Quincy Jones: On Production, Proteges, and Playground Sessions

Anecdotes and insights from the inimitable Q
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How does anyone begin to describe Quincy Jones? Any top ten list of the most important musicians of this century and the last would surely include him; but then there’s the matter of stating what his gig even is without depleting the world’s supply of hyphens. His career is a list of firsts and accolades. Sideman at age 19 to jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton? Check. First conductor to use a Fender electric bass? Check. First African-American to be embraced by the Hollywood scoring community? Check. And then the first guy to bring the sound of the synthesizer into American living rooms via the Ironside TV theme song? Check. Twenty-seven Grammys won as a producer, arranger, and/or composer? All that, too.

It might be that we give context to Q based on when we first got hooked by his work, whether that was the theme to Norman Lear’s bold social-commentary-in-sitcom-clothing called Sanford and Son, the tiki-drink levity of “Soul Bossa Nova,” or the precision grooves of his production work on Michael Jackson’s three most important albums: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. If you try to confine his musical identity to words, though, you find yourself dipping a slotted spoon into an undifferentiated ocean of excellence.

It would be so much simpler to just talk to Q about music and what he’s up to. So let’s do that! Always one to move forward and blend musical genres, what’s keeping Mr. Jones busy these days includes producing, mentoring, and managing today’s most promising keyboard artists, as well as working with Playground Sessions, an online platform that aims to teach piano using real songs and an engaging game-like method designed to keep aspiring players’ fingers on the keys. In this exclusive interview, we catch up with Quincy about the old stuff, the new stuff, and the real stuff.

What was it like coming into musical notoriety so young, next to the likes of Miles Davis?

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It was like going to Heaven. I have to acknowledge Miles, and all the guys who put me on their shoulders, from Claude Perry to Benny Carter to Ray Charles. Now today, I’m grateful because I can get the same enjoyment from putting some of the young kids, some of the up-and-coming musicians, on my shoulders. I love it, man. What you have to understand about when I was coming up is, we had no idea what was going to happen to us. All we knew is what Ray Charles was preaching: Be totally loyal to each and every genre of music. So when we were young, we learned them all.

What was your first big break as a jazz musician?

Well, we had all kinds of breaks. When we were 14 years old, we got to work with Billie Holiday at the Eagles Auditorium. Billy Eckstine at the Tremont Ballroom. Cab Calloway. We were lucky to have an early start, because it was a little pond and I guess we were big fish. We would dance, sing, play, do comedy—we’d pretty much do everything at 13, 14 years old. And again, we had to learn every musical genre to do that. From John Phillip Sousa to pop music to burlesque music to show tunes. It was unbelievable.

How did you get from there to composing for films and TV? What was your point of entry?

The root of that is, I used to play hooky from school when I lived in Seattle, where my family had moved during World War II. The movies cost 11 cents. So I’d play hooky, and I’d go to the movies, and I got totally familiar with the sort of musical ideology of each studio. For example, [composer] Alfred Newman’s fanfare music for the 20th Century Fox logo, or Victor Young, who was a huge composer at Paramount, or Stanley Wilson at R.K.O. After awhile, it was as though I could hear the “editorial policy” of each of those composers and film studios. I guess I just figured it out, because it wasn’t like they had any African-Americans composing for films at that time. A brother might have gotten credit for maybe one song, but not a composer’s credit. So we were starting from scratch.


What was the first film on which you worked as a full-blown composer?

That would be The Pawnbroker, directed by Sidney Lumet. Actually, I’d done one in Sweden before that, which was called Pojken i Trädet, which translates as “The Boy in the Tree.” But Pawnbroker was the first big Hollywood movie I scored. I had an agent, Peter Faith, who was in fact the singer Percy Faith’s son. He would never let me take on a “B” movie. He said, you’re only going to do A-list movies. And it was so wonderful that [actor-director] Sidney Poitier gave me six movies to do, and Sidney Lumet gave me five movies. That’s what got me into the business. Lumet, by the way, was a great director—Twelve Angry Men and all that stuff.

Your bio lists the Ironside theme as the first synthesizer-based pop TV theme song, with its pitch-sweep “siren” that Quentin Tarantino then borrowed in Kill Bill. Can you tell us anything about that process?

