Quincy Jones — The Quintessential Life of Harmony

Quincy Jones and his 1990 Grammys Awards
Quincy Jones and his 1990 Grammys Awards

Oct/Nov 2011

Quincy Jones’ music-industry reign spans more than six decades. He’s taken home a phenomenal 27 Grammy Awards, and found winning formulas for the likes of Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. A major multimedia presence, he produced TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, created Vibe magazine, and co-produced the movie The Color Purple with director Steven Spielberg. Topping off his voluminous achievements are a Kennedy Center Honor, the French Légion d’Honneur and seven Academy Awards nominations.

When Jones met John Sie, founder of Starz Entertainment Group, the two became fast friends. Today they work together in advancing a number of pet projects, including the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, the founding of which was inspired by Sie’s granddaughter, Sophia, who has Down syndrome.

Quincy Jones-and Sophia
Quincy Jones-and Sophia

In 2009, GDSF created the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award in recognition of the musician’s prodigious philanthropy. As the producer behind two We Are the World recordings, he played an integral role in raising financial support for famine relief in Africa in 1985, and aid to those affected by the Haitian earthquake in 2010.

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with Jones in Los Angeles.

Cooper: How did you get involved with the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF)?

Jones: John Sie is an old friend of mine. He’s a pioneer of cable television, high-definition television and a range of technology. He knows his business backwards and forwards. So we were kicking around the idea of launching a black-oriented entertainment network, because I wanted to see one that’s more useful to the black community than what is being offered today. Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith were going to come together on it with me. We decided to put that project on hold for a while, ultimately, but John and I became friends forever. He truly is my brother from another mother.

Cooper: Do you think you might still pursue the creation of that network?

Jones: Absolutely. We recently met with AT&T, TNT, DirecTV and Comcast. It’s exciting. It gets me out of bed in the morning.

Cooper: As your friendship with John evolved, he called you up and said,“I have an idea for a nonprofit.” Is that how it happened?

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Jones: Absolutely. I took a trip to Denver, where I met beautiful little Sophie, his granddaughter, and it was love from then on.

Cooper: Let’s talk about the Linda Crnic Institute.

Jones: The people there are doing great work. They’re so passionate about the mission, and John is totally committed to it.

Cooper: Other than Sophia, have you met many children with Down syndrome?

Jones: Throughout my life: A lot of celebrities have kids with Down syndrome. For the last two years, I’ve been working with Jamie Foxx, whose sister, DeOndra, has Down syndrome. He brought her in to do our Be Beautiful, Be Yourself fashion show, and she said, “I’m the star!”

DeOndra Dixon,,Quincy Jones, Anna- and John Sie and Jamie Foxx
DeOndra Dixon, Quincy Jones, Anna and John Sie and Jamie Foxx.

You’d think all these kids on the runway would be shy, but they’re strutting like Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington, you know. One time they had me on the dance floor, and they almost put me in the hospital. (laughs) I just love them, man! These kids are so smart and so emotional.

Cooper: So many of us are guarded in what we say and in showing how we feel. The people I know with Down syndrome seem to be more honest and sincere.

Jones: Absolutely. Sincerity flows out of them. Every time I’m with the kids, they want to feel my hair. I had two brain operations for an aneurysm, and they get curious.

Cooper: Can we talk a little bit about your aneurysm?

Jones: It’s a weakness in the main artery to the brain, a congenital weakness, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in a coma. I didn’t know what had happened until I came out of it. My head was all wrapped up. Doctors had drilled a hole in my head and sawed out a piece of bone. They told me, “The good news is, you lived. The bad news is, you’ve got another one, and we’ve got to go back in.”

Man, I lost it! (laughs) When they operated on me again, two months later, I became paralyzed on my left side. My doctor said, “Get your butt on that road, or you’ll be a vegetable the rest of your life.” My band had a 15-day tour in America, and a 15-day tour in Japan the following year, so I went out on the road.

She was right: When I finished the tour, I wasn’t paralyzed any more.

Cooper: That was your physical therapy?

Jones: Exactly! Shakin’ my booty! [laughter] It was great, man! It makes you appreciate life more, I’ll tell you that.

Cooper: Teri Garr had an aneurysm, too.

Jones: A couple of actresses have had it. It’s no joke.

