Music impresario and jazz trumpeter Quincy Jones recalls growing up in Seattle and how his dreams as a child have carried him through his life.
In the late 1940s, when Quincy Delight Jones lived on 22nd Avenue, just a block from his alma mater, Garfield High School, there was a place they called “the dream window” in the attic, where he and his seven brothers and sisters slept.
“We would look out there,” recalls Jones’ youngest brother, Richard, now a federal judge in Seattle, “and think, ‘What is it I can possibly do? Where is life going to take me?’ We weren’t looking at a spectacular lake. We grew up looking at the blackberry bushes and garbage in the lot across the street. You had to have a big imagination.”
A big imagination indeed. This was a very different time in America. The armed forces, most musicians unions and Major League Baseball were still segregated; interracial dating was scandalous; and lynching was still a fact of life in the South. There were no black people on TV or radio, unless they were domestics.
Most Read Stories
Yet Quincy Jones, looking out that “dream window,” somehow imagined a future that not only transcended all that, but in some ways would transform it.
The 75-year-old impresario is in town Sept. 26 to dedicate Garfield’s new Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center, part of the school’s renovation. It’s his third trip home this year, at least officially (he often visits family on the QT). In June, he gave an inspirational commencement address at the University of Washington, where he received an honorary doctorate in music. In February, he was given the first Lifetime Achievement Award at the grand-opening gala for the Northwest African American Museum.
You’ve seen the radiant Jones on Hollywood award shows or perhaps even read his heartbreakingly frank book, “Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones.” You probably know he produced the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and one of the best-selling singles, the star-studded “We Are the World.” Or that he co-produced the film “The Color Purple” with Steven Spielberg and has won more Grammy Awards (27) than any other artist in popular music.
But what was he like as a young man? What will his legacy be? Who is Quincy Jones, really? And what prompted the audacity of his dream, looking out that window?
A relaxed, rambling conversation in June at his 20,000-square-foot home in Bel Air, Calif. — designed by Garfield classmate Gerald Allison — offered some insights into Jones’ complex personality and career.
Jones and Allison spent five years working on this dream home, which features an enormous, round living room with a domed ceiling in the style of an African house. Art from every continent graces the rooms, and family photographs are arranged in galleries. On a grand piano stands a Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Jones’ Count Basie/Frank Sinatra songbook.
Jones walks in, wearing shorts, and plops down on a white cushion next to an array of couches. He looks trimmer than he did in February, and later boasts he’s lost 20 pounds. (“I was drinking then.”) His mellifluous voice is deep and seductive, his brown eyes magnetic, making you feel you’re the most important person in the room. He smiles broadly, and often.
“I just got a doctorate from Washington University; Princeton; then there was the University of Washington; the Pequot Tribe, in Alaska; Cambodia; China; Brazil; Abu Dhabi; Dubai — it’s insane,” he begins, like a man speaking with amazement about somebody else’s life. “I got to go to London for Mandela’s thing next week (Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday), then Sardinia on a boat for 10 days. Then the Montreux festival, Beijing. I’ve been to China 16 times in the last year-and-a-half.”
A plaque nearby honors him as an artistic adviser for the Beijing Olympic Games.
“Spielberg pulled out, you know,” he says, clearly disturbed.
Along with film director Ang Lee, the three of them were hired as consultants for the opening and closing ceremonies. Jones had come under pressure — especially from Mia Farrow — to quit, because of Chinese behavior toward Darfur.
“I love Mia,” he says. “I’ve known her since she was 17. I don’t need political lessons from her. I’m not a quitter, it’s that simple. I’m just not a quitter. When a country is 1 billion, 300 million, you don’t pull out on them. You work it out. They are comers, man.”
Such spirited independence, honoring of commitments, indomitable work ethic and determination to be where the action is have been hallmarks of Jones from the beginning.
Born during the Great Depression, March 14, 1933, in Chicago’s South Side ghetto, Jones and his brother Lloyd — who later was an engineer for Seattle’s KOMO-TV — braved gang-infested streets and looked on, terrified, as their schizophrenic mother, Sarah, was taken away in a straitjacket.
