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Los Angeles Times Interview : Quincy Jones : Transforming America's Music Into the World's

March 26, 1995|Janet Clayton | Janet Clayton is assistant editor of the Editorial Pages of The Times

BEL AIR — Whether you are 14 or 64, Quincy Jones' music is in your head. It is Jones who was the driving sound behind Michael Jackson's album "Thriller"; it's Jones who wrote the humorous ditty of television's "Sanford and Son"; it's Jones' who devised the elegant arrangement of Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." Jones didn't write that song--he just made it memorable. Originally written as a waltz, it is Jones' version that has stuck in the public consciousness. So much so that if any singer now were to deliver the lyrics in their originally intended stateliness, noted one critic, that would prove "about as incongruous as rescoring 'She Loves You' for operatic tenor." And the movie scores: "In Cold Blood," "Roots." The list of hit tunes that Jones has been associated with as producer, arranger or composer is full of surprises: Try Lesley Gore's "It's my Party (and I'll Cry If I Want to)."

And Jones has done more than make American music, he helped make it the first "world music." In the late 1950s, Jones was the organizer and trumpeter for a ground-breaking goodwill tour with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra--the first such tour sponsored and paid for by the U.S. State Department. Jones was, in effect, a dazzling ambassador of the arts, dousing U.S. diplomatic fires with large doses of American jazz in Europe, the Middle East and South America. Along the way, he met with the shah of Iran one day, revolutionaries in the making another--and he managed to give some Pakistani music fans their first exposure to jazz. It's no small irony that today, as a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Jones is now fighting congressional attempts to kill federal funding for the arts.

Jones' early exposure to diplomacy no doubt helped him as a music producer: He was said to be the only person who could have brought together the energies and egos of the 46 singers who participated in the "We Are the World" benefit recording that raised more than $55 million for Ethiopian famine relief. Jones also is a film and television producer and entrepreneur.

At 62, Jones has been just about everywhere and has won just about every entertainment award invented. Tomorrow night, at the Oscars, he will receive the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Still, he is restless. He's working the phones with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, making his case about a major broadcast television deal. He's in the studio working on a new album. He is sitting in a room full of pictures of his seven children, a room whose centerpiece is a grand piano. But he has more than music on his mind.

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Question: Congress is talking about drastically cutting the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Artists are screaming mightily, but I don't hear the average American responding much to this. Why do you think that is?

Answer: . . . Many Americans don't really relate to something, I guess, until it's taken away. It's like a lot of things . . . . Many Americans have never experienced war. But you can feel the difference in the people who have, who are living in France, in Spain, in England. They felt those buzz bombs threaten their lives, on their own ground. To us, war is like a miniseries; "Desert Storm" was like a miniseries. I couldn't believe it, one day they had titles, "Day 3" of "Desert Storm."

But I'd love to see this country go a month and just take the arts away and see what would happen. That would be an incredible movie to see. Just take all the music away, everything--the elevator music, the things we take for granted, that are part of our everyday life. I think the soul would shrivel up.

Q: What many in Congress would say is, "We're not against the arts, we just don't think the federal government should have to pay for it."

A: But it's the soul. Why do the German, the Italian, the French governments subsidize the arts so heavily? They've been doing it for a lot longer than we have. They've figured out it's important to the life of a nation.

Q: Another Washington question: You and a few other prominent minority entrepreneurs announced, in the fall, a joint venture with Tribune to purchase TV stations. Since then, the House voted to strike down the FCC rule that gives special tax breaks to companies that sell broadcast properties to minority-owned concerns. Does that affect your deal?

A: Very much so. What they're saying is that affirmative action is over. But what bothers me most are the issues of welfare, issues of affirmative action, issues of crime--in front of each of those titles, they put a black face. They put a black woman in front of the welfare title, they put young, black men in front of crime, affirmative action, maybe a middle- aged black. It's the same old stuff . . . .

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