Cooper: I was at her house for an interview, and she wouldn’t come downstairs. Her daughter thought it was strange that her mother was still in bed. She realized something must be wrong. Turned out Teri was having an aneurysm.

Jones: Oh, my God, man! While you were there?

Cooper: Yes.

Jones: You don’t know what it is, at first.

Cooper: Her daughter thought she was just tired.

Jones: When it happened to me, I blacked out all of a sudden. I looked at the television and suddenly I had double vision. It felt like a shotgun had been fired into my brain. I went in and out of a coma because of the pain, I guess. It’s amazing. I didn’t know my own children’s names, or even my own name. My daughter was just six months old.

I’ve been working with a doctor in Stockholm for the last five years. There are also 14 doctors I see, once a year, over the course of six days. They get together to compare findings. They share information with me about the coming nanotechnology, which they say will be a billion times faster than this dinosaur stuff we’re using now. I hear them talking about the paradigm shifts that will happen as a result of these innovations. It’ll shake the world to the ground.

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Cooper: Do you have any heart problems?

Jones: Oh, no. I’ve got a heart like a mule. Like a Viking. My daddy was half Welsh, and boy, that global gumbo is very strong.

Cooper: Let’s talk a bit about the global gumbo that is music. It’s interesting to me that it’s both artistic and mathematical. Do you ever think of music in terms of wavelengths?

Jones: Are you kidding, man? I’ve thought about it that way for most of my life. For one thing, symphony orchestras tune up to A, right? That’s 440 cycles. It’s not an accident that the universe is 450 cycles.

I traveled with Nat King Cole in the early ’60s. He’d do a verse of Autumn Leaves, a capella, and then the orchestra would come in under him—and the orchestra was out of tune because Nat King Cole had perfect pitch. Mathematics and music are absolutes—brothers of a sort.

Music always engages the left and right sides of the brain. You’ve got emotion and intellect at work at all times, and that makes it easy to learn everything else. I’m a strong advocate of having music connected to your life. It’ll turn you upside-down. I see people with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD) benefiting from it.

Cooper: We actually are working on a music-therapy program.

Jones: It’s powerful, man.

Cooper: We’ve written what we call “The ABILITY Song”. Anyone can join in the song by playing the kazoo, because if you can breathe, you can play kazoo.

Jones: Did you write the song?

Cooper: It was a co-production between Molly, an editor who’s on sabbatical now, and myself. She’s a wonderful singer and an incredibly talented writer.

Jones: I’d love to hear that; I could make it an anthem. (laughs) And everybody can play a kazoo.

Cooper: It’s amazing how many people with disabilities are involved in music.

Jones: Look at Albert Einstein. He had ADD, he was dyslexic, and he dropped out of school. He also played violin. (laughs) He and I have the same birthday, so I paid a lot of attention to him. Did you take algebra?

Cooper: Yes.

Jones: Pi is 3.14, right? That’s my birthday and the birthday of actor Michael Caine, too. We were born in the same year, month, day and hour. It’s like we’re twins.

Cooper: You’re all part of the same pie?

Jones: Oh, yeah. (laughs) Exactly. We fell out of the pie.

Cooper: (laughs) What you’re describing sounds something like astrology.

Jones: Yes. I didn’t get into that stuff until I met astronaut John Glenn, whom I’ve now known for about 25 years. He was one of the first in space in the ’60s, and he taught me a lot about gravity. We think we’re grounded, but we’re not grounded. We’re living on a ball of infinity. It’s Earth’s 360-degree revolution, 24-7.

Cooper: Yes, most people haven’t thought of it that way.

Jones: Yes, sir. At the 50th anniversary of the American space program last year, I presented platinum copies of Fly Me to the Moon to astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn. I had arranged the song for Sinatra in the early ’60s, and astronauts from the Apollo 10 and 11 missions played it while they were up there. For the 50th gala, I directed a special performance of the song by Frank Sinatra, Jr., and a 100-member orchestra.

Cooper: Have you actually witnessed a launch?

Jones: I’ve seen a couple of them. They’re amazing and terrifying. Those shuttles make a lot of noise.

Cooper: You can feel the sound-waves ripple inside your body.

Jones: Yes. Those take-offs, with all that equipment, knock things down. You know, my friend, the late astronaut Ronald McNair, played alto sax. He was on the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded.

Cooper: So tragic. There are some young people who may not know as much about your background. Can we go into it a little bit?

