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Quincy Jones' long and restless song

The peerless producer has a new book and album, but he's in a looking-back mood too.

January 02, 2011|By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times
  • Quincy Jones in Bel Air on Nov. 24, 2010.
Quincy Jones in Bel Air on Nov. 24, 2010. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

It had been a long night — a concert, a reunion with an old friend, a midnight meal — but as the clock ticked past 2 a.m. Quincy Jones sat in a rare state of silence in his estate at the very top of Bel-Air. The man they call Q nodded at the cellphone sitting on the kitchen counter.

"I've deleted 188 names this year — all the people who died, all these friends of mine," Jones said. "That's what happens when you're 77, man. That's life, man. You start out playing in bands and doing duets and then you worry that in the end it's all going to be a solo."

The song of Q's life began on the South Side of Chicago. It was March 1933 when a new president named Roosevelt told the American people that the only thing they needed to fear was fear itself. Ten days later, Quincy Delight Jones Jr. was born as part of a staggering boom-time in the nursery of modern music: Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, James Brown, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nina Simone, Willie Nelson, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson were also born in that golden window between September 1930 and September 1935.

Most of those peers are gone now, but Jones remains a man in relentless motion. He has a new tribute album, a recently published book and a schedule dense with award shows, fundraisers and jet-set parties. Still, he feels the weight of the years and he also thinks quite a bit about legacy maintenance.

"We all wonder how we will be remembered," says Jones, who rarely gets through any conversation without mentioning the famous friends and sparkling moments of the past. His friendship with the late Charles, especially, tugs at his memory, but instead of maudlin repetition a conversation with Jones is like talking to a jukebox loaded with platinum singles. He's just playing the old hits so new generations can learn the beat.

"You can't know the present or the future without knowing the past, and for young black Americans especially, it's a sin to forget where we've been and what we've done in music," Jones said. "The history is who we are. Without it we're in trouble. We need to teach music history the same way we teach science history."

Elementary school

A few weeks ago, Jones — resplendent with a shiny, blue pinstripe suit that could have been worn in a "Guys and Dolls" production and a striped scarf that reached his knees — trekked down to East 33rd Street. The Los Angeles Unified School District had invited him to cut the ribbon on Quincy Jones Elementary, which sits less than a mile from the old Dunbar Hotel, the hub of the Central Avenue jazz scene and the place where Duke and Dizzy and Basie and Billie all played.

Jones gigged at the Dunbar too ("I didn't know where Sunset Boulevard was when I moved to L.A., but sure I knew Central"), but he tried not to talk about all those old ghosts too much as he looked out on a schoolyard of young faces. "When I was growing up as a poor kid in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Chicago, I could not have imagined that I would stand here with you today and witness the dedication of a school with my name on it," Jones said. "This is one of the greatest honors of my life."

Jones found his path to fame in Seattle where, as a youngster playing trumpet, he found Charles and the defining friendship of his life. His career seemed kissed by fate. Count Basie became a mentor, and Lionel Hampton invited him to bring his trumpet on tour. He became a coveted arranger and wrote charts for Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and others. One day the phone rang and it was Frank Sinatra, and Jones knew he had reached the summit. "When you get to work with Sinatra, well, that's the best there is."

Jones has won 27 Grammys, more than any other living person, but he's prouder in some ways that he was named vice president of Mercury Records in 1962, breaking the color barrier as far as top-level music executives at major labels. Today, he's just a few notches below Oprah Winfrey as cosmic-level macher for black America — instead of arranging musical notes he now arranges careers and seeks to compose history.

It's telling that on his first visit to Southern California as a presidential hopeful, Illinois politician Barack Obama ended up in Jones' living room listening to war stories about Cairo concerts with Dizzy Gillespie or the view from the soundboard on the night "We Are the World" was recorded in 1985.

As the producer of Michael Jackson's three signature albums — "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" — Jones created a sonic template for pop that can still be heard in the music of Usher, Justin Timberlake and dozens of other stars. "I watch what Quincy Jones has done, and that's the guy I want to be," says, leader of the Black Eyed Peas and a Grammy-nominated producer himself. "He is the man."

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