Accessibility links

Breaking News

What It Takes - Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones
What It Takes - Quincy Jones
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:50:18 0:00

00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: Welcome to What It Takes. Today's episode is bubbling over with stories from one of the most influential figures in American music, Quincy Jones. What It Takes, of course, is a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement's archive. I'm Alice Winkler.

00:00:25 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:00:31 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:00:37 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:00:41 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:00:49 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:00:57 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:01:02 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:01:14 ALICE WINKLER: If you listened to popular music during the 20th century — and the 21st — you have heard the work of Quincy Jones. He might have been the trumpeter or the conductor or the arranger when you heard him. He might have been the composer or the producer or the creator of the movie score. He might have been nurturing a band you love that he signed when he was head of a record label, but one way or another, I guarantee you, you have heard the work of Quincy Jones.


00:01:44 Fly me to the moon

Let me play among the stars

Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and Mars

In other words, hold my hand

In other words, baby, kiss me

00:02:14 ALICE WINKLER: Sitting down to pull this episode together, frankly, has been daunting because covering Quincy Jones’s life and career means covering everybody from Count Basie and Ray Charles to Frank Sinatra and Billy Holiday and Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson and Paul Simon to LL Cool J and Mary J. Blige. It means covering 65 years' worth of jazz and rock and soul and R&B and pop.


00:02:47 She was more like a beauty queen

From a movie scene

I said, “Don't mind, but what do you mean

I am the one

Who will dance on the floor in the round?”

00:03:00 ALICE WINKLER: We cannot possibly get to all of it, but what we will get to is who Quincy Jones is, where he came from, and what has made him the music machine he is. While I’ve been talking, you’ve been hearing snippets of music Quincy Jones ushered into this world. Before we hear his story, let's listen to just a little more.


00:03:22 Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop

(Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop)

Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop

(Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop)

Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop

(Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop)


00:03:33 Relax, Max

Your nerves are just like jumping jacks, Max

Your heart is thumping


00:03:43 It's my party and I'll cry if I want to

Cry if I want to

Cry if I want to

You would cry too if it happened to you




00:04:16 In the heat of the night

Seems like a cold sweat

Creeping cross my brow



00:04:33 They’ve got a wall in China

It's a thousand miles long

To keep out the foreigners

They made it strong

And I’ve got a wall


00:05:01 QUINCY JONES: The most important part of an artist's responsibility is to be a great observer, you know. If it's in human nature or nature or just to pay attention — the rhythm of every music in the world is because it's taken straight from nature. The birds did not imitate flutes. It's the reverse. Or thunder didn't imitate the drums, you know. It was the reverse. And so the elements of nature, when it comes from — that's the most powerful force there is.

00:05:30 It's like a melody. You can study orchestration. You can study harmony and theory and everything else, but melodies come straight from God. There's really no technique for melodies, really. And so that's — I guess there's something about music that has always fascinated me, and I apply what the essence of that's about in everything I do, whether we do film or magazines or whatever it is. You can't touch it. You can't taste it. You can't smell it. You can't see it. You just feel it, and it hangs in the air. It owns — it dominates — every time period, you know.

00:06:04 String quartets had their own time period, and nobody can ever change it because it's hanging up there in heaven some place.


00:06:15 ALICE WINKLER: The Academy of Achievement recorded this conversation in 2000. The interviewer was journalist Irv Drasnin. There’s also a 1995 interview in the Academy’s archive that I’ll pull from for this episode. What I found so striking in both conversations was the range and depth of Quincy Jones’s interests and expertise. He’s had the creative output of a dozen people, literally, and yet he has still found time for deep dives into philosophy, politics, science, history, you name it.

00:06:51 All that knowledge has fueled his outlook and his music, as have the dramatic, challenging circumstances of his childhood.

00:07:02 QUINCY JONES: We were in the heart of the ghetto in Chicago during the Depression, and every block — it was probably the biggest black ghetto in America. Every block also was the spawning ground practically for every gangster, black and white, in America, too. So we were around all of that. We saw that every day. There was a policeman named Two Gun Pete, a black policeman, who used to shoot teenagers in the back every weekend, and everything happened there all the time.

00:07:31 A gang on every street — the Vagabonds, the Giles HC, the Scorpions, and just on and on — and in each gang they had the dukes and duchess, junior and senior, which accommodated everybody in the neighborhood. That was the whole idea of unity, really. And our biggest struggle every day was we were either running from gangs or with gangs, and it was just getting to school and back home, because if your parents aren't home all day, you know, it's a notorious trek.

00:08:04 I still have the metals here from the switchblade through my hand pinned to a tree. I had an ice pick here in the temple one time. You know, but when you're young nothing harms you, nothing scares you, anything. You don't know any better. And the schools were the roughest schools probably in America. I saw teachers getting hurt and maimed and everything every day, and it was everyday stuff.

00:08:31 And it's amazing. Young people get used to things very quickly, even languages. And some summers my father would take us down to visit our grandmother in Louisville, who was an ex-slave, Susan Jones, and she had a shotgun shack, they call it, and no electricity, a well in the back, a coal stove, kerosene lamps. We used to take baths. They'd have these big coal, heavy, black iron pots.