Jones: You’ve got some time? (laughs)

Cooper: Hmm…. (looking at his wrist – no watch)

Jones: (laughs) You can’t imagine how blessed I’ve been. I was playing with Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway, and all those guys when I was 14 years old. And then, later, I worked with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. I was with Count Basie for almost 25 years. Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, you name ’em, man.

We did the first record with Big Maybelle, A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Years later, when Jerry Lee Lewis did it, he became a legend.

I saw when the white community started to get hip to black music in ’54, and it became an emotional revolution. The same thing happened with The Beatles in England in ’64. The English really knew what they were doing. I saw them putting The Rolling Stones together, and I’d just done Lesley Gore’s It’s My Party. People told me, “You don’t have to do rock ’n roll,” and I said, “You wanna bet?” We had 18 hits with Lesley. It was a great time.

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Cooper: One of the first interviews that this magazine put online was a conversation with Ray Charles.

Jones: Ray and I came up together in Seattle. We met in 1948 and spent the rest of our lives together. We were teenagers when we did bar mitzvahs and schottisches. We played with marching bands and street musicians.

He came from Florida, and he could see until he was six. He told me that he was in a foster home, got chicken pox, and went to a white hospital where they wouldn’t let him in. He said that by the time he made it over to the black hospital, he was already blind.

Cooper: Your early years with Ray and others seemed to focus on jazz.

Jones: A lot of guys said I sold out jazz when I produced Michael. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding, man!” The way I see it, you just use your skills and don’t lose your integrity. That’s very important.

Cooper: You’ve done so much more than music—

Jones: I’ve done 40 movies. In Cold Blood was the first. And we discovered Oprah with The Color Purple, and then Will Smith with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, back when he was a rapper. He may be the biggest star in the world now.

Quincy Jones with Stedman Graham, Oprah-Winfrey and Jack Nicholson for An African-Reunion
Quincy Jones with Stedman Graham, Oprah-Winfrey and Jack Nicholson for An African-Reunion

When you take a step in defeat or retreat, and you get cautious and reticent, it doesn’t serve you. You can’t get an ‘A’ if you’re afraid of getting an ‘F.’ So when you take a giant step towards victory, even if you fall down, get right back up, and hit it again.

I’m at the point now where nothing scares me. Nothing! If I don’t go through the front door, I’ll get in through the back window. Being underestimated is so powerful.

Cooper: But people are more likely to overestimate you, because you’ve been so successful.

Jones: Sometimes I get crazy dreams and wonder whether I can pull something off. In my commencement speeches, I tell kids, “Make your dreams so big that if you only achieve half of what you’re after, you’re still in good shape.” If you can see it, you can be it. That’s what I love about John Sie’s kids. They’re so sweet.

I believe children’s rights are a global issue. In Angkor Wat, Cambodia, there are 10 million landmines left over from the Vietnam War. So many kids have had their legs blown off. Same thing happens in Colombia. It’s crazy. We’ve got two hospitals in Angkor Wat, and I’ve adopted some families over there.

Cooper: I know you’re involved in some work in the Middle East, as well.

Jones: We went to Iraq in 2003 to help escort 200 kids to a children’s hospital in Washington. We left our American plane in Jordan and were given a New Zealand plane to use. We even wore bulletproof vests, and descended straight down like we were going to crash, to avoid rocket-propelled grenades as we landed in Baghdad. It was an astounding trip because this area was once known as Mesopotamia, the Tigris, and the Euphrates—names straight out of history. It just blows my mind that this kind of destructive stuff is happening in such historic places.

Shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, we provided humanitarian aid by donating the proceeds of a second recording of We are the World. We are currently developing a transparent accounting system to show where every cent of the proceeds go. A lot of big organizations spend upwards of 50 percent of their received donations on overhead. I can’t stand that, but I won’t call out any names.

Cooper: Their initials are—

Jones: (laughs) It drives me crazy. I travel all over the world. We just got back from Korea, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Morocco, Sardinia.

Quincy Jones and South Africa delegation with Nelson Mandela — QJ speaking at the Senate subcomittee.
Quincy Jones and South Africa delegation with Nelson Mandela — QJ speaking at the Senate subcomittee.

We’re working a lot with Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. He’s an amazing guy. I’ve also been working with Nelson Mandela for 45 years.

Cooper: So much world, so little time.

