Quincy Jones

Photograph by Norman SeeffQUINCY JONES: The maestro behind Michael moves on to new challenges
Life
December 1984

The eagle, the cobra, the pyramid, the balancing stick. Nineteen people contort themselves into agonizing shapes in a Beverly Hills hothouse called Yoga College of India. The camel, the half-tortoise, the triangle. Their female instructor snaps. “What’s this? Only three drops of sweat? C’mon, Quincy!” Quincy stands grunting, wearing a gold pendant, a gold wedding band, an irremovable brass love bracelet and tight blue-and-black-striped bathing trunks. An hour later, he’s in a position called the bow, and you could go canoeing in the pond of sweat filling the ridge of his back. The instructor commands. “Find that edge. Go for that advantage. Say, ‘I am the master of my fate.’” As Quincy pretzels himself into more exotic positions, his nose scrunches, his calves spasm, his forehead furrows in pain. But his grimace, reflected in the mirrors, looks strangely like a smile or the beginnings of a laugh. It’s a grimace befitting a man whose middle name is Delightt.

Quincy Delightt Jones, in any number of positions, is the master of his own fate. At 51, he is the world’s most successful record producer. If this distinction was ever in question, the unprecedented popularity of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (38 million copies sold) has left little doubt. Yet more than pure commercial success, it is range that distinguishes Jones: He has worked with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Eddie Van Halen, Billie Holiday to Diana Ross, Sinatra (once again on his current album, L.A. Is My Lady) to Springsteen. No one in the history of contemporary American music has cut so wide a path. In addition to writing and arranging, conducting orchestras and producing records. Jones owns and presides over a record label. Qwest; a small empire of music publishing companies: a movie sound-track venture called Scores R Us; and the Beverly Boulevard building in which they all operate.

“What feels real good about making a lot of money.” Jones observes from a red leather chair in his office, “is in relationship to being real poor. Real poor. I mean Grandma sent me down to the river to get rats to eat—rats, oiled up and fried,” he recalls of boyhood summers spent in Louisville. “The money can help you buy some independence or some time. You can do exactly what you want to do.” So when Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, Duran Duran and Mick Jagger all recently requested his services, Quincy Jones declined graciously. That’s because exactly what he wants to do is not what he’s done before: He now wants to produce films and create Broadway musicals. By the end of the decade, he also hopes to bring forth his massive “life project”— “The History of Black Music”—which should take shape as a book, a multirecord album and a film documentary. At present, he’s healthy, wealthy and wise enough not to ignore his opportunities—a position he has no trouble appreciating. Ten years ago, he was as good as dead. Twice.

When two blood vessels exploded in Jones’s brain in August 1974, the surgeons sawed open his skull, inserted high-tech hardware and saved his life. But only temporarily. During the operation they discovered another aneurysm and would have to operate again in two months. No guarantees of survival, a possibility of paralysis. That was an interesting eight weeks for Jones. Alternately giddy and terrified, he found it a good time to reflect on his life.

He had been born in Chicago and raised in Seattle by his carpenter father and his stepmother. He was one of nine children in a nonmusical family. Lessons at school, however, produced a pubescent bebop trumpeter who sent arrangements to Count Basie at 13, ran with big buddy Ray Charles at 14 and was asked to join Lionel Hampton at 15. He did not slow down.

The following years brought a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, a world tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and his first record dates. At 20, Jones married his high school sweetheart and had his first child, Jolie. He studied string arranging in Paris with renowned teacher Nadia Boulanger, who introduced him to Stravinsky. He led an enterprising big band all over Europe and wound up in debt for seven years. He became the first black vice president of a major record label (Mercury) and produced his first No. 1 record. Lesley Gore’s 1963 single, “It’s My Party.” Then he broke through another barrier. With the backing of Henry Mancini, Jones became the first black composer accepted by the Hollywood establishment, scoring The Pawnbroker, In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night and 40 other films. In addition, there were television themes (Ironside, Sanford and Son) and some 20 of his own jazz and pop albums.