00:09:05 They'd take the top off of the stove to get it heated quicker and wait and wait and wait until it boils, and then you pour it in a big tin tub on the floor, and then it would take you another 20 minutes to do that. I mean, I remember the process and all. She used to say, "Go down to the river and grab the rats that still have their tails moving." She'd cook the rats. She'd take greens out of the backyard and cooked the greens, fried the rats with onions and so forth on a coal stove. And you'd see, like, almost ice on the floor at night, you know, it was so cold in the wintertime in Kentucky.

00:09:40 And a lot of these things I didn't want to really deal with. I asked my brother before he died, you know, I said, "You know, is this an aberration in my mind?" And he said, "What are you talking about? That's the way it was." And he kind of affirmed everything that really happened.


00:10:03 ALICE WINKLER: And there was another thing that really happened in Quincy Jones’s life, something that he buried safely in his past for six decades.

00:10:12 QUINCY JONES: At about five or seven years old, my mother was placed in a mental institution, and so we were with our father, who worked very hard, and we had to figure a lot of things out. So we spent most of our life almost like we were kind of street rats just running around the street, you know, until we were ten years old. My father worked for Julian Black, the people that ran Joe Louis’s life.

00:10:41 Joe Louis lived in one of the buildings we lived in, and after one of the fights, he gave the gloves to my father, and a kid down the street had a BB gun that I wanted. And so when my father went to work I took the gloves and traded the gloves for a BB gun, and my father wore my tail out and went over to get the gloves back.


00:11:13 ALICE WINKLER: When his dad returned, he brought a woman with him who would become Quincy’s stepmother. She was rough around the edges and not very kind. She’d had a tough life, like a lot of people in the neighborhood, but it was a neighborhood loaded with characters and character.

00:11:32 QUINCY JONES: We loved all this drama. All kids love that. You know, we used to go to a place called Drexel Wine and Liquor. We would go up these big steps, and the administrative office was upstairs, and you'd see everything you saw on Eliot Ness, The Untouchables — two-way mirrors and so forth. They had tommy guns and hats and cigars. We loved it, and we couldn't understand why Daddy wanted to keep us away from that element.

00:11:57 One day he came by a barbershop, and we were about ten years old, and he said, "We're leaving town."

00:12:03 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones explained that his father was a talented carpenter, so he was in demand and worked for a lot of people — Joe Louis’s manager, but also, two men known as the Jones boys. Now the Jones boys owned a five-and-dime, but according to Quincy Jones, it was a front for their more lucrative and less legal line of work, the numbers racket, or what was then called the policy racket. The Jones boys were not related to Quincy Jones’s family, but their line of work affected his father’s business nonetheless.

00:12:39 QUINCY JONES: So one day he said, "Let's get out of here," and I think what happened is Capone took over the policy racket from the Jones boys. The Jones boys had to leave town fast, and we were right behind them because Daddy worked with them, so he came and picked us up from the barbershop. "We have to go get our toys." "Forget that." We went straight to the Trailways bus, and the bus took out to Bremerton, Washington — Seattle, Washington — and the ferry. We stopped in Idaho, and we got up to eat. They wouldn't let us eat at the white places, and so we had to go find a black family.

00:13:11 And you have to remember, this is the day when there was no TV, no MTV, no — you had nothing to hold onto your identity with. The books were See Jane Run and See Spot and so forth, and nothing about black history or anything. We're talking about 1943. Radio was Blondie and Dagwood and Gabriel Heatter, and the black figures, there were Rochester, Beulah, and Amos and Andy, who were white, Gosden and Freeman [Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll].

00:13:42 And so it was very — at the time, you don't recognize it, but you're trying to say, "Who the hell am I?" You know, "What are we about?" You know, if you don't have a mother there that leads you down that road, you're trying to figure out who you are. And so we spent half of our lives trying to figure out what was up, what we were all about. Now we go from the biggest ghetto in Chicago to being the only three black kids in Navy Yard City, and there was a serious contrast.

00:14:09 And it dances on your head a little bit because we carried switchblade knives in those days, and the kids in Bremerton didn't know what they were. So you had no — you couldn't use fear anymore like they used on us in Chicago.


00:14:33 QUINCY JONES: Basically, we hadn't seen white people before, until we got to Washington. Strange, you know, but the ghetto was so big in Chicago. And they had us outside of the town. We had to walk up a hill three miles, and up there they had a place called Sinclair Heights, which was clearly for all the blacks that came in to work in the Bremerton shipyards, the Navy yard.

00:14:58 And my father used to go down every morning to catch a bus down at the bottom of the hill to go to the Navy yard. And I had a paper route then, so I normally didn't have much time with him, so I'd get up at five thirty with him just to be with him for 15 minutes while he got ready, put his little gray hat on, and went down the hill, and I'd stop at my paper box and watch him go over the hill.

