you know. It’s always bugged me that I see the trends among medical people and medical minds, in oncology and neurosurgery, with some of the best minds in the world. For the most part, we are addicted to pharmaceuticals, which runs me out of my mind … Nobody cares about ADD, dyslexia, autism or Down Syndrome. It drives me crazy, because it can’t be just about money. You’re talking about humanity.
When I see the passion that Michelle (Sie Whitten) and her father have for this cause … it’s great to see. No matter what you do, you have to approach it like it’s a corporation or a military exercise, or you won’t survive. Bono and I have been brothers in crime for years, since LiveAid and “We Are the World.” We’ve made all the mistakes on the ground, figuring out how to do it right, because it’s not as easy as it looks.
For “We Are the World 2” for Haiti, we have the most transparent organization we can. Every penny goes to that foundation. It’s very important – I see people saying, ‘I don’t know where my money goes’ … When you travel as much as I do, you come up with a lot of answers.
This is one of the most positive ways of solving a problem – getting organized, getting an infrastructure, getting a team together. Science driven by emotion – do it. Get it done.

AS: How do some of these kids inspire you personally?
QJ: Whether they are poor, or whether they are suicidal, whether they are autistic or have Down Syndrome, there is something similar. I don’t know what it is. I come from the ghetto in Chicago during the Depression, and I must identify with it somehow.
You feel it. It touches you. This is the future and we can never forget that. I want to piggyback on their little hearts into 2080. The kids around the world know they’ve got me like a lapdog. I’ve got six daughters, grandkids, godchildren, everything.

AS: How do you think music could be incorporated as a way of enriching some of these kids’ lives?
QJ: We started talking about starting research. When you say, ‘Music can help the kids,’ that’s too general … Do they play piano? Do they sing? Do they play guitar? I want to find a way to strike a chord.
That’s exciting, to know that you’re dealing with music and mathematics as being cousins and absolutes. Music engages left and right brain all of the time. That’s powerful, because that’s emotion and intellect all the time. If you can find out how to get to it, that would fabulous, because there are so many different kinds of music.
Isn’t it amazing? When I was studying in Paris, one of my greatest teachers … used to tell me, ‘Quincy, there have been only 12 notes given to us. Until God comes up with 13, learn what everybody has done with them.’
She’s right. There are only 12 notes. It’s amazing that everybody for hundreds of years, since the beginning of time, have had to use the same notes.
I go to China and hear an amazing use of the pentatonic scale, just like in Africa. It’s exactly the same.

AS: Can you talk about how music served as inspiration for you, growing up in Chicago and moving on to forge a historic career as a musician and composer?
QJ: My father was a master carpenter for probably the most notorious triple OGs on the planet, the Jones Boys, the black gangsters in the 1930s during the Depression. They started a policy racket; they owned Five and Dime stores, the first black businesses. Every day of my early life, I saw a dead body; tommyguns; bodies laying on the street, hanging off of a telephone pole with an icepick in the neck, you know. That’s all I saw.
As kids, we’d say, ‘The thing to be is a gangster.’ I was 11 years old. That’s what I wanted to be, and that’s all I ever saw.
Going back and forth to school was a nightmare. It was like going to Vietnam. I have my medals right here. (Shows a scar on his hand). I went on the wrong street one time when I was 7 years old. I got a switchblade in my hand … and an icepick in my head. (Shows another scar).
You get used to it. You get tough. You want to be a gangster. When Capone found out the Jones Boys made $100 million in the late 30s, he ran them out of Chicago. He didn’t take them seriously at first because they were brothers. He ran them out to Mexico.
My father came and got my baby brother and I, got us out of a barbershop and put us on a Trailways bus to the northwest. We said, ‘OK, we’re going to take this place over, because after Chicago, Washington will be a snap.’ We’d work the stores – steal all the honey. We broke into the Armory because we heard there was a lemon merangue pie shipment coming in.
I broke into the office of the supervisor, and I saw a piano in the dark. I almost closed the door. My whole life was based on opening that door up again. I walked back over to that piano.
It was fascinating, because I’d heard music all of my life. It was all over Chicago. I went back in the room, I touched that piano, and every cell in my body said, ‘This is what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.’ It saved my life – that one moment. Writing music, playing music. I played the trombone, the tuba, the sousaphone, the B flat baritone sax, the B flat alto sax, French horn. I played the trombone because of marching band – the majorettes, the girls, you know. I was practical.

AS: Lionel Hampton called on you for your trumpet skills at a young age, didn’t he?
QJ: Lionel Hampton called me up and asked me to go play for Billie Holliday when I was 15, with Billy Eckstine. I got on the bus, I didn’t want them to change their minds. I waited for four hours. (She) came up and said, ‘Lionel, who is that child over there? Come here, honey.’ I came up and she said, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ’15.’ She said, ‘Go back to school, we’ll talk to you later.’ I was so upset.
I got a scholarship to Seattle U, and went to what’s now the Berklee School of Music in 1950. I was there six months, and they called me when I was 18. I was gone. For three years, I was with Lionel Hampton. That was like a post graduate course.

AS: How was he as a teacher?
QJ: He wasn’t a teacher, but he put this band together with all these great jazz musicians – Jimmy Cleaveland, Clifford Brown, Benny Bailey. All of these incredible musicians. Charles Mingus had just been in the band when I left. At that time, he was bigger than Basie, Duke and Louis Armstrong. At that time, Louis used to open for us. It was just a riot.
We were going to Oslo in 1953 on a prop plane, and Ben Webster sat me down and said, ‘Young Blood, step into my office. Let me tell you something … Wherever you go with (Lionel), listen to the music the real people listen to, eat the food the real people eat and learn 30 or 40 words in every language.’
I’ve followed it and I’ve gotten my teeth around 22 different languages. It’s the most exciting thing that ever happened.

AS: Now I get to ask you a few of the many music nerd questions I have. What was Louis Jordan like?
QJ: He was amazing, man. He was an ex-big band guy who took an alto and three horns, and got the comedy going. To me, him and Lionel Hampton were the originators of rock and roll, way before all of this other stuff.
The Fender bass had a lot to do with rock and roll, and we had the first one with Lionel Hampton in ’63. It’s all been interesting to see the stuff evolve.

AS: I have to ask, what was Louis Armstrong like?
QJ: Incredible, incredible – just like his music. He used to say, “Play it, don’t say it.” He evolved – King Oliver influenced Louis, Louis took his style and it became him. Roy Eldridge copied Louis, and Dizzy Gillespie copied him. I remember once at the Monterey Jazz Festival, we were all sitting on the blanket – there was Louis, his wife Lucille, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy and Lorraine and me. I couldn’t believe it. It was the whole evolution of the trumpet sitting on that rug. It just gave me chills.
I was lucky to have been born at that time, to be able to have worked with every major giant in the business. You can’t plan that. Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Kool Mo D, Ice T, everybody.

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