Quincy Jones has a key piece of advice for students: Don’t sell yourself short.
“The strongest things you’ve got are your passion and commitment. You throw those away, you have nothing,” the legendary composer, producer, arranger and musician told students at SMU Oct. 7. He was on campus to speak in the 2008-09 Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.
Jones answered student questions about his experiences working with icons ranging from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson. He also spoke about his own commitment to learning through travel and the importance of science knowledge to disciplines as diverse as music and sports.
“Music is amazing because it’s the only thing that affects the left and right brain simultaneously – the intellect and the emotions,” he said. “You have to build your science to back up everything you do.”
You’ve had a vast variety of experiences and met many different people. Is there an experience or a person in your career that helped define your life?
My father was a master carpenter in Chicago, in the biggest black ghetto in America, during the Depression. I paid my dues there – a switchblade through the hand at age 7, an icepick in the head, all of that. Unfortunately all we ever saw were machine guns and stogies and money in backrooms. My daddy worked for the boxer Joe Louis’ people, and they were gangsters. And there were the Jones boys, the biggest black gangsters in history. It’s a mindset: If those are the most successful people you see, that’s what your goal is.
Thank God my dad took my brother and me on a Trailways bus out to the Northwest. We wanted to practice our gangsterism out there, at 11 years old. And while we were in the process of breaking into the armory, which was our recreation hall, we found some lemon meringue pie and ice cream. So we ate all we could, had a pie fight, and then broke into all the other rooms. I broke into the supervisor’s office and almost closed the door, and I saw a spinet piano over in the corner. And God’s whispers told me, “Idiot, go back in that room.” I went back in that room and slowly walked over to that piano, and when I touched it, I knew for the rest of my life that music would be my mother. That was the defining moment.
What happened after that epiphany?
From there on in I stayed after school and played – sousaphone, tuba, French horn. I played trombone so I could be up front with the majorettes in the marching band. I’m practical. Trumpets are way in the back. The trombone players are up there with the hotties.
Then I played trumpet in the school jazz band. I got a college scholarship and started playing in Lionel Hampton’s band. And finally I wound up with probably the greatest composition teacher of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger. She was mentor to Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and she helped me go all the way to 50,000 feet in terms of honing my craft and understanding my core skill – arranging and orchestrating. The joy of dropping your hand on that orchestra and finding that the sounds in your mind have come out better than you thought they would is an addiction that I’m still hooked on to this day.
How did you begin your career as an arranger?
The first arrangement I ever got recorded was for Lionel Hampton’s band. They kept asking for them, and I kept writing them, and eventually the offers never stopped coming. A good example was with Frank Sinatra. I was working in Paris as a music director for Barclay Records in ’57. In ’58 I got a call from Mr. Sinatra in Monaco. He was doing a benefit for Princess Grace at the Sporting Club, and he wanted me to bring my house band – 55 musicians and a vocal group – to play with him. So we got on a train real quick, and we started off with “The Man With the Golden Arm.”
I’ve never worked with anyone like Sinatra. He was like a magician. He’d sing “Come Fly With Me” and take a puff off his cigarette, he wouldn’t exhale for an entire line, and then on the last word the smoke would come out. He was the first person who ever called me “Q.”
I didn’t hear from him for four years, and then I got a call. He was in Hawaii directing a war film, “None But the Brave,” and he wanted me to do an album with him and Count Basie. I was in Hawaii two days later, and we did “Fly Me to the Moon.” After that, I worked with him from 1963 until the end. He left me this ring, and working with him and Count Basie was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Would you say that making it in a music career has more to do with luck or hard work?
The dictionary is the only place you’ll find success before work. Luck is what happens in the dust of the collision between opportunity and preparation. The worst thing in the world is to have a great opportunity and not be prepared for it. That was my nightmare. It never happened to me, because I worked hard enough to keep up. I was ready for Sinatra. Trust me. You had to be, because he had no gray areas in him. He either loved you and respected you, or he would run over you in a Mack truck, in reverse. Nothing in between.