“A guy attacked me with a knife when I was 7 years old,” says Jones, holding up his still-scarred right hand. “I was on the wrong street.”
Quincy’s father, Quincy Delight Sr., a carpenter who worked for gangsters, remarried, this time to Quincy’s friend Waymond’s mother, Elvera, who had two other children, Theresa and Katherine. Shortly thereafter, in 1943, the new, blended family moved to Bremerton, where Quincy’s father landed a wartime job in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. There would eventually be three more children — Jeanette, Margie and Richard — bringing the total to eight.
But this was no Brady Bunch. According to Quincy and Lloyd, Elvera outrageously favored her own children, even calling Quincy and Lloyd “Jones’ boys.” The emotional toll was deep.
“When you’d see a mother brush the hair of her child,” he explains, “every bone and cell in your body would just cringe. You wanted that so bad.”
To earn spending money, Jones got a paper route, pressed clothes and shined shoes for the pimps around Dick Green’s jook joint. “I carried a .32 snub nose in my paper bag,” says Jones. “Still have it. Who-o-o-ole lotta rednecks in the Army and stuff, you know. I never took a chance.”
At 12, Jones discovered music, which, with its color and emotion, became, he says, his surrogate mother. At Koontz Junior High School, he played trumpet in the band and sang in a gospel group. Babysitting for music teacher Joseph Powe (who later taught at Garfield), he also discovered books about arranging and Frank Skinner’s classic about composing for film, “Underscore.”
In the school year of 1946-47, the Joneses moved to Seattle, but Quincy, who had been elected student body president — remarkably, as he was one of only a few black kids in the school — wound up commuting back to Bremerton.
“For months,” he recalls, “I had to get up at 5:30 every morning and get on the Kalakala, that little silver ferry,” to fulfill his commitment.
In the fall of 1947, Jones entered Garfield as a sophomore.
One of the first kids he met was Charlie Taylor, who played saxophone and whose mother, Evelyn Bundy, had been one of Seattle’s first society jazz-band leaders. Jones says Taylor, a middle-class kid with high self-regard, was an early role model. Taylor invited Jones to join his swing band, which soon attracted the attention of local promoter Bumps Blackwell, who later made a name for himself as Little Richard’s producer. As the Bumps Blackwell Junior Band, the group played all over the Northwest, backing up the great Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine, and discovering Seattle’s lively jazz nightclub scene at places like the Washington Social Club, on 23rd and Madison, and the Black Elks Club, upstairs on Jackson, near Sixth Avenue.
For three summers, the young musicians signed up for the 41st Infantry Division Band, a black unit of the Washington National Guard that played city parades and billeted at Camp Murray.
From the start, Jones had been as interested in composing and arranging as in playing the trumpet. One night, the great swing band leader Lionel Hampton came to town and the 15-year-old Jones showed Hamp an original piece he’d been working on, “Suite to the Four Winds.” Hampton invited him to join. Giddy, Jones jumped on the bus, only to be told by Hampton’s wife that he was too young. He was crushed.
“I wanted to escape, man,” he says.
And not just from Elvera, but from his mother, who eventually showed up in Seattle and shadowed Quincy and Lloyd until she died in 1999. (Seattle Center employees recall a gentle, volatile soul who often dropped by and quoted the Bible.)
In this family nightmare, Jones’ father, with his big heart and sterling work ethic, somehow trumped the pain and loss Jones felt from Sarah and Elvera:
“He was making $55 a week and had eight kids, man, but he gave me everything he had. He was an absolute workaholic. He had a saying: Once a task is just begun, never leave until it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.“
Sitting behing his huge desk in Seattle’s federal courthouse, Quincy’s brother Richard, 17 years his junior, has a similar recollection:
“Daddy hammered that into my head from the time we came out of the womb. He used to talk about the ‘shelf of life’ — that there’s a lot of competition on the bottom, because everybody wanted to go for easy pickings. But if you went to the top shelf, there weren’t a lot of people fighting for that, because they knew how hard it was to get up there. Shoot for the very best.”