00:15:19 And, anyway, we got into all the trouble you could ever imagine because we figured that if the Jones boys and all the gangsters in Chicago ran Chicago, well, we had our own territory now. All the stores, all the crime, we were in charge of everything, my stepbrother and my brother. It was amazing. Amazing, and — of how much trouble you can get in when you don't have anything else to do.

00:15:46 And I hadn't discovered music yet, and I was 11 and 12 years old, and we did everything. Everything you can imagine. We stole a box of honey jars one time, went out in the woods and took care of the box, and I don't think I touched honey again for 20 years. I never wanted to see honey again. And there was a big armory up there where everybody played basketball, and it was a community center, really. There was an Army camp right there because this was heavy — you know, Seattle and Bremerton were — that was a hot spot during the war because that's where they left to go to Japan.

00:16:21 So it was really — things were happening all the time. And we'd break into this armory at night, the weekends and at night, and we'd eat pie, lemon meringue pie and ice cream. And when we got too tired of eating it we'd start to play — throw it at each other, and whatever trouble you could get in, you know — just awful. One night we went and broke in another door, and I broke into this door, and there was a piano there.

00:16:53 And I just walked around the room to see what was there first, and then hands kind of hit the keyboard. And I remembered from Chicago, next door when I was a kid, there was a little girl named Lucy that used to play piano. And from that moment on, when I touched those keys, I said, "This is it. I'm not going to do the other thing again. I'm going here." That's what happened.

00:17:16 IRV DRASNIN: You were 11 or 12 years old, and you came across this piano.

00:17:20 QUINCY JONES: Mm-hmm.

00:17:21 IRV DRASNIN: Had you had any...?

00:17:22 QUINCY JONES: No.

00:17:23 IRV DRASNIN: You knew nothing about...?

00:17:24 QUINCY JONES: No training, no. No, not at all at that time, but then after that, I was probing and probing and waking Ray Charles up when he came to town, waking him up at five and six o'clock in the morning.

00:17:38 IRV DRASNIN: He was a boyhood friend of yours, Ray Charles.

00:17:39 QUINCY JONES: Yes. I was 14 years old when Ray came to town from Florida. He wanted to get away from Florida, and he asked a friend of his — because he had sight until he was seven — to take a string from Florida and get him as far away from Florida as he could get, and boy, Lord knows that's Seattle. That's far — if you go any farther, you're in Alaska and Russia.


00:17:58 You know the night time, darling

(Night and day)

Is the right time

(Night and day)

To be

(Night and day)

With the one you love, now

(Night and day)

Say now, oh, baby

(Night and day)

00:18:13 QUINCY JONES: And so Ray showed up, and he was around 16 years old, and he was like God, you know. He had an apartment. He had a record player. He had a girlfriend, two or three suits. I mean — and I used to come — and when I first met him, you know, he would invite me over to his place. I couldn't believe it. He was fixing his record player. He would shock himself because there were glass tubes in the back of the record player then, the radio, and I used to just sit around. "I can't believe you're 16 and you've got all this stuff going," because he was like he was 30 then. He was like a brilliant old dude, you know.

00:18:43 He knew how to arrange and everything, and he taught me how to arrange in braille, and the notes — he taught me what the notes were because he understood. He said, "The dotted eighth, a sixteenth, and that's a quarter note and so forth," and I'd just struggle with it and just plowed through it. I didn't understand key signatures in front.

00:19:01 IRV DRASNIN: Well, now wait a minute. So was Ray Charles your first music teacher? Is that what you're telling me?

00:19:06 QUINCY JONES: Well, I played before I met Ray, but I had discovered a trumpet up in Bremerton.

00:19:12 No, he was one of them. Bumps Blackwell was too, and a barber named Eddie Lewis. And then we finally got a formal teacher named Frank Waldron, who was a trumpet teacher, who was African American, with a bald head, and he used to wear striped pants and — like the English Parliament guys. He looked like he stepped out of the Harlem Renaissance or some place. He had a little pint of gin, a little flask, and every night he'd take a sip, you know, at three or four in the afternoon, and he said, "Let me hear you play something."

00:19:44 And he was legit, you know, from the legit Rafael Mendez, you know, the legit trumpet players. We had our be-bop thing, and we had our little look and, you know, and our little swagger, and our fingers all the way over there, and so uncorrect — incorrect, rather. And I played Stardust just like I played it in the nightclubs, because we were playing in nightclubs when we were 13 and 14.

00:20:06 IRV DRASNIN: But how did you learn to play?

00:20:07 QUINCY JONES: I don't know.

00:20:07 IRV DRASNIN: How did you discover this...

00:20:09 QUINCY JONES: I just started playing.

00:20:10 IRV DRASNIN: ...that music was going to be your ticket in life?

00:20:12 QUINCY JONES: Just start playing. Just do it. Just blow in it and sound bad for about a year, and then make it sound a little bit better, and then you get a few jobs. And you get a little band together, and four guys that sound half-bad, if you are 25% each, we can get 100%, you know.