Jones: (laughs) I know. We’re doing a film in Brazil, and we’re taking along musicians from Mississippi and Louisiana who were affected by Katrina. That’s why I’m just so passionate about what John is doing with Global Down Syndrome Foundation: He’s addressing something that’s close to him and impacts so many others. That’s what it takes: passion, knowledge—he’s got it all.

John knows how to put that left and right brain together and get them both going. He’s fueled by emotion, but also has an understanding of science. We’re both learning everything we can about Down syndrome, and about eradicating the medical and cognitive effects associated with trisomy 21—the chromosome that’s associated with causing Down syndrome—through scientific breakthroughs.

This kind of work is a lot like putting together a symphony orchestra. You have to get the right people in the room: four trombones, four trumpets, five saxophones, a guy who plays piano, guitar, bass, strings, percussion. (laughs) When you’re trying to get something going, people need to complement and support each other, yet still maintain their individual strengths.

Cooper: Do you see the quest for disability rights as a human-rights issue or a civil-rights issue?

Jones: It’s all the same to me. (laughs) It’s humanity. People can’t be responsible for their skin color, or what condition they were born with. They had nothing to do with that.

Cooper: You’re familiar with the ‘r-word’?

Jones: Oh, yeah! Absolutely.

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Cooper: Do you remember the TV show Life Goes On?

Jones: Do I remember it? (laughs) In 1991, I was in an episode called “Last Stand in Glen Brook.” Chris Burke played Charles “Corky” Thatcher.

Cooper: I interviewed the actress Andrea Friedman, who played Corky’s girlfriend on the show.

Jones: No kidding? I must’ve worked with her, then. Small world.

Cooper: I asked Andrea, who has Down syndrome, what she thought of the ‘r-word’. Growing up, she had her own strategy for dealing with it: She would tell kids, “Quit bothering me, because I’m gonna tell my sister.” And then she would tell her sister, and her sister would take care of them. [laughter]

Jones: I love that.

Cooper: I’m always taken aback when I hear kids bully children with disabilities.

Jones: There’s the same problem among adults. Marlon Brando called me 35 years ago and left me a message. He had seen some racism on a college campus, and his phone message was: “I don’t know what to do about it, man. If people were all the same color, the same hair, the same blue eyes, it wouldn’t be two minutes before the right-handed people would be kickin’ the s–t out of the left-handed people.” Marlon was right. It’s all the same. It’s tribal. “You’re not like me, so I’m gonna make you feel small so I can feel like a giant.” It makes me sick.

Cooper: How do we reach out to these groups that need a shift in awareness? That’s always been the challenge.

Jones: I think music accomplishes that better than anything on the planet. It’s no accident that God only left 12 musical notes for everyone in the world to share. That’s a basic line of communication. You can’t get away from it. As soon as you hear music, whether it’s diatonic, pentatonic, chromatic—you can identify it in two seconds, anywhere in the world.

I used to sit in Istanbul, in the Sophia mosque, all night and listen to guys sing a capella as all the quarter tones echoed off the marble. I told Malcolm X about it when he came back from Mecca, and he’d noticed that same sense of unity we’re talking about. He said, “Man, it’s not about race, it’s about belief!” In Mecca, he saw blond-haired, blue-eyed people. It shocked him. (laughs) In the United States, racism often keeps us separated from one another.

Cooper: Are you familiar with temperament theory and the Meyers-Briggs personality test?

Jones: Absolutely.

Cooper: I think when we see people who are bigoted or racist or using the ‘r-word,’ they’re coming from a place where that is the predominant way of thinking. The majority of people on the planet are sensory-based personalities. They aren’t comfortable with change or with moving beyond their norm.

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Jones: I agree.

Cooper: And the way you change the mindset of those people who are not intuitive is to put them in situations in which they can have a first-hand experience of differences. For instance, in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the father of the young white woman is a latent bigot, until he gets to know his daughter’s fiancé and discovers the young man is of upstanding character and principles.

Jones: Exactly.

Cooper: I’m amazed by your ability to remember so many people and experiences.

Jones: I think they cleaned all the cobwebs out when they went in for the brain aneurysm. (laughs) Before the second surgery, the doctors told me, “We’re going into where your memory and motor skills are.” It was terrifying because the pathways of the brain are so complex and interconnected.

Cooper: I watched a relatively new procedure at the Cleveland clinic in Ohio. Surgeons put a probe inside the brain of a person with Parkinson’s.