Ah, that’s right. Paul Beaver, a jazz musician who later got very into electronic music, hooked us up with the synthesizer. Wendy Carlos had one of the first synthesizer albums to really be in the mainstream with Switched on Bach in 1968, but Ironside was on TV a bit earlier than that. So it was one of the first times the public, outside of musicians and enthusiasts, had heard the sound of the synthesizer. It was kind of like when Leo Fender brought us his electric bass in 1953, when Wes Montgomery’s brother was playing bass with us—Monk Montgomery. Without that instrument, there would be no rock ’n’ roll, no Motown. Without the Fender bass, there’d be no electric rhythm section. So think about the music we wouldn’t have without the synthesizer.

What was the first time you laid hands on a synthesizer yourself?

I can remember that it was one of the very first ones that came out. Robert Moog introduced it to us, and from them on, we were glad to be guinea pigs for new synthesizers that came out of Japan or anywhere else. As well as things like the Yamaha organs, like the YC-45. There was this core group of us that were guinea pigs—Lionel Richie, myself, David Paich, Herbie Hancock. We were the early experimenters.

Did you like synthesizers initially or were you skeptical?

Are you kidding? [Laughs.] I loved them! To me, they were just one more type of instrument to add to the orchestration. They didn’t replace anything, which I know a lot of musicians worried about. I just saw them as an addition to the sound. You know, when Dr. Moog first came out with his synths, he asked me, “Why aren’t more African-American musicians playing the synthesizer?” I said, “It’s great that you can sculpt this electrical signal into a sound. It’s great that you have a sine wave for a pure tone, and a sawtooth for something more raw. But Bob, it doesn’t bend, and that’s why we’re not playing it more. If it doesn’t bend, you can’t get funky!”

He invented a pitch-bender, and after that, musicians like Stevie Wonder, who was working right next to me back then, embraced the synthesizer and started recording hits. But again, I want to emphasize that the Fender electric bass and the synthesizer were really trademarks of the new wave of music at the time.


Can you comment on your studies with the legendary French composer and educator Nadia Boulanger? What was the most important thing she taught you?

Oh man, everything she taught me was important! Number one, you had to audition for her. You didn’t just say, “I want to take lessons from you.” She once asked me, “What specific characteristics do you put on the C major scale?” I thought for a minute, then answered, “Well, there’s a half-step between notes 3 and 4, then between 7 and 8.” She said, “Okay, now start on E and come down,” and it was exactly the same relationships.

She taught me that you don’t have any real musical freedom until you work within restrictions, which I know goes against a lot of ideologies. Also, the relationship between mathematics and music, which a lot of us try to deny because that sounds too mechanical. But if you look at what composers like Slonimsky were grooving to, that’s not true. You can have fun with mathematics as a source for music.

Also, she told me, “For over 700 years we’ve had only 12 notes. Until God gives us a 13th one, I’m going to teach you everything that can be done with the 12.” That’s why to this day, there’s no musical genre that scares me. Think about disco and EDM, the idea of four-on-the-floor. That was going on in the ’40s with Count Basie. There may be different elements on top of it to day, but four-on-the-floor certainly isn’t new. So thanks to her, nothing scares me.

Based on your learning from Nadia, is there anything you’d like to see change about how music is taught?

Yes. It’s just insane to me that America doesn’t have a minister of culture, especially with our country being the birthplace of blues and Gospel and jazz. The music of a place is so tied into the food, the attitude of a people, their mood, the weather, and everything about a culture. So it’s just stupid we don’t have a minister of culture to educate and reflect on these things at a national level.

Of the many session players you’ve hired over the years, who has stood out the most?

The ones I work with all the time. Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, John Robinson and Ndugu [Chancler] on drums. Louis Johnson was the greatest bass player that ever lived. He died last year, at just 60 years old. They were with me a long time, because we used to live in the studio! Also, the saxophonist Phil Woods, who recently passed away. He played with me for 61 years, in some way or another with every band I’ve ever had. That was a terrible loss.

Why did they stand out? How much of it was natural talent, and how much was hard work?

Well, natural talent has a lot to do with hard work. The only place you’ll find success before work is in the dictionary, because it’s alphabetical! [Laughs.] Now, God gives you an amount of natural talent, for sure. It’s right-brain, and it’s about emotions. Those come naturally. But the science of your craft is left-brain. You have to learn it. That’s the thanks you give back to God: to work hard on your core skill. You hear a lot about technologies like Pro Tools making things too easy, for example. But that’s okay. If you know what you’re doing, Pro Tools works for you. If you don’t, you work for it. You can’t get around it. Another example is that a lot of cats back in the day used to say, “Sure, I read music, but not enough to hurt my swing,” as though having technique and knowing what you’re doing was some sort of crime. That’s bullshit. Being really good at reading music sure didn’t hurt Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea.


Do you see any connections between music and health?