00:20:27 And so Charlie Taylor and Buddy Catlett, four guys, we got together, and we practiced every day, you know. Every day. And I would write an arrangement, and was writing this thing called A Suite from the Four Winds, and on the trumpet parts I had, with an asterisk, I'd say, "Play all B-naturals a half-step lower because it sounds funny if you play it B-natural straight."

00:20:50 I didn't know there was a key signature of a flat on the third line that would take care of all that. But, you know, you just learn step by step, and somebody was saying, "Idiot! You know there’s one flat and there are two flats and three flats!" And, "Oh, yeah, key signatures. That's a great concept." It's 500 years old, right?

00:21:08 IRV DRASNIN: Did you have any idea that you had this inside of you?

00:21:12 QUINCY JONES: Yeah, but I didn't know what it was. I didn't know — most of my grades in music were terrible before that and — but then the love and this passion came forth, and that's when somebody lit a flame, a candle inside, and that finally — that still burns, you know. It never went out. And I'd stay up all night sometimes until my eyes bled to write the music. I was writing a suite, “Concerto in Blue,” for something at the school, for concert band, and I was fearless.

00:21:39 ALICE WINKLER: In high school, Quincy Jones told journalist Irv Drasnin, not only did he write and arrange, but he also tried out every instrument he could get his hands on: percussion, clarinet, violin, B flat baritone horn, sousaphone, and trombone.

00:21:57 QUINCY JONES: I got the trombone because the trombone players in the marching band got to be up front with the majorettes because of the slides, and I loved that. But my heart was really with the trumpets, but they were too far back, and I finally got to the trumpet, and I said that's what I really feel. And so, I guess, 1947, we got our first job, for seven dollars, and the year after that we played with Billie Holiday, you know, with the Bumps Blackwell and Charlie Taylor Bands.

00:22:24 And our confidence was building because we danced, we sang, and we played all — we played modern jazz. We played schottisches, pop music at the white tennis clubs, you know. We'd play the black clubs at ten o’clock, you know, and play rhythm and blues and for the strippers and do comedy and everything else. At three o’clock in the morning, we'd go down to Jackson Street in the red light district and play be-bop free all night because that was really what we really wanted to play, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy and all those people, and they'd come through town.

00:22:55 And in the following year, Bobby Tucker, who was Billie Holiday's musical director, came back, and he liked what we did, evidently, and we played with Billy Eckstine, and then Cab Calloway came through. We opened for Cab Calloway, so our confidence was very strong. We were like big fish in small ponds, you know, and that's why at one time in New York most of the guys who were happening by the time they finally got there were not from New York because they got their confidence in the small cities.

00:23:21 And if you start in New York, you’re dealing with the biggest guys, biggest in the world. You're dealing with Charlie Parker and all the big bands and everything.

00:23:28 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones was obviously confident enough about his musical abilities to play with his jazz idols who came through town. But he had a personal confidence, too, that he says came from being good at the odd jobs he held — whether as a shoe shiner or a newspaper boy or a laundry assistant, he did it all. And he got an extra boost of confidence from an unexpected bit of success at the Robert E. Coontz Junior High in Bremerton, Washington.

00:23:58 QUINCY JONES: You know, there were just a few black kids in the school, like 2,800 kids there. And I'll never forget his name. A little white kid named Robin Fields said, "I'd like to be your manager for you running for Boys Club president." I said, "You've got to be out of your mind. You know, what are you talking about? You know that's never going to happen." And I was wrong, and I won.

00:24:20 And it was messed up because my family, in 1947, they moved to Seattle, and I had to get up at five o’clock every morning to catch the ferry, the Kalakala, and go back to Bremerton every morning because I was Boys Club president. And I'm telling you, that really put a hurting on my sleeping time because I couldn't write music late at night.

00:24:37 IRV DRASNIN: How do you account for that? Black kid in a white school...

00:24:40 QUINCY JONES: I have no idea.

00:24:40 IRV DRASNIN: ...and you become Boys Club president.

00:24:42 QUINCY JONES: I don't know. I have no idea. I bet — it was amazing, though, but it opened up — what it did to me back then is it made me realize that I had to take everybody one-on-one. It really did. I mean that was really clear to me because I couldn't say, "Bang, this is this, and everybody is this, and they're like this," and all that stuff, the things we usually do as human beings.

00:25:12 I couldn't do it because Robin Fields was there and I couldn't put him in that number. I couldn't include him in that number, and it was great for me.

00:25:20 ALICE WINKLER: That lesson would help him endure what he was about to endure as a black musician, a kid, traveling throughout America. It’s not that Seattle in the '40s was without racism, but...

00:25:33 QUINCY JONES: Then we hit the road, and we'd get to places like Texas. This is when every place had white and colored to wait in the bus stations and the water fountains all over America. You couldn't stay in a white hotel anywhere. We played dances in New Orleans, and they'd have chairs straight down the middle of the thing with — chairs to go both ways, white on this side and that side. Other places in New Orleans — I mean in North Carolina and South Carolina — they'd have $2.50 and $3.50 general admission for the black people. White spectators were $1.50.