You’re an inveterate traveler. How has that affected your life?
The best thing that’s ever happened in my life, other than my transformation from gangster to musician at age 11…I was going to Europe with Hampton’s band when I was 19. Ben Webster, a fantastic jazz saxophone player from Kansas City, told me, “Everywhere you go in the world, I want you to eat the food the real people eat, listen to the music they listen to, and learn 30 or 40 words of every language in every place you go.” And I took that very seriously. I’ve learned a couple of words of Serbo-Croation, Farsi, Turkish, Greek, French, Swedish, Russian, Japanese, and I’m learning to write and read Mandarin and Arabic now.
I am totally addicted to traveling, and the challenge of learning another culture – of not dragging your culture into someone else’s country, but living their culture – is one of the greatest ways to live there is. I have seven kids, and I would trade two years of their education to have them travel. There is no replacement for it. And St. Bart’s and South Beach don’t count. Go to Egypt or Africa or Croatia and see what it feels like. There’s nothing in the world like that. It grows your soul. You open up as a human being. And that’s imperative now.
The movie “Ray” depicts your friendship with Ray Charles. Can you tell us something about that?
I met Ray when I was 14 and he was 16. He was like a hundred years older than me. He was so smart, and he was like a brother. We used to sit around and plan things and dream things. You have to understand, back then there was no TV. On the radio, you had Rochester and Amos ‘n’ Andy. We knew they were black, and they were servants. [Black kids] weren’t in the books – maybe once a year we’d read about Booker T. Washington. And we didn’t know who we wanted to be like. There were no Michael Jordans or Oprahs or P. Diddys or Jay-Zs. So we had to make up our own thing.
But we finally found a way to protect ourselves from external identification. Ray and I used to say to each other every day, “Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.” So we could find out who we were first. Ray used to say, “In 20 years, I want three airplanes.” And in 20 years, he did have three airplanes. He did that in a time when there was nothing to hold onto, and we had to invent what we wanted our dreams to be about. So never stop dreaming. Dream as high as you can. Even if you only get halfway there, you’ll still be ahead.
How do you stay positive when things go wrong in your life?
You always have that choice between fear and love. I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff happen, but we have to try to have an automatic antenna that evaluates the consequences. If you only get bad because everybody else gets bad around you, that’s when you have to have your own personality and judgment. I know how that works, trust me. When the gangs go out and do something, it’s hard to be the only dude left there. But it’s a state of mind. It’s choosing between love and fear. Usually when you’re getting ready to get bad, it’s because of something you fear. The light is hard to hold, but it works every time.
Did having a passion help you make those choices?
Absolutely. There’s a phrase I’ve used with my kids ever since they could talk: “If you can see it, you can be it.” And visualization is a very, very powerful tool. Visualize the height of what you would like to be. And study your science. Music is amazing because it’s the only thing that affects the left and right brain simultaneously – the intellect and the emotions. You have to build your science to back up everything you do.
As part of a touring band in the 1950s, you said you learned “the difference between music and the music business.” Have you ever made any artistic sacrifices to be commercially successful?
Never did, never will. When you do that, God walks out of the room. People tell me about survey groups and focus groups – I don’t want to know about that. If I get goosebumps, that’s when it’s happening. If I get goosebumps, I feel that somebody else might get goosebumps, too. The worst thing that could happen to me is if a focus group told me to go a way I didn’t agree with to sell to a certain market, and then the market doesn’t like it, either. Then we’re really in trouble, because I don’t like it and neither do you.
Never in my life would I do that. You gotta go with your soul, man. There’s a line I will not step over. I know how good records are made, but I’ve worked too hard to be a good musician to throw all that away to pander to an audience.
So what do those differences mean to you?
The strongest things you’ve got are your passion and commitment. You throw those away, you have nothing. I’ve fallen on my face a lot of times, but you have to cherish your mistakes and get back up and try again. But you can’t compromise. Compromise is when you go somewhere and say, “It’s not what I like, but it’s what I think will be successful.” I don’t know how to do that.