Jones: Oh, my.

Cooper: They had mapped the patient’s brain, and once they turned on the electric stimulation, the shaking instantly went away. The procedure changed that person’s life.

Jones: Parkinson’s. That’s what Muhammad Ali has, and now Glenn Campbell is dealing with Alzheimer’s. It’s sad to see them go through such challenges.

Cooper: Your life is full of enough material for several movies. What are you doing with your knowledge base?

Jones: Using it, spreading it, sharing it with my kids. I’m getting involved with diverse groups of people on an international basis. At this point, I feel at home everywhere in the world.

Cooper: Do you continue to produce shows?

Jones: We’re doing nine movies right now. We’re doing an IMAX movie about Katrina, and two movies about Brazil—one on the favelas (shanty towns) and the other about their Carnival celebration.

Cooper: Nice.

Jones: Carnival is amazing. I go to the one in Rio every year; it’s one of the biggest spectacles of all time. The music blows your mind. I’ve never heard such good music in my life. The lyrics are Portuguese, while the rhythms have an African influence.

Cooper: You no longer play an instrument, right?

Jones: I play piano, but no more brass. I’ve got my horns on the wall now, where I can look at them. I have Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, and Cannonball Adderley’s flute.

Cooper: What about a kazoo?

Jones: I’ve got to get one of those. You ought to create a brand for that.

Cooper: We thought about it. We found one place in the States and, of course, several places in China that manufacture kazoos.

Jones: It’s a good idea. With the technology available now, you could do even more than just a kazoo sound. We’ve been playing around with some guys who invented a thing that creates the sounds of strings, cellos, woodwinds, percussion, timbales and all that stuff. You can play an orchestra with your fingers.

Cooper: Have you heard Chris Burke’s band?

Jones: Yeah, they featured it on Life Goes On, I think. I’ve got to go back and find my copies of that show. Music’s ability to tap into our emotions and our intellect is powerful stuff. It can turn people’s lives around.

Cooper: Just as you’re doing.

Jones: Oh, we’re having an absolute ball! You’ll be hearing about our Middle East project soon. It’s dedicated to the Arab Spring. It’s called Bokra, which means “tomorrow” in Arabic. We’re doing it online, and it’s going to be unbelievable. See, the Middle East has got the revolution going, but it doesn’t have a plan. Most of the people I met out there said to me, “I’d rather die than live like we were living.” It’s amazing how common that feeling is. It’s all over the Middle East. I’ve been going over there for 50 to 60 years.

Cooper: If it weren’t for the recent advancements in technology, the uprisings wouldn’t have been as widely known, or anywhere near as effective.

Jones: China’s scared to death of the Internet because you can’t control it. You can’t control individual communication.

Cooper: Who’s going to make the movie of your life?

Jones: I don’t know. We’ve got so much stuff going on! I did a concert for Mandela in London, a few years ago, when he was 90. Backstage, a guy came up and asked me to meet his daughter, Amy Winehouse. She recorded It’s My Party, on my last album. Twenty-seven and gone.

Cooper: I’ve interviewed a lot of people, politicians, celebrities, movers and shakers in the world. I’ve never talked to anybody who has accomplished quite as much you have. And I’ve met some really incredible people. You have to get somebody working on your movie.

Jones: We’ve been talking about it for a few years, and my sister-in-law reminds me about it all the time. I feel like I’m just getting started.

Cooper: You should capture your story while you’re still so active and your mind is still so creative. You need somebody to shadow you and jot down all those unique moments. I’ve been trying to write books myself, and I’ve told people around me, “Ask me about Za Za Gabor, Bob Dole, ask me about Richard Pryor—”

Jones: Richard was a maniac, but I loved him.

Cooper: I only met him after he got multiple sclerosis.

Chet Cooper, Lia Martirosyan and Quincy Jones secret talks at NAMM
Chet Cooper, Lia Martirosyan and Quincy Jones secret talks at NAMM

Jones: We had a lot of fun together. I saw him and Bill Cosby when they first started. Lennie Bruce and I used to hang out together, too. Bruce was that same kind of revolutionary comic.

Cooper: If I were in the film business I’d want to work with you and make this film.

Jones: Chet, you never know what will happen.

Cooper: I know you’ll keep going, right up until the end.

Jones: Bop until you drop. (laughs)


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