00:26:07 I still have the signs, you know. And they'd sit upstairs and drink and watch the black people dance, you know. Oh, it was unbelievable. We played juke joints, and people would get shot, and we'd go through Texas. We always had a white bus driver because we couldn't stop at the restaurants, and sometimes we'd see effigies like black dummies hanging by nooses from the church steeples in Texas.

00:26:30 Like, that's pretty heavy, on the church steeple, and they've got a black dummy hung, which means, “Don't stop. Don't even think about coming here.” And the bus kept moving, you know. And then they'd finally get to places where we'd get the driver — the white driver would go in and get food for the band, and sometimes in Newport News we slept — I remember Jimmy Scott and I slept in a funeral parlor where the bodies were.

00:26:55 There was no hotel, so this guy said, "I've got a place. You can stay here these two days," and we got 17 dollars a night. You can't — you know, you're not thinking about some suite at the Waldorf, you know.

00:27:05 IRV DRASNIN: What does that do to you psychologically?

00:27:07 QUINCY JONES: It's painful. It's a killer. It slaps your dignity just right in the — all of the things that I loved about the idea of these proud, dignified black men and the bands and so forth. And I saw the older ones wounded, and it wounded me ten times as much because I couldn't stand seeing them hurt like this, you know. And I know their mentality and their sense of humor, their wit, their intelligence and everything, totally aware of it, and I'd see people with one-tenth of this, you know — or taking the stance of trying to degrade them, you know, trying to be a giant and make a midget out of them to feel bigger.

00:27:45 And I saw it over and over and over and over and over again. It was amazing. I mean, we'd — and the thing about it is when you're unified, you'd get a sense of humor about it, or else you’d either have to get really — and we had confrontations all the time. Please. We had the police run us out of town many a time, you know. And they'd have the joke, you know — you go in a place, you know, they'd always say, "We don't serve niggers here." We'd say, "That's cool. We don't eat them."

00:28:10 I mean, it was — you know, you just have to get an attitude about it, you know, because it just — you can't let it take you out like that, you know.

00:28:16 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones says his world was turned upside down once again when he got to travel to Europe for the first time at 19.

00:28:25 QUINCY JONES: It turned me upside down in many ways. It gave you some sense of perspective of past, present, and future. It took the myopic conflict between just black and white in the United States and put it on another level because you saw the turmoil between the Armenians and the Turks, and the Cypriots and the Greeks, and the Swedes and the Danes, and the Koreans and the Japanese — everybody was — had these hassles, and you saw it was part of — basic part of human nature, these conflicts. And it opened up — it opened my soul. It opened my mind.

00:29:03 ALICE WINKLER: And then, in 1956, when he was 23 years old, Quincy Jones organized a State Department trip for Dizzy Gillespie. Another voyage, another revelation.

00:29:16 QUINCY JONES: Obviously, you know, when they send a black band around the world as ambassadors, you're going to do a lot of kamikaze work, and we did. We — they sent us to all — what they called Hardship Post #4 in Washington. That's — they have categories, and you know, all the plum jobs are in London and France, the ambassadors, and so forth. And USIS, in the other parts of the world, was pretty screwed up.

00:29:39 And so we went to Abadan, Iran, and Tehran, and Dhaka, Pakistan, Karachi, and Istanbul, Damascus — which is the dirtiest place in the world — and it was very exciting. Some of these people had never seen Western instruments before, and we got a last-minute call one time from the White House to go immediately from Istanbul and go to Athens, Greece because the Cypriot students were stoning the embassy, and whenever that happened we got called immediately to go in there and play for these same kids.

00:30:18 And that was pretty scary because you could feel the energy and the hostility against whatever policy was going wrong at that time, whether it was Beirut and Israel or the Cypriots and the Greeks. And after that concert, they rushed the stage, the kids, and we thought we were in trouble. Instead, they put Dizzy Gillespie on their shoulders, and they were just running around the auditorium singing to him and everything else. It was great.

00:30:46 ALICE WINKLER: Back home, though, the Civil Rights Movement was just starting to build steam, and there was plenty of reality to contend with for a young black musician.

00:30:55 IRV DRASNIN: But it doesn't seem to have left you feeling bitter in any way.

00:30:58 QUINCY JONES: Well, you know, the thing is, yeah, it makes me — it's angry. It makes you angry, but I always felt that, though, to harness that anger, you know, let's do something that's going to mean something, you know. And so, if you punch some dude out, you know, that doesn't do anything because as you're going down, they say, "You're still a nigger," you know. And I've seen that happen. So that doesn't straighten — so that's why I get involved in all the battles there are but on another kind of a level, you know.

00:31:27 When I was in France, Mandela asked me to come down. I've been involved with South Africa and Mandela for 30 years, because you have to do something. I mean, in silence it's — you're fighting for your dignity of your children, your grandchildren, and the kids that shouldn't even be subjected to this kind of a thing.