But all was not right in the life of Quincy Jones. His first marriage had ended badly after 14 years. He remembers when he told his daughter it was over, “Wells of tears built up, then jumped out of her eyes, and she says, ‘What about me? What’s gonna happen to me?’ And I had no answers.” His second marriage, to Swedish model Eula Andersson, had produced two more children. Tina and Quincy III (called Snoopy), but “never really worked.” Meanwhile, he was living with Mod Squad star Peggy Lipton, who just a few months earlier had given birth to his third daughter, Kidada. “I’d been a card-carrying dog,” Quincy admits. “I did a lot of mean, selfish things. God makes it so that you can be young and be a dog. But old dogs are really pitiful.”

In between his operations, his divorce to Eula became final. He married Peggy the next day. Quincy Jones would not be an old dog. His dialogue with death had changed his life. With 10 years hindsight, Quincy laughs about his transformation. “Coming from a jazz background, you spend half your life trying to be real hip,” he says in his soft-edged voice. “It was pathetic how hip I was! But the operation put a lot of things in close-up. A lot of corny things that didn’t count before took on a significance. It’s another kind of feeling to be able to look your wife in the eye and know that the thing is real between you.” He says he saw sunsets as if for the first time. He hugged and kissed his male friends whenever he felt like it. He told people exactly what was on his mind, sweet or sour. Peggy, who had lived with Quincy for two years prior to the first attack, was surprised by the new man. “It was an overnight change,” she reports. “He said, ‘I’m not the same person anymore. I’m going to squeeze the juice out of life.’”

The flow began with a series of glossy, mellow pop-jazz records under his own name; continued with short detours to write the score for Roots and adapt one for The Wiz; deepened with a run of productions for the Brothers Johnson, Chaka Khan and George Benson; and culminated with Michael Jackson. Along the way he further refined his studio style, creating a signature sound: warm rhythms, lush synthesizer textures, extravagant yet uncluttered string-and-horn orchestrations, a touchable presence to the vocals. All played by a cast of hundreds and recorded with an ear for infinitesimal detail. Quincy Jones became the Cecil B. DeMille of record production, developing, among some musicians, a reputation as a dictatorial auteur.

Certainly, Jones thinks big. As his engineer for 28 years, Bruce Swedien, says. “Thriller was a heroic effort. It was the Normandy invasion of the record industry.” With that effort in full swing Jones opened up a second front, producing the E.T. storybook album in partnership with pal Steven Spielberg. Certainly Jones thinks visually. His first memories of music are, in fact, visual: “It was like a light beamed to me out of those old ratty recordings.” In the studio, he calls the first working versions of songs “Polaroids.” “Even now,” he says. “I think of primary and secondary colors first, and shapes and densities, before the sound comes.” To Jones there is only one thing in life more fascinating than music, and that is the combination of music and film—his next quest.

His vehicle will be Alice Walker’s rough jewel. The Color Purple, a surprise best-seller and winner of both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for fiction. Jones acquired the film rights with Peter Guber and Jon Peters. He will write and coordinate music for the screen, as he often does, but this time he’ll also produce. It has been a dream for years, and now that it’s upon him, he asks himself, “Is this burning desire to be involved in films justified? Do I have anything to contribute? I’m not a fan of the Peter Principle. It makes me sick, the thought of letting your ego get you into something that you shouldn’t be dealing with. You have to let your heart lead you into it.”

Peggy Lipton Jones puts it more bluntly, asserting a wife’s privilege: “He’s so ambitious. After such a tremendous success with Michael, he wants to try something new. He is obsessed with this movie thing, and he has to play it out.” Fortunately for Quincy, he will play it out with the support of a high-cholesterol group of friends: Spielberg, Jane Fonda, Alex Haley, Sidney Poitier, David Geffen, Warner Communications chairman Steve Ross. More gracefully than most, Q, as they call him, combines professional and personal relationships. He’s the sort of guy who vacations with his colleagues—even after a dispute. Loved for his street humor, his thoughtfulness and his hard-won joie de vivre, Quincy will never be a lonely man. Says Geffen, “Quincy’s so loving. I think he’s better at being a friend than even at anything else he does.”