Apparently, the lesson sank in. Quincy Jones and Taylor — who became a successful anthropologist — sat around after rehearsals, practicing how they would sign their names when they got famous.
“When all the other guys would go to study hall,” says classmate and fellow trumpeter Morrie Capeluto, “he’d go to the music room and he’d scribble out maybe 16 bars and bring them to rehearsal. And he’d say, ‘Hey guys, let’s try this out.’ He just had a knack. You could tell right away he was somebody that was just going to go way, way ahead of everybody else.”
In an era when internalized racism was common, Quincy Jones Sr. also instilled racial pride in his children.
“Daddy was very proud of African-American history,” says Richard. “From the time we were kids, he used to tell us stories about Paul Dunbar and Satchel Paige and Paul Robeson.”
“Ray (Charles) and I had a saying,” Quincy Jones recalls: ” ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.’ “
The story has often been told how Jones and Charles met — probably at the Black Elks Club — and it makes for a fine celebrity tale. But what usually gets lost in the telling is that Ray Charles wasn’t the world-famous soul singer then. He was a completely unknown, blind, 16-year-old musician from Florida named R.C. Robinson, playing bebop piano and alto sax and singing like Nat Cole. How a 14-year-old kid would think to approach such a person speaks volumes about just how determined Jones was to learn his craft.
“I asked him,” says Jones, ” ‘How in the hell do eight brass players play at the same time and not play the same notes?’ And he said ‘Easy,’ and bang! he hit a Bb7 in prime position and a C7. That was the bebop sound. That opened the door. Because I learn quick, you know?”
And not just about music. Jones was an avid reader. With the encouragement of Neil Friel, a hipster bebop trumpeter from Tacoma, he discovered L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, Wilhelm Reich’s eccentric psychological/sexual theories, Baird Spalding’s “The Life and Teachings of Masters of the Far East.”
“Somehow,” says Jones, “God gave me a great big perspective on the world, real early.”
The musicians Jones admired in those days were the flamboyant new beboppers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and he and his gang did their best to imitate the new styles, wearing zoot suits and fedoras and talking jive.
“In the daytime, we’d be wearing stinkies (white socks), having a banana split,” says Jones. “Then night comes and we take them off and put on them black stockings and go to the Washington Social Club.”
Wrote Quincy in Jewel Capeluto’s yearbook: “One of these times you and Morrie and I will have to go to Island Lake . . . We’ll have a gone time.”
Gone, all right. One night after a gig at the lake, the police pulled over and arrested the Junior Band because the driver was smoking pot. They spent five days in jail.
“We were the bad boys,” Jones says, “so we had all the girls, man. Like the rappers.”
For all his nighttime hipsterdom, however, Jones’ high-school friends remember him as quiet, even shy — and though he was popular, never cocky.
“He was always polite and sweet,” recalls Gertrude Peoples, who double-dated with Quincy and his first sweetheart, Gloria Jenkins, to the Madison Y or, in the summer, to Madrona Beach. “I never heard him, ever, say anything negative about anybody. He made everybody feel like they were his best friend.”
The charm, however, did not innoculate him or the others from the blunt realities of the day.
Peoples recalls them trying to go for dinner one night at Ruby Chow’s, a Chinese restaurant owned by the later King County councilwoman, and being refused. “That would be 1949. I’ll never forget that. There was always a part of me and many other friends that wanted some kind of apology for that.”
Jones graduated from Garfield in 1950. (Elvera didn’t attend, though Quincy had written a piece of music for the ceremony.) He attended Seattle University on a music scholarship, but after one semester moved to Boston on another scholarship to the Schillinger School of Music (now Berklee College). His studies were cut short when Hampton finally hired him. His career launched, Jones moved to an apartment in New York with Jeri Caldwell, who’d been his girlfriend since their junior year at Garfield.