00:31:47 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones has been involved in a lot of causes over the years. He was active in Martin Luther King’s Operation Breadbasket and Jesse Jackson's Operation Push, and he produced one of the top-selling songs of all time to raise money for victims of the famine in Ethiopia.


00:32:05 There comes a time when we heed a certain call

When the world must come together as one

There are people dying

Oh, and it's time to lend a hand to life

The greatest gift of all

We can't go on

00:32:34 ALICE WINKLER: We Are the World involved many of the most popular musicians of the 1980s, dozens of them, actually: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and on. If anyone was capable of gathering together that kind of star power, it was Quincy Jones. Somehow, from the time he was a young teenager, he was able to find a place at the table with the greatest artists of the day.

00:32:59 They helped him grow, and he made them sound the best that they could. That was, and is, one of his magic powers. Here he describes how he came to join forces with Lionel Hampton's band while he was still in high school.

00:33:14 QUINCY JONES: Well, Lionel Hampton's band came through Seattle then, too. That was a very significant thing in my life, because as I said before, we played with Bumps Blackwell's band and Charlie Taylor's band for Billie Holiday, and then Billy Eckstine at 14 and 15 years old. So Hamp came through there then, and that was my dream to be with that band, more than any band. Because I saw every band that came through — Stan Kenton, Basie, Duke, Louis Armstrong, everybody. I was out in front, hypnotized, every night. I just couldn't believe it, that there is the way to be a man, to have your dignity, to be proud of what you do, and there were 18 musicians.

00:33:53 There was something about it that just really hit a serious chord in me, and I wanted to know everything about it. That’s why I wanted to write so quickly, and as soon as I picked up the trumpet, I heard arrangements in my head of those ensembles. How do you write for 18 musicians or eight brass and five saxes and not have them playing the same notes?

00:34:13 ALICE WINKLER: Lionel Hampton somehow heard about this 15-year-old who was writing and orchestrating a complex piece called The Four Winds Suite, and he invited Quincy Jones to join his band.

00:34:25 QUINCY JONES: I hurried up and got on the bus. I didn't want to ask my parents or anybody, wouldn't take a chance of losing it. And I got there, and I just shut up like a little mouse, and everybody got on the bus. It was almost ready to take off, and Gladys Hampton got on and said, "What's that child doing on this bus?" And I said, "Oh, my God." She said, "Lionel, get that boy off of — that's a child. That's not a grown-up. Put him back in school," you know. She said, "I'm sorry, son, but you know, you're too young. Go back to school," and I was destroyed, you know. And so she says, "We'll talk about it later."

00:34:52 ALICE WINKLER: And they did, but during the intervening years, he finished high school in Seattle and landed a spot in a prestigious East Coast music school, far, far from his father and difficult stepmother — and his schizophrenic mother, who’d gotten out of the psychiatric hospital in Chicago and followed them out west to Washington State.

00:35:14 QUINCY JONES: And I really wanted to get away from home. I wanted to get out of that house. I didn't want to be there. Eight kids and a stepmother, and I just wanted to be out of there. And so when I got a scholarship from Boston to the Schillinger House, which is now the Berkelee School of Music, I couldn't wait to get out of there. And my aunt sent me a ticket by train to go there. I stopped in Chicago, and I went to Boston at night.

00:35:37 The most terrifying thing I've ever seen in my life because it was pitch black, and you get there, and you've got your trumpet and this little bag, your bag of clothes, not much, no place to stay. But I had a scholarship, and that was sort of a blanket, a security blanket I could hold onto.

00:35:57 And one thing led to another. I walked around the neighborhood to try to find out where I could stay. I got a place for ten dollars.

00:36:03 ALICE WINKLER: Things were going well enough, but then Quincy Jones got the call he’d been dreaming of. On the line was a member of Lionel Hampton's band. They remembered him and wanted to know if he was available to join them on tour.


00:36:22 QUINCY JONES: I was so happy. I'm telling you, you have no idea. And I told the dean there, I said, "I'll be back." He knew I'd never be back because once you get out there with professional musicians like that, and working 70 one-nighters in a row and all through the South — the band was doing 700 miles a night with these guys that had been out there 30 years, you know, old guys. I used to watch the old guys. I really respected their wisdom.

00:36:44 And there was a guy named Bobby Plater, who wrote the Jersey Bounce. Wonderful man. He was kind to me, too. I used to watch him and the guitar player, who had been out there 30 years, and they knew all the cheap hotels. You know, we made 17 dollars a night. You had to learn how to do that, too. And they had wash-and-wear shirts to carry in the sax case. I got one of those.

00:37:06 And they — when they'd get in a hotel, we'd go to Father Divine's for 15 cents, you know. And have the stew and stuff and say, “Peace,” when you go in the door. And you'd put your pants — fold them up and put your pants underneath the mattress. We couldn't afford to get them cleaned or pressed, and you'd put your coat in the bathroom, turn the steam on, hang your wash-and-wear shirt there, wash your handkerchief, put it on the mirror. And the next morning it's dry, and you pull it off, and it's already pressed, you know.

00:37:33 IRV DRASNIN: How did you learn how to read music?

