One of the most fascinating autobiographies I have ever read was “Q.” That was long ago, I was in my twenties, and yet seldom a week goes by when I don’t recall some mind stretching tidbit from this man’s life journey. You could write a whole book about each and every phase of it.
Most people only know him as one of the greatest producers that ever lived, understandable given the sea of accomplishment so vast that even his role in transforming Michael Jackson into a supernova pop star seems like a drop in the bucket. His entire life is a testimony to greatness. From his childhood in Chicago, with a schizophrenic mother taken from him in a strait jacket when she was institutionalized, but loved her kids so much she managed to escape and find them several times, no matter how many times his father & brutal stepmother moved; to little Quincy commandeering the neighbors’ piano at age 5; to hanging out with Ray Charles when he was 14 and starting to play trumpet with big bands when he was not much older.
This is no ordinary man.
At 19, he cut his teeth traveling with Lionel Hampton to Europe, a pivotal moment that reshaped his views on music, race, manhood and the world. As with most great black artists of the age, he had his chapter of living in Paris, where he studied composition and theory with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He played trumpet and was musical director on tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. One call from Grace Kelly’s office and he packed up his 55 piece orchestra, headed to Monte Carlo from Paris, waved his wand and kept Frank Sinatra so tight “in the pocket” he worked with Jones until the day he died.
Over the years, he composed music for countless films. Along with those we know best- In the Heat of the Night, Sanford and Son, The Wiz, Roots, and the Cosby Show (literally the soundtrack of my childhood) – he was also the man behind the music of 60s La La Land classics like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and one, of my faves, Cactus Flower with Goldie Hawn, Walter Matthau & Ingrid Bergman. Steve McQueen even used his clout to get Jones to re-score The Getaway when he was unhappy with the first composer’s crack at it—a redo that resulted in a Golden Globe nomination. We won’t even start on the awards, there are so many we’d be here all day, but mostly because Quincy Jones has always been a devotee of THE PROCESS. He is a monk in the act of making art. THAT is what it’s all about at every point in his story. The chapter on the toll the spiritual work required of him on the score of The Color Purple?!! Now that should be required reading for everyone who want to take a serious crack at being an artist of any discipline.
And this is just a preview.
I must admit, even the ended love story between he and Marpessa Dawn, the lead actress in Black Orpheus, was a major touchstone for me as I rose into my own unapologetic womanhood. He is most known for his marriages to Peggy Lipton and Nastassja Kinski—there are many love stories between the pages of that book. But Marpessa Dawn is the one I will never forget. Possibly because I had already fallen for her in Black Orpheus years before I ever knew she had a connection to Quincy Jones. It is one of my favorite cult classics. I cannot imagine the film without her. I also remember her because she is the One Who Got Away. Walked—or sailed—away. When she was offered the part, she had been working for years to make a name for herself as an actress. Her relationship with Jones was a great love, but bore all that comes with being with a luminary artist type dude—deferring to the rigorous demands of his work, never enough time, weakness in regards to relentless lady fans and so on. Anyway, instead of obsessing over what was going on while he was doing his thing, she focused on her own. He thought she was living in his world, but it became very clear when she told him she was leaving for Brazil that her vision was round, not flat. He Please, baby, please-d her to pass on the job and stay with him. He would marry her. He would be home more. They would be happy. Cut to the scene where he stands, heartbroken, on the dock as she waves to him from the boat. Priceless. Even his mess ups are epic and inspiring.
Meanwhile, the first black conductor for the Oscars. The first black producer of the Oscars. “We Are The World.” Need I say more?
Quincy Jones is so fierce, his reach is timeless. For most artists, that means that the music they made at their peak can transcend time. This is true for Jones but, unlike anyone else, it is also because of his ability to share his wisdom and open his mind and heart to the generations coming up behind him. To meet them in their musical language. The 80s. The 90s. The rise of the new millenium. He is a mountain with no peak. No era has eluded his impeccable ear or capacity to bring out the greatness of whoever stands before him.
The short of it: do yourself a solid & read this book. The man’s story, beautifully written in his own words. They don’t call him THE DUDE for nothin’. In the meantime, sometime today raise a glass in celebration of this icon’s 84th birthday. He is a crown jewel in our national treasure and we have well learned, especially of late, not to take our living legends for granted. Not for one second. Thank you, Mr. Jones, for waving that wand and doing your part to show us that magic is real. Happy Birthday! Ase.
(photo credits indicated where available & remain the property of the original rights holders)