Jones married Caldwell, but it didn’t last long — mostly, he admits, because he was such a compulsive Don Juan. Jones has been married and divorced three times: Caldwell, mother of his daughter, Jolie, was first; then Swedish model Ulla Andersson, with whom he fathered Martina and Quincy Delight Jones III; and finally to “Mod Squad” star Peggy Lipton, mother of Rashida (Karen on TV’s “The Office”) and fashion designer Kidada. Jones has fathered two other children: Rachel, by dancer Carol Reynolds, and Kenya, by actress Nastassja Kinski.
A workaholic who rarely participated in the rearing of his children, Jones is alternately regretful and defensive.
“Jolie was a model making $400 a week with Eileen Ford when she was 14,” he says. “First black model on Mademoiselle. But she was wild! She said, ‘Why didn’t you stop me?’ I said, ‘I thought you knew what you were doing.’ You know? But they all survived their dramas.”
Jones is fond of boasting his ex-wives and children all get along. But Andersson (who raised Quincy III in Sweden, and once had severe drug and alcohol problems) wrote a scathing autobiography, “Red Carpet Blues,” and has called Jones a “sociopath” and accused him of turning their son against her.
Wrote Kidada in Jones’ autobiography: “My dad does not deal well with pain. He does not allow it in. He’s like Winnie the Pooh. He is the sweetest, kindest person . . . but his own pain, he buried it with deals, food, ideas, scripts, work, work, work.”
Jones seems to be taking fatherhood more seriously with his youngest, Kenya, 15, who lives down the street with her mother.
“She just got 11 A’s and two B’s at the Lycée Francais,” he says proudly, then adds a little sheepishly, “I’m doing pretty good.”
When asked if there’s anyone steady now, he responds, “I’ve got 18 girlfriends. Eight-teen. One is Kimberley Hefner,” Hugh Hefner’s ex.
And they’re all under 40?
“Five or six of them are around 23, 24. I ain’t going out with no 75-year-old!”
When Jones first met Basie, the great swing band leader gave him advice he never forgot. ” ‘The hills and the valleys. That’s how it works,’ ” Jones recalls him saying. ” ‘The valleys, that’s when you found out what you were made of.’ ” Jones has had his share of both.
Between 1956 and 1964, he composed, arranged, produced and/or conducted such classic albums as “This is How I Feel About Jazz,” Ray Charles’ “Genius+Soul=Jazz” and the Basie/Sinatra collaboration, “Sinatra at the Sands” (including the first music played on the moon, “Fly Me to the Moon”). He scored “The Pawnbroker,” the first major movie to credit an African-American composer, followed by 32 more, including “In Cold Blood,” and produced pop hits like Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party,” becoming the first black vice president of a major American record label (in charge of Artists & Repertoire for Mercury Records).
He also was musical director for a 1956 State Department goodwill tour to the Middle East, then South America.
Jones, originally a Hillary Clinton supporter who is now behind Barack Obama, says, “He will change the world’s attitude toward us. And America needs that. Boy, they hate our guts now.”
Moving to Hollywood in the mid-1960s, he wrote the TV themes for “Sanford and Son” and “Ironside” and later turned to producing “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and “MADtv.” Always alert to trends, he cofounded the hip-hop magazine Vibe and brought beboppers and hip-hoppers together for the album “Back on the Block.”
Among the valleys was the 1959 “Free and Easy” tour to Europe, which involved Seattle musicians Buddy Catlett (bass), Floyd Standifer (trumpet) and Patti Bown (piano), left him $40,000 in debt and nearly drove him to suicide in Finland.
“When you make a mistake,” Jones says in reflection, “somehow you’ve got to treasure it. When I finally came back home, I owed a lot of money, took seven years to pay it off. But I became A&R vice president of Mercury.”
In 1974, Jones was struck by a brain aneurysm so severe his friends planned a service at the Shrine Auditorium. Jones may be the only Hollywood star to have attended his own memorial. After two brain operations that left six steel pins in his head, he vowed to work less and enjoy life and family more. It was an empty promise. One of his most productive periods ensued, including his work with Michael Jackson, Spielberg, the TV miniseries “Roots” (for which he scored the opening episode and won an Emmy) and the founding of his (now-defunct) record company, Qwest.