Quincy Jones is sitting happily over a lunch of lobster bisque, linguini, medallions of lamb, raspberry tart and three Camparis with orange juice, when he’s asked to define his weaknesses. “My big weakness,” he replies, “is having too many interests and not being able to deal with them.” For instance: In the next few months, Quincy must find the right screenwriter for The Color Purple and nurture it toward production in early 1985. He will continue to develop a 1986 Broadway musical with director Mike Nichols, and possibly another Pulitzer-winning author, David Mamet. At the same time, he must sail his record company on its day-to-day course until he can find someone to take the rudder; oversee upcoming albums by Patti Austin and James Ingram; put a Sinatra documentary to bed and set a wake-up call for his studio date with Sarah Vaughan; and then there is the small matter of producing his own album, for which nothing is ready, as the clock ticks toward a February release. A Q’ism about such overscheduling: “It’s like running through hell with gasoline drawers on.”

Quincy moves on to the next weakness: “I also feel bad about not being more helpful to my wife’s career. Much as I love to be supportive of her, I guess inside I really don’t want her to be professional again. I know she should, and she wants to.” In the front yard of his business, Quincy is full of praise for the intelligence and creativity of women, but in the backyard of home life—and against his better judgment—he remains a chauvinist. When asked if he sees the irony in having once declared, “I don’t believe in a woman who can’t cook” and yet choosing to produce a staunchly feminist book for the screen, Quincy chuckles, “Alice Walker cooks her rear off!” Quincy Jones even makes his contradictions seem charming.

Another contradiction involves his age: How does a balding grandfather with Swing-era roots remain in touch with the kids? One reason is that they’ve been in his house all his life. His oldest, Jolie, is 31, and his youngest, Rashida, his second with Peggy, is eight. “If you open up to life and live every minute, there’s no such thing as catching up with the kids,” he figures. “I’m affected by the same stimuli as my eight-year-old.” Agrees Rashida: “Dad has a young personality.”

Rashida and Kidada are scurrying around their comfy Bel Air home, anxious for the first signs of Dad. While he was away today, discussing screenwriters at Warner Brothers, two big trucks pulled up and unloaded a houseful of new furniture and greenery—and the kids are dying to see his face when he encounters what The Decorator hath wrought. At eight p.m., into the steep driveway pull Dad and his driver in their black Blazer jeep. (Among Dad’s phobias, heights, lazy singers and driving rank in ascending order. Fifteen years ago he took 11 lessons, which ended when his instructor deemed him a public menace and refunded his money.)

Dad enters the dining room with the words, “Oh my God, honey, what happened?” Instant pandemonium, Rashida and Kidada are yelping and squealing. Tina, 18, who has lived with Dad and Peggy for the past six years, wears a wild smile. Peggy’s brown Care-package eyes are hopeful, praying he likes it. “Unreal, baby!” shouts Dad. “This is great . . . it’s got attitude, it’s got style. Serious! It’s soft, warm, tasty. This is fantastic.” One of the girls starts manically playing the Bösendorfer grand piano in the living room. Dad is hugging and kissing everybody. Three neighbors are cheering the decorator. Dad reaches for a bottle of Corton Charlemagne in celebration. Daisy the geriatric collie gets so excited she bounds outside to chase a cat. It’s Frank Capra time at the Jones digs!

Later in the evening, Dad walks out the kitchen door and into his adjoining studio, where he becomes Quincy Jones again. On the left of the entrance sits a vintage Rockola jukebox, on the right a world map framed by platinum copies of Thriller. Quincy remarks, “If I never see another Thriller record, it’ll be too soon.” His work space is well worn, high-ceilinged and overflowing with stuff: awards and pictures; a photo with George Lucas here, a painting of Cannonball Adderley there. It appears that half the U.S. trade deficit with Japan is at large in this room: a slew of synthesizers, speakers, drum computers, mixing boards, players for cassettes and compact discs and laser discs, a large-screen TV. There are bookcases full of scores: Shostakovich, Bach, Joplin. And books: Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Bob Thomas’s Selznick, Jung’s Man and His Symbols.

Quincy is waiting for the neighbors to bring back some Thai food they’d promised hours ago. The situation seems hopeless. Around midnight, he ducks behind one of the huge studio monitors and produces a bulky instrument case. Inside is a gift from former boss Gillespie: It’s Dizzy’s first, and still shining, up-turned trumpet. Quincy reminisces, “Playing in a big band is the biggest high in the world.” He puts the trumpet away and sits down in a leather movie director’s chair. Quincy’s picture graces the back of the chair; a megaphone hangs from its arm. It’s a gift from Steven Spielberg. “Maybe someday . . .” dreams Quincy. And there he sits, framed by the symbols of his ambition—past and future, a gifted man.