Absolutely. The way music activates parts of your brain is good for elders with dementia. We need to be doing a lot more with music therapy in health care.

One very ubiquitous song of yours is “Soul Bossa Nova.” It was in The Pawnbroker as well as Austin Powers and has become an icon of lounge and “exotica” music. What inspired it?

I had been to Brazil in 1956 with Dizzy Gillespie, on tour with a goodwill band from the U.S. State Department. We’d been in Argentina, and Lalo Schifrin [composer of the Mission: Impossible theme] said, “Wait ’til you get to Brazil! They’ve got this thing called bossa nova there, which means ‘the new wave.’” Dizzy actually influenced bossa nova—which grew out of a mixture of samba and jazz—with that trademark flatted fifth of his. When we got to Rio, he asked me to go down to the Hotel Gloria on Copacabana Beach, where he played with a samba rhythm section. Dizzy was always one to merge jazz with South American and Cuban music. It’s interesting as well that African cultures like Angola influenced this music. We’d sit in at that hotel with Dizzy, Astrid and João Gilberto, and Antônio Carlos Jobim. So a lot of that is what’s behind “Soul Bossa Nova.”

You mentioned Cuban music. Did you ever get into the Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona?

Of course! All the jazz guys back then were just junkies for Afro-Cuban music. Think about Dizzy’s tunes like “Cubana Beat” and “Manteca.” Cuban music, with its polyrhythms and everything . . . it’s so good, it’s hard to improve on it! [Laughs.]

More in the funk vein is your classic tune “Stuff Like That.” Can you give our readers a quick history of that song?

We made the original track in New York, and we had Stuff on it—Stuff, the band. That had [keyboardist] Richard Tee, [drummer] Steve Gadd, [bassist] Chuck Rainey, [guitarist] Eric Gale: those guys that used to work with Roberta Flack. Stuff was one of the best groups in the world. Ashford and Simpson heard the song, liked it, and decided to write lyrics to it. And the rest is what you know about.


Your production on Michael Jackson albums like Off the Wall and Thriller has always included a lot of interlocking instrumental riffs. None are particularly busy by themselves, but they always form a perfect groove. One more or one less guitar or keyboard lick in the background, and it wouldn’t be as funky. How do you achieve exactly the right amount of “busy”?

That’s because of polyrhythms—the same sorts of polyrhythms we were talking about coming out of African and Cuban music. So you have to study those. It’s a lot like architecture. In fact, I’m getting ready to do a tour with [architect] Frank Gehry. He tells me all the time, “If architecture is like frozen music, then music is like liquid architecture.” So we’re going to do an exhibit with his blueprints and my scores. In both cases, you have a lot of individual elements that don’t seem like much until you put them together, then you get this collective sum that gives you the final impression.

On that topic, what does it mean, in musical terms, to have a solid groove or to be funky? What is funk?

It means to get nasty! Funk is supposed to make you feel a positive emotion in every part of your subconscious mind. It deals with the heart in its purest form. That means, for one thing, that you can get greasy with all those blue notes. Funk goes back to the blues, which were developed to take the pain out of the hardships of life. Before that there was Jesus and the church and gospel. Then people got a guitar and a harmonica for “traveling music,” which was after slavery. [Musically] funk was the same thing, only now it was about whiskey and women! [Laughs.] I’m actually working on a 3-D animated movie about this, because it’s an astounding story of how all these musical influences propagated through the slave trade, sometimes due to where they stopped along the way—Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica.

Speaking of which, your own music has always been closely associated with the civil rights movement.

Absolutely. You know, before there was any sort of Black activist movement, there was the music. Music changes things first. I remember, three months after Charlie Parker died in 1955, the baseball player Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel asked me to play at their house in Stamford, Connecticut, for a benefit. I had a big band and I was as broke as the Ten Commandments, so I said yes. Rachel said, “After you finish, I’d like you to meet a special friend.” So afterwards, a guy came over with her, in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie. She said, “I’d like you to meet Martin Luther King.” I worked with him for years after that.

In the studio, what was the division of tasks like between you and engineer Bruce Swedien? What was your chemistry like?

It’s very simple. I look at a record producer as being like the director of a film. They have an overall vision they’re trying to get across. Then there’s the D.P., the director of photography, which is like the recording engineer. They have the tools and the experience to translate that specifically into what the audience sees—or hears.


Does that analogy apply when in fact you’re composing music for a film?

