When he steps into a room, everyone stops what they’re doing and swarms. Even at 82, the man commands attention. A smile stitched above a wise, salty goatee, a rainbow color scarf tied in a knot, open gray blazer, he poses for selfies, speaks on camera without any prep or help from handlers. Besides the imposing bodyguard, young business partners, and voluptuous brunette nurse who form a protective entourage, Quincy Jones strides with the confidence and poise of any young Hollywood star, and he doesn’t look or act like any octogenarian you’ve ever met.
He’s produced some of the top selling albums and artists of all time: Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin. Renaissance man isn’t too far a stretch for a man who’s been a conductor, composer, performer, film and television producer, executive, humanitarian, the list is almost endless He has a record 79 Grammy nominations, winning 27 — and his seven Oscar nominations are more than any other African American. Jones is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was named one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century. And oh yeah, he produced Thriller, which has sold more than 40 million copies, making the 1982 tour de force one of the top selling records of all time. If that’s not enough for you, these days he splits time between a production company, dabbles in artist management and film development, and even licenses and invests in products that include his own line of headphones and sunglasses. The man knows how to work.
When we meet at the PTTOW! Summit — filled with mega stars in their own right, like David Guetta, Aloe Blacc, and David Blaine — everybody is in awe of this musical wizard. Some even call him sir. He’s like the cool uncle you wish was at your Thanksgiving dinner. But he’s cool for a reason — which means if you’re lucky he’ll come for dessert, if at all.
When you speak with the man, there’s a real dialogue. He asks your sign, age, relationship status, the music you love. When you answer, it feels almost like a first date — you want to impress while still being yourself. In many ways it’s tough company. But what grounds the dialogue, and him, is an awareness and honesty. There’s serious upheaval going on throughout our country right now. These are tough times, and too often artists shy away from making a point that could be controversial — or influence sales. Those are issues this man doesn’t worry about. I got a chance to speak with Q about the racial strife plaguing our nation, growing up Black in the Depression, the importance of jazz music, and his special relationship with the late Tupac Shakur. And then, like everybody else in awe of him, I took a selfie.
Does it feel like somebody else’s life when you look back?
It really does. And it’s not. To make it happen you have to let go and let God do it. It is a higher power. It’s a serious divinity what happened, because I wanted to be a gangster until I was 11. My daddy was around the Jones Boys. We’re going to make a movie, you’ll see just what it was like in the ‘30s. The Depression. Southside Chicago. See that thing [points to scar on his hand]? Seven years old, I was in the wrong street, and every gang everywhere: Scorpions, Vagabonds… They took a switchblade and nailed my hand to a fence. And right there [points to his forehead]? It’s an ice pick. But that’s the way it was. And back alleys had cobblestones with wagons with metal wheels and horses and all. Rags and old iron, the junk men in the back; that was every day.
What kept you away from the street life?
I didn’t fight it. I was in it. I was in it for 11 years, man, are you kidding? Daddy was the carpenter to the Jones Boys, the most notorious black gang in the history of America. That’s why I want to do the movie. In 1941, they made $120 million, the equivalent to $1 billion. Capone ran all of them out of town. Sent them to Mexico, and my Daddy’s best friend, a tough guy from St. Louis — they sent five guys with sawed-off shotguns to kill him. Joe Louis’ attorney gave some boxing gloves to Daddy after he won a fight. And I was seven years old and I had a friend down the street that eventually became my stepbrother. And I gave the boxing gloves to him to get a BB gun. And my Daddy kicked my butt, man. Joe Louis’ boxing gloves, and my Daddy comes back after he goes back to the house to try to get the gloves back, from my stepmother, and he married her. My mother was taken away in a straight jacket when I was seven years old. Dementia praecox. And all of that’s in the book and the movie. Snoop Dogg’s going to be in it.
What was Tupac really like?
He was a wannabe, man. He was from Baltimore. An “A” student. We went to South Africa; Mandela asked me to come over, co-host a thing with him. And I took the gangsters from here. Gangbangers. South Central to South Africa. And in 10 days we turned them around. Spanish and Black. Male and female. And I took them to three, four cities out there. We built 100 homes. And they turned it around. They all became executives after that. I read a poem that Tupac had done, on the cover really, because he’s a wannabe gangster, right — it was called “Under Starry Skies.” And it’s [about] Vincent Van Gogh. If that community knew he was writing that kind of English, that social stuff, he would have been banned.
I heard he had to talk down in terms of his language.
That’s right. He was a wannabe and he had to play that game. Followed it all the way through.
Who’s one artist I should know about right now?
Jacob Collier. He’s half Chinese, half English. Check him out. You’ve never heard anybody like him, I can tell you.
How important is music, particularly Jazz, to changing our culture today?
We’ve got one major problem here, in the US: No Minister of Culture. We’re the only nation in the world without a Minister of Culture. Jazz and blues were founded here, and no Minister of Culture. And the kids in this country are so lost it’s unbelievable. That’s why they’re blowing each other away every weekend in the hood. In Soweto, in the favelas in Brazil, in Angkor Wat in Cambodia; it’s the same stuff everywhere.
What’s your take on Baltimore or Fergusson?
It’s the same — nothing new. Now it’s just focused. And they’re looking at it like one of the maladies of this country. But it’s not new. You kidding? Not even close, man. When we used to travel on the road, with Lionel Hampton, after going to Garfield High School; that’s where Jimi Hendrix went too. I lived right across the street. Most diversified place on the planet, in the ‘40s after the war. Everything. Richest whites, Jews, Filipinos, Chinese, Black, everything. Nobody even paid attention. So that set my mind. Because in Chicago, I never saw white people. It was just 55 million Black people.
You could have just been another statistic, especially in those days. What turned your life around?
My group played at being gangsters and we got caught breaking into an armory, a recreation center next to the army camp. And after we had the pie fights and everything else and broke into the room, it had a piano in it. And I stepped out the door. And something said, “Idiot, go back in the room.” And I opened the door and went back to that piano. And I never knew human beings played these things. I heard them all my life, I was 11 years old. Every cell in my body said “This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Forget the gangster thing. You would have been dead.” It was terrible. And anyway, that turned me around. The next day I went to Robert E. Coontz Junior High School. I played tubaphone, tuba, E flat baritone, E flat alto, French horn. In marching band you can be up there with majorettes, because the trombones had the slides. Trumpets were in the back; that’s what I really wanted to do. Finally I got to the trumpet when I was 14.
How did you have confidence growing up in a time when show business wasn’t racially open?
Sidney Poitier handed me the mantle, the baton rather, to take it to composers. And we made it, we both made it. Sidney was blackballed back then but he got his first shot. He got put back into action in the Blackboard Jungle with director Richard Brooks who I also did In Cold Blood for. It’s just amazing, history, looking back. Nothing preceded it.
Adam Popescu is a Los Angeles based writer whose work has been published by publications that include the BBC, Fast Company, Mashable, The LA Times, and National Public Radio.