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Stranded, suicidal, but constantly swinging

A new `Jazz Icons' DVD captures Quincy Jones' renowned 1960 big band in concert.

December 29, 2006|Charles J. Gans | Associated Press

NEW YORK — The memories come flashing back when Quincy Jones watches the DVD of himself as a young man directing his "dream" jazz big band that barnstormed through Europe in 1960 after unrest in Paris forced the musical they were performing in to close.

Jones recalls that year as a turning point in his career before he went on to become an acclaimed Hollywood and TV composer, producer of pop megahits such as Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and entertainment industry mogul.

"Quincy Jones -- Live in '60" is one of nine DVDs in the recently released "Jazz Icons" series featuring long-lost concert and studio film footage from the 1950s through the 1970s of such influential jazz artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Chet Baker. The film was uncovered in European TV vaults and nearly all of the material is being released officially for the first time.

The series' producers, San Diego-based Reelin' in the Years Productions, believe the DVD contains the only known film footage of Jones' 1959-61 big band. The DVD showcases Jones' tight ensemble arrangements and colorful orchestrations, including piccolo-flute duets on "Lester Leaps In," Julius Watkins' French horn solo on "Everybody's Blues," and fluegelhorn and muted trumpet backgrounds on the ballad "The Gypsy" featuring alto saxophonist Phil Woods.

"Quincy Jones is internationally acclaimed as one of the greatest arrangers in history," said "Jazz Icons" co-producer Phil Galloway. "But people don't remember him so much as a great big-band leader, and his 1960 big band is revered as one of the great all-time big bands."

Jones, the only one of the "Jazz Icons" headliners still alive, says that watching the two 1960 concerts filmed in Belgium and Switzerland evokes "a whole collage of emotions."

"That's 40 years ago, and it hits you hard. No. 1, I'd kill for that waistline. I was 118 pounds then. Now I'm about 218," said a laughing Jones, 73, speaking by telephone from his Los Angeles home. "It reminds me of all the struggles we went through, the good times and the bad times."

In 1959, Jones, a trumpeter who had established a reputation as a composer-arranger for Count Basie, Duke Ellington and his old Seattle buddy Ray Charles, got his big break when producer John Hammond asked him to put together a big band for Harold Arlen's blues musical, "Free and Easy," which was to tour Europe before coming to Broadway.

"I had some of the best musicians in the world, starting with a man that taught me when I was 13 years old how to put the trumpet on my mouth, Clark Terry ... who was Miles Davis' influence too," Jones said. "Clark and [trombonist] Quentin Jackson left Duke Ellington to come with my band and that's the biggest honor I ever had in my life."

Despite rave reviews, the musical was forced to close in February 1960, a few weeks after its official Paris opening, when police and soldiers filled the streets to quell unrest over the government's Algeria policy.

The producers said "we're going home in two days, and I said, 'No, we're staying.' You had to be 26 to do something like that," Jones said. "I had 30 people I was responsible for, with dogs and wives and mothers.... We were stranded in Europe for 10 months, and I was just totally idealistic, saying we will make it because of the music. We were like Gypsies."

Without an agent, Jones patched together gigs as he went along. One promoter ran off with the band's advance money. Jones went deeply into debt to cover the band's expenses.

"At one point in Turku, Finland, I came that close to suicide," Jones said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world because it was an amazing experience. It will either kill you or it will make you stronger.... I learned a lot."

After Jones returned to the U.S., Mercury Records President Irving Green helped him get back on his feet with a personal loan and a job as the label's music director.

"He said, 'Quincy, it's called the music business. You've dealt with the music, now I'm going to show you what the business is about, because you can't make it without that.' "

In 1964, Jones opened new doors for blacks in the music industry when he became Mercury's vice president and also wrote his first film score, for director Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker," prompting him to move to Los Angeles.

Today, despite his pop-music success, Jones has never abandoned his first love -- jazz -- and regrets that young people get so little exposure to the music.

"One thing that's concerned me my whole life is that every country in the world has adopted the American jazz and blues as their Esperanto, and the people that know the least about it are in our country where it came from," Jones said.

That's why he's enthusiastically welcomed the "Jazz Icons" series, which he has shown to his grandchildren and endorsed as "a gift to our culture" in a publicity blurb.

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