00:37:35 QUINCY JONES: I don't know. I mean I just started and had to pay attention. It's just — you know, it's logical, though, and if you're standing out from all the other people, you know you're playing it wrong. So you have to understand the value of each note and so forth, and there are only four beats in each bar, or six or three or whatever it is. And — I don't know, you just use your mother wit, you know. Common sense, really.

00:37:56 A lot of people say, "Well, Count Basie and Earl Hines don't read music. That's amazing." I mean that has nothing to do with each other. Reading music is just a way to document it so you can remember what to play at the same time, but the creation of music has nothing to do with that at all. You know, that's a sense of — you know, it's a divine sense in a way, you know.

00:38:14 IRV DRASNIN: So you learned on your own?

00:38:15 QUINCY JONES: Yeah. There was a man named Joseph Pole, who was a military officer, and he had a dance band. He used to be with Wings Over Jordan, which was a famous choir, and so he asked me to babysit for him, and I loved to babysit for him because I could read his Glenn Miller orchestration books. And he had Frank Skinner underscoring about movies, and I mean, bam, that was like walking into a wonderland. I said, "What?" And then I got hung up on movies when I was 15.

00:38:43 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones would eventually write, arrange, and record the scores for dozens of movies and television shows. Huge, really memorable ones, like The Pawnbroker, In Cold Blood, The Wiz, Roots, In the Heat of the Night, and one of Woody Allen's first films, Take the Money and Run. And then...


00:39:11 ALICE WINKLER: ...there’s the Austin Powers theme song, though that well-loved cut, Soul Bossa Nova, was actually released on a Quincy Jones album in 1962, 35 years before the first Austin Powers movies came out. In Goldmember, the third of this ridiculous trilogy, Quincy Jones makes a brief appearance, actually. He’s shown in the opening sequence, conducting the orchestra during the recording of the film’s score, when Austin Powers sidles up to him to plant a kiss.

00:39:42 AUSTIN POWERS: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Quincy Jones!

00:39:51 This is where the movie gets its mojo, baby!

00:39:55 QUINCY JONES: Groovy!


00:40:00 ALICE WINKLER: Okay, there’s no way I was not going to play that, but picking up the thread again of Quincy Jones’s earlier life in music, he learned a lot about writing movie scores and all facets of music on his own, through books and fearless experimentation. But learning on his own often meant asking his heroes for their guidance. Most of them, he says, stepped up.

00:40:26 QUINCY JONES: The generosity of the older musicians — Count Basie, who almost adopted me, like, at 13. He was, you know — gradually became — we were closer and closer and closer until we ended up conducting for him and Sinatra, you know. It was just like a dream, you know. They knew I wanted to do whatever I did well. They could tell. I guess they could feel that. And I hadn't gotten it together yet, but they knew I wanted to, and they knew one day I would, I guess, you know.

00:40:56 I don't know why they'd waste their time otherwise. But Clark Terry, too. He'd go to play until two or three in the morning. I'd say, "Well, Mr. Terry, I'd really love to study trumpet with you." He said, "Well, what's a good time, you know?" I said, "Well, the only time I can do it is before I go to school at six thirty." He said, "I don't get home until two o’clock or three o’clock in the morning." But they were there, you know. They were there, you know. Ray Charles was there. Clark Terry was there. Count Basie was there. It was just amazing.

00:41:26 I mean all my life Count Basie was there. He was, like, manager, mentor, father, brother, everything. He just — he'd help me get jobs when I had my big band later. And I remember we played up in New Haven, a job that he didn't want to take, and he said, "Okay, I've got a job for your band. You got it." And so they got the contracts. We were with the same agency, Willard Alexander, and we got a third of what he would get, naturally.

00:41:54 And it was a 12- or 1,300-seat place and only about 700 people showed up, and I was really disappointed and hurt, you know. I had a big band from New York. Basie showed up, you know, and he said, "Okay." He said, "Give the man half of the money back." I said, "What do you mean give him half the money back?" He said, "He put your name down front, and the people didn't come. He will be important for you in the future, and you shouldn't hurt him because the people didn't come. Give him half of his money back."

00:42:24 I gave half the money back. He tried to teach me how to be a human being, you know. And a lot of the guys were like that, just took me under their wing, and that's why I automatically help young people. I just love it, you know, because they did that to me. They were there.

00:42:38 ALICE WINKLER: And it wasn’t just the jazz musicians who were there. In the 1950s, Quincy Jones traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, the French composer and conductor who taught many of the leading musical artists of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Daniel Barenboim. She taught Quincy Jones lessons he’s carried with him his whole life.

00:43:04 QUINCY JONES: Nadia Boulanger used to say, "There's only 12 notes, so listen to what everybody does with those 12 notes. That's all there are, really."

00:43:10 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones seems to take comfort in that quote, comfort and pride, because in fact, he has spent his musical life embracing all kinds of music, every variation of those 12 notes.


