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Walking in Q’s Shoes

Today is Quincy Jones’s birthday, so it’s time for another Sweetwater birthday tribute. But where to start? Quincy is an accomplished musician, actor, conductor, arranger, composer, record/television/movie producer, instrumentalist, magazine founder, and entertainment company executive. He is a 79-time Grammy nominee and has won 27 times. The guy discovered Oprah and Whoopi, for crying out loud. Fortunately, any life this amazing is loaded with amazing moments. We decided to look at a few of these moments and get a taste of what it’s like to be the man known as “Q.”

Quincy Breaks into Show Business

Growing up in Chicago’s violent South Side district in the 1950s, young Quincy was on his way to a career as a hardened criminal. His father built homes for the Jones brothers, Chicago’s most notorious black gangsters. Quincy grew up around gangsters — and he took it all in. “I saw a dead body every day of my life,” remembers Quincy. “Tommyguns, stogies, money in back rooms. As a kid, you don’t know how to interpret that.” Even after Quincy and his family relocated to Washington state, the gangster life followed.

One night, Quincy’s path took a dramatic and unexpected turn. He had just broken into a building called the Armory with his brother. They found the kitchen and stuffed themselves with lemon meringue pie and ice cream. After a quick food fight, they split up to explore the other rooms. Quincy broke into a supervisor’s office and saw a piano. At first, he left the room in search of better plunder. “I closed the door and something said, ‘Idiot, open that door and go back in that room!'” Quincy claims. “I went back in and I touched that piano, and every cell in my body said, ‘This is what you’ll do the rest of your life.'”

The next day, he went to Coontz Junior High School and joined the marching band. By the time he was a freshman at Seattle’s Garfield High School, he was already an accomplished trumpeter and arranger. At 15, Quincy met bandleader Lionel Hampton for the first time. Lionel had just heard a piece of music Quincy had written called “Suite for the Four Winds.” He hired Quincy on the spot as a trumpeter and arranger. Quincy jumped on the tour bus without a second thought. Lionel’s wife, Gladys, would be the voice of reason, gently kicking Quincy off the bus and telling him to go home to his parents. Quincy listened and went on to graduate from the Schillinger House of Music (now the Berklee College of Music) in 1951. He was finally able to join Lionel Hampton’s band as a full-grown trumpeter and arranger.  

That same year, Leo Fender released his Precision Bass, creating a brand-new class of instrument. Lionel quickly added the Fender Bass to his band as an alternative to the traditional stand up bass. When Quincy heard it, he knew the electric bass would be a major part of his arrangements. “I was lucky enough to get the Fender Bass when I was in Lionel Hampton’s band,” remembers Quincy. “Without that Fender Bass, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll, no Motown — nothin. Trust me. The electric guitar came in in 1939, but it didn’t have any chutzpah without the electric bottom.” This instrument would go on to provide a significant milestone in Quincy’s career. In 1969, he released Walking in Space, considered to be one of the first jazz-fusion albums to use the Fender Bass.

Frank

So what else is interesting about Quincy Jones? How about that bit of bling on his right pinky finger? That’s a ring with the Sinatra family crest on it. Frank Sinatra wore that ring for more than 40 years, right up to his death, when he willed it to Quincy. Yep, “Q” and “the Chairman of the Board” go way back.

According to Quincy, he first met Frank while studying in France with Nadia Boulanger. (She also tutored Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland.) Frank had heard Quincy’s band and summoned him to come and play. After the session, Frank said just five words to Quincy — “Good job, kid. Koo-koo.” 

Frank took Quincy’s band to play in Vegas in 1964. Vegas at this time was not the most racially progressive town — many black performers, including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Fats Domino, were not permitted to enjoy gambling in the very casinos where they performed. They had to eat their meals in the kitchen and stay in the “black” hotels across the street. Frank said, “No, we’re not playing that.”

The first night, Frank invited Quincy and his band, all 18 members, to join him in the casino. When they arrived, Frank was waiting with 18 menacing giant security guards stuffed into expensive suits. He assigned one giant to each band member with these instructions, “If anybody even looks at him funny, break both their [expletive] legs.”

That same year, Frank hired Quincy to arrange and conduct his second album, It Might as Well Be Swing. This album included the hit single, “Fly Me to the Moon,” which would also earn the distinction of being the first song played on the moon. When astronaut Buzz Aldrin first stepped onto the lunar surface during the Apollo 11 mission, he had a cassette player with that song on it. With everything else Quincy has achieved in his life, why wouldn’t he be a part of the first song played on the moon?

12 Notes and the Truth

Our final stop takes us back to France and Quincy’s time learning from Nadia Boulanger. Early in his lessons, Nadia had shared a profound truth with Quincy that would guide him through his unbelievably prolific career. He remembers it this way: “There are only 12 notes, and people don’t realize that. Until we get 13, Quincy, I’m going to make you learn what everybody’s done with those 12 notes.”

Nadia taught Quincy to make the most of those 12 notes. Throughout his career, Quincy would work on a piece until it met the approval of his toughest critic. “You have to do something that moves you, man, makes you get goose-bumps,” he’ll tell you. “If you don’t like it, somebody else don’t like it, you’re really in trouble.”

There is no better example of this approach than Quincy’s experience with Michael Jackson’s monster album, Thriller. When word got out that Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were headed to the studio to make a follow-up to Off the Wall, which has sold more than 20 million copies, people were skeptical. “Everyone kept saying Michael can’t be any bigger,” laughs Quincy. “I said ‘You want to bet?'”

Quincy and Michael set out to make an album where “every song was a killer.” They eventually narrowed 30 songs down to a list of nine. When these nine songs were completed, the two artists were still unhappy with the result — no goose bumps. Quincy and Michael returned to the studio to remix each song, spending up to a week on each one. The legendary “Billie Jean” alone was remixed 91 times, before Michael and Quincy realized that the second version had been the best. Needless to say, the finished product gave goose bumps to the world. In just one year, Thriller became and remains the world’s best-selling album, selling more than 65 million copies.

Throughout his 84 years of life, Quincy has given us hit after hit, from the turntable to the stage to the silver screen. No matter what genre of music you’re into, Quincy has given you something worth listening to. Take a minute to listen to your favorite today, and when you do, say, “Thanks, Q.”

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