In 1989, reeling from his failing marriage to Lipton and “The Color Purple” coming up empty at the Academy Awards and taking a sedative called Halcion, Jones had a nervous breakdown. According to his autobiography, the breakdown finally woke him up:
“I’d spent too many years trying to make sure I wasn’t missing anything . . . from the time I was a little boy to that moment, I was always running, but every time I ran I kept crashing into myself coming from the opposite direction, and he didn’t know where he was going, either . . . I thought that to stay in one place meant to die.”
Jones does seem to have slowed down some. His Sardinia trip was strictly for pleasure, and every year he goes to Carnaval, in Rio de Janeiro. He loves to party and his favorite drink, which he invented, is as colorful and sensual as his music: Grey Goose vodka, cranberry juice and green apple schnapps.
But work is still his drug of choice. He proudly brings out a business plan of one of his new projects — Q’s Jook Joints, a set of after-hours nightclubs. He’s got nine movies and three albums in the works. He also has a project with director Julie Taymor, a history of black American music.
“It’s a killer,” he says. “The Genesis and Evolution of Jazz and Blues in Africa.”
Friends note Jones has become increasingly spiritual of late. Though his left pinkie bears a ring that belonged to Sinatra, and his left wrist sparkles with a Hublot watch, his right displays two modest bracelets, one that says “Stop Hating” and the other that has engraved emblems of all the world’s religions. Jones often quotes from secular guides like Gordon Livingston’s “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart.”
“‘The statute of limitations has expired on all childhood traumas,’ he quotes, when asked how he overcame his tough background, adding, in his own vernacular: “Get the — over it and get on with your life.”
These days, Jones is passionately concerned about the state of American youth. He notes his assistant found 89 incidents on the Internet similar to Columbine. “I was shocked. Thirty-three kids they killed, and they killed themselves. None of them are black. They’re speaking hip-hop language and they have neo-Nazi attitudes, racist attitudes. It’s scary, man.”
Through his Listen Up! Foundation and 2004 “We Are the Future” concert in Rome, Jones raised money for children around the world. He has also teamed with Harvard University to establish the Q Prize, given annually to someone who does good works for desperate children. His 50th-birthday celebration at the Paramount raised $120,000 for Garfield and Seattle Central Community College.
When the new freshman class enters a new Garfield in a few days, it’s likely many will not know the school was named for an American president. But most will have heard of Quincy Jones. That’s because, again and again, he has adapted to current musical trends. Starting out with Hampton’s jazz, he moved easily through the jazz/rock fusion of “Walking in Space,” the ’70s funk of the Brothers Johnson, the crossover rock of Jackson’s “Thriller” (which merged black and white traditions in an unprecedented way), then went on to hip-hop with “Back on the Block.”
Some jazz musicians view Jones as an opportunist who deserted the art of jazz for the commerce of pop. But as many others have noted, Jones’ creative vision makes moot most arguments about jumping musical fences. In 1973, when funk was king, he coproduced the TV show “Duke Ellington, We Love You Madly.” Quincy says Ellington himself told him after the show, “Q, you may be the one to decategorize American music.”
Jones continues to try to live up to that expectation. One of the new albums he has planned is a collaboration between bebop trumpet player Clark Terry and rapper Snoop Dogg. “That’s what we need, man,” he says. “Get (the rappers) involved in jazz. (Bill) Cosby slaps their hands. You can’t do that. You got to get them involved.”
At the commencement, he reinforced his abiding love of jazz. “We must never, never, never forget that jazz is the classical music of pop music,” he said.
But Basie probably summed it up best. After “Thriller” came out, he told Quincy, “Man, that stuff you and Michael did? Me and Duke would never have even dreamed about nothin’ that big. You hear me? We wouldn’t even dare to dream about it!”
Staring out that “dream window” on 22nd Avenue, Quincy Jones dared to dream.
Paul de Barros is the Seattle Times’ jazz critic. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.