00:43:35 ALICE WINKLER: Here's a number for you — 100 million. That is how many copies of Michael Jackson's Thriller have sold worldwide. Quincy Jones produced it. It was, and still is, 30-some-odd years later, the number one bestselling album of all time. So in purely numerical terms, it was the pinnacle of Quincy Jones’s career.


00:44:00 You start to freeze

As horror looks you right between the eyes

You're paralyzed

'Cause this is thriller, thriller night

And no one's gonna save you

From the beast about to strike

You know it's thriller, thriller night

You're fighting for your life inside a killer

Thriller tonight

00:44:28 ALICE WINKLER: Quincy Jones followed up by producing another Michael Jackson mega-hit, Bad, and around the same time he served as producer on the movie version of The Color Purple. He convinced Steven Spielberg to direct it, and he cast a young aspiring news anchor and actress named Oprah Winfrey as Sofia, introducing her to a national audience. Naturally, he also created the soundtrack for the movie.


00:44:56 ALICE WINKLER: The year was 1985, the same year he produced We Are the World, by the way, so Quincy Jones was very much in the public eye, and soon a filmmaker approached him, wanting to make a documentary about his life. Quincy Jones says it was the first time he really stopped and looked back at his life in Chicago.

00:45:17 QUINCY JONES: When we went back there, the people that produced the show — the film — they just let me get out of the car. I hadn't been back there in 50 years, to this home where we lived in Chicago. And I got out, and I was hoping it would be a supermarket, you know, or everything's gone. It was exactly like it was when we left. The paint job that my father left there was the same paint job.

00:45:42 Every room, every radiator, every vent was exactly the same. The backyard, the same wooden fence where this happened, it was all there. And Lucy, this girl that was next door, 12 years old, when I got out of the car — she was like 63 or something, in a wheelchair, and it was explosive. It just blew my psyche to — shattered it, you know. And when we went upstairs, Lucy — they helped her upstairs with the wheelchair, and she said, "That's the bed where they put the straightjacket on your mother."

00:46:14 And I had totally blanked it out. But they say — the therapy I've had said — that trauma is frozen at the peak, and as soon as she said it I saw her, that there were the four guys holding her down, and she was trying to get away, and they strapped her down and put that straightjacket on her. And then we were out front on the front step, and Lucy held my brother in her arms and closed his eyes as they put her in the ambulance. And I sat on the other step, and I had closed my eyes too, and I was crying, and I was singing this song, "Oh, oh, oh, oh, somebody touched me. It must have been the hand of the Lord," you know.

00:46:49 It all came back. All of these things that you've totally blanked out of your mind — it's a strange feeling to feel it reentering your soul, the reality that you've blanked out conveniently enough. It's unforgettable stuff, you know.

00:47:02 ALICE WINKLER: It would still take several more years before a friend was able to help Quincy Jones make the connection between what he’d been through as a child and the central role of music in his life. That friend was the well-known health expert Dr. Dean Ornish, and this is what he said to Quincy Jones.

00:47:21 QUINCY JONES: He said, "Somehow you — in trying to survive, you found a way to totally transfer all need or everything involving your mother into your music or your creativity." And I used to go into a little closet, a little, tiny closet that had four barrels with some two-by-fours and a workbench on it and just sit there and just turn the world off every time the pain came in, and went inside and just — since I was very young, just to take all the negative things and the painful things and take that and convert it into something beautiful and positive.

00:47:59 And so, because I could feel that if I turned it on myself into bitterness, it would kill me and it would take me out, like it did my brother. And I didn't know it was going — I didn't know what the process was about, but here I am at 66 years old and Dean tells me what this is all about. And it's strange because it took my brother out. It killed him. And I had transferred all of the need of what we didn't have, so I didn't need it anymore, because I had something else.

00:48:26 It was beautiful. It was mine. I could always depend on it. I could always go there no matter what happened. Racial things or whatever happened, I could go there, and it would be okay. And it was my own little world. I could make it what I wanted it to be.

00:48:38 ALICE WINKLER: It is still the healing balm that gives Quincy Jones peace and confidence and joy.


00:48:47 ALICE WINKLER: If I had one wish right now, it would be that Quincy Jones could have produced this podcast episode for me, but in a way, I guess he did. I'm Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. If you want to share Quincy Jones’s inspiring stories with your friends, Twitter is always handy. Our hashtag is #WhatItTakesNow.


00:49:10 I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’

You got to be startin’ somethin’

I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’

You got to be startin’ somethin’

It's too high to get over (yeah, yeah)

Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)

You're stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)

And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)

It's too high to get over (yeah, yeah)

Too low to get under (yeah, yeah)

You're stuck in the middle (yeah, yeah)

And the pain is thunder (yeah, yeah)

I took my baby to the doctor

With a fever, but nothing he found

By the time this hit the street

They said she had a breakdown

Someone's always tryin’ to start my baby cryin’

Talkin’, squealin’, lyin’

Sayin’ you just wanna be startin’ somethin’

I said you wanna be startin’ somethin’

00:49:51 ALICE WINKLER: Funding for What It Takes comes most generously from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.



What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.