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Oh, yes! When I first started composing, they had “representative scoring,” which meant you hear exactly what you see. There was one aural thing for each visual thing, and the visual thing would be in the center of the screen to pull the audience in. But then, you take [a director] like Fellini. He’d have, for example, a calliope playing this off-the-wall carnival music, but then behind some bushes there’s a swamp where somebody got murdered! But all you hear is this joyful calliope. Point being, music tells you what to feel. Spielberg and I always called it “emotion lotion.” A lady walking down a dark hallway doesn’t mean anything until you play the musical “Oh shit!” card. [Laughs.] It’s a tricky balance between dissonance and consonance, conflict and resolution.

Whether it’s scoring or producing a record, what’s the difference between a merely good session and a great one?

A great session begins with a powerful structure. For film or television, that’s a great story. For a record, it’s a great song. That’s what our entire business of entertainment is about. A great song can make a bad singer a star, but the three best singers in the world can’t save a terrible song. I learned that 50 years ago working with guys like Frank Sinatra. Because if the song wasn’t great, they weren’t taking none of it!

Out of curiosity, is there anyone in pop today you think has any Sinatra in them?

Hell, yeah. The young singer Tommy Ward has a lot of Sinatra in him! Perfect pitch and everything.

You’ve played all roles in the process of music creation. How important is knowing music theory to someone who wants to be a producer, as opposed to a composer or arranger?

It’s very important. Like I said, some cats say that knowing too much hurts your swing or your creativity, and I think that’s terrible. It’s like Nadia Boulanger taught me, if you have a path of restrictions and know exactly what the mood of the music is supposed to be—slow or fast, happy or sad, major or minor—that actually gives you a lot of freedom to create within those restrictions.


Do you ever still just sit down and play music for your own enjoyment?

All the time! That’s what grounds you.

What was the most surprising or unexpected musical lesson you ever encountered?

There are a lot of those, but one instance must’ve been about 50 years ago at Birdland. That club was on fire back then, with everything going on in jazz on 52nd Street in New York. Count Basie used to rehearse there every Monday. All the composers and arrangers—Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, myself, all hung around with our arrangements, praying that Basie would play one. He’d only pay 50 dollars for an arrangement, and sometimes we wouldn’t get paid for six months, but we didn’t care. Count Basie was playing our music! Neal Hefti, who was probably the highest-paid arranger then, was there one night, and he kicked off “Lil Darlin’,” only fast. [Jones sings melody very fast.] Basie went, “No!” And he slowed it way down. That was when I learned the meaning of “in the pocket.” It was like a different song! You could now hear all the harmony. And that’s what jazz arrangers still live by; getting the tempo where God wants it to be for that song.

What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?

Again, there’s so much. Let me see. My first television production that I was in charge of was a tribute to Duke Ellington called Duke We Love You Madly [1972]. Ray Charles was on it, Sammy Davis Jr. was on it, we just had an amazing cast. Duke left me a picture afterwards, on which he wrote, “May you be the one to de-categorize American music.” I feel like that’s an assignment Duke gave me that I’ll always be responsible for.

What advice would you pass on to aspiring musicians?

One, melody is God’s voice. Two, I think music and water will be the last two things to leave this planet, because we can’t live without either of them. Finally, my teacher Nadia Boulanger once told me, “Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” She’s right. No matter how much music you know, if you haven’t lived your life fully, you really don’t have anything to say.



When you’ve accomplished everything, you seek inspiration in the accomplishments of others. That’s why Quincy Jones is putting a great deal of his current energies into producing, managing, and mentoring promising young artists. Anyone would give their eye teeth for a ten-minute lesson from Quincy, so what makes him want to take someone under his wing? The answer begins with an anecdote about our shared musical history.

“Someone either has or doesn’t have the identification,” Jones ponders. “A great singer, for example, I want to be able to know who they are within 30 seconds. For example, I was supposed to do Johnny Mathis’ first record, but Dizzy Gillespie had asked me to be his musical director for the State Department goodwill band, and we were about to tour the Middle East and then Latin America. So I gave the record back, and told [Columbia Records vice president] Mitch Miller, “I think Johnny is a great singer, just maybe not a jazz singer.” He’d had a jazz record that didn’t do so well. Mitch took him aside and made him sing ballads like ‘The Twelfth of Never’ and ‘Chances Are,’ and that was it. That became what he was known for.” Point being, you need a firm sense of what you can contribute to an artist’s development. Among the keyboardists who’ve given Quincy this sense are Jon Batiste, now bandleader on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and the piano prodigy Emily Bear. The two who graced our photo shoot are Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and YouTube singer and multi-instrumentalist sensation Jacob Collier.

Quincy on Alfredo: I met Alfredo—it must have been about eight years ago—at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He was with another Cuban piano player and I totally loved what they were doing. When we all got back home, I sent my vice president Adam Fell to sponsor him out of Cuba. He left Cuba and went to Mexico, but was detained there. He played piano for the police, and they let him go! The guy practices, like, 14 hours a day! We just booked him in China for a bunch of one-nighters. We travel up to six or seven months out of the year with a group called the Global Gumbo All-Stars. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

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Alfredo on Quincy: The first piece of advice Quincy gave me was just to be myself and follow my own destiny in terms of music and every other aspect of life. I’m just trying to learn from a person like him, who has so much experience in music and life in general. It’s so important for young people to have mentors and guides to help make life better, so I just feel fortunate to be a part of Quincy Jones Productions. He’s a person that I admire so much.

Quincy on Jacob: He’s on fire, just one of my favorite young artists on the planet right now. You know, he arranges all those harmonies, all those vocals in his videos. He does everything, even the hairstyles in the videos! His mother, who’s Chinese, is a concertmaster and symphonic conductor.

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Jacob on Quincy: Quincy has taught me many things. The importance of simplicity, the philosophy of framing a song as opposed to concealing it, the essentiality of knowing one’s history and the cultures of the world, the necessity of leaving your ego at the door so you can allow space for God to walk into the room, the importance of listening twice as much as you speak, and the balance of science and soul, to name but a few. However, I would say the most important thing I’ve learned from spending time with Q is to see and treat every person you meet as a human being first. I have both participated in and observed Q being met by friends, family, colleagues and admirers alike, and he has a disposition towards all of them which is constant in its treatment of everybody with respect and love.

Alfredo Rodriguez’s new album Tocororo, which has enjoyed top position on the iTunes jazz chart, is out now. Moving far beyond split-screen YouTube videos, Jacob Collier has been called “jazz’s new messiah” by The Guardian. His studio album In My Room is due at the beginning of July.



One of Quincy Jones’ latest endeavors is involvement with Playground Sessions, an online learning platform for the piano keyboard. What did it take for founder Chris Vance to get the legendary impresario to carve a big Q on this startup? For one thing, they share a passion about using technology to bring music to everyone.

“I remember the first trip the band took to Europe in 1953,” recalls Jones. “It was in a propeller plane and it took 27 hours to get from New York to Oslo. Then, jet engines changed everything. Now, think about television changing music. I once asked Mikhail Baryshnikov how he had the courage to defect from Russia in the ’60s. He said it was because of TV. He saw [ballet company director] Roland Petit in Paris, and the American Ballet Theatre in New York, and thought, ‘I can do that!’ That’s the power of communication.”

Playground Sessions applies this power through “game-ifying” the process of learning your way around the 12-note scale. Think Guitar Hero, only with a real instrument (the keyboard) and real songs across all musical genres. Jones speaks enthusiastically about the game approach.

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“Take mathematics,” he says. “I recently learned to play Sudoku, the Japanese number-puzzle game. There’s no emotion in that—it’s all math and logic. But it’s so good for your mind. If you make music a game, and challenge your mind, don’t worry about losing your emotional soul—it will still be the true leader. But your mind will get better at this amazing process of getting up next to music. And again, it’s not a curse to know the theory behind what you’re doing. That’s what we’re trying to reinforce.”

Founder Chris Vance reinforces the idea that although it’s fun, it’s not merely fun and games. “Playground is set up as a game,” he says, “but the ultimate reward is an emotional connection to the music—that feeling that you get when you’re playing it well. We don’t ever want to let the idea of gaming get in the way of that, because we think that music is meant to be played, not just listened to. But we use ‘game-ification’ to help people stay engaged. People like to be competitive with themselves, and with others, so that’s a strong motivator for practicing piano like you might practice a sport.”

Another core value of Playground Sessions draws on something Quincy says in this interview: There are “only 12 notes,” and knowing that, you shouldn’t be scared of any genre. “So we don’t overthink music genre,” says Chris Vance. “To reinforce something like reading notation or hand independence, you may be playing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon one minute, and ‘Take the A Train’ by Duke Ellington the next. After that, ‘Moonlight Sonata’ then ‘Uptown Funk’.”

And in the tradition of Sy Sperling and Victor Kiam, Vance relies on his own product. “I learned to play the piano entirely through Playground Sessions,” he testifies. “It took me awhile to not be shy about saying I was anything like a musician, but now I’ve gotten quite good.”

Learn more, and hear it from Quincy’s lips, at playgroundsessions.com.