Photograph by Canadian Press
Poster by T.A.
Quincy Jones: the day Michael Jackson's pet snake got loose in the studio
He played Vegas with Sinatra, produced Miles Davis and borrowed Bowie’s yacht to go on holiday. Quincy Jones talks about growing up in gangland Chicago, Joe Pesci’s jazz album – and why he’ll leave the US if his former friend Trump winsStephen Smith
Tuesday 23 August 2016 18.17 BST
ou might imagine that the best connected man in London would be a faceless civil servant who has the mobile number of every world leader and his or her pharmacologist. In fact, the title might belong to a stooped and slightly deaf 83-year-old, who is humming trumpet parts in a rehearsal room in the shadow of the Shard.
Quincy Jones has steadily accumulated kudos and leverage everywhere from the cat houses of the old R&B circuit to the Oval Office. And now he’s dropping names with the practised dispatch of a short order chef cracking eggs into a skillet. Sure, he knows Donald Trump from way back. The two men were once friends, though Jones growls: “I’ll leave the country if that sucker wins.” (Of course, he may be a little parti pris, as he was the musical director of Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.) David Bowie? A huge loss as well as a dear friend, from whom Jones somewhat improbably rented a yacht for his vacations.
Photograph by Canadian Press
Poster by T.A.
And as for being faceless? Get out of here, as the man himself might say. His lined but still mobile features testify to a lifetime of seeing it all, as journeyman trumpet player, band leader, and producer of everyone from Sinatra to Miles andJacko. Though curiously enough, faceless is very nearly how he might have ended up, if it had been left to the teenage hoodlums he used to run with.
Jones sits forward and taps a leathery temple. “They put an ice pick right there,” he says. Jones grew up in Chicago during the Depression. His father was a carpenter in the employ of the Jones Boys, “notorious OGs”, as Quincy calls them. In other words, his old man was a chippy by appointment to the mob. “All I saw were dead bodies, tommy guns and stogies, and piles of money in back rooms. I had my hand nailed to a fence with a switchblade when I was seven. When you’re a kid, you want to be what you see, and I wanted to be a gangster till I was 11.”
After this, it isn’t as much of a stretch as you might expect when Jones confides that one of the many projects he’s working on is an album of ballads with Joe Pesci, the jumpy psycho of Goodfellas, whose voice borders on the castrato in moments of excitement.
I suggest that Pesci’s register might be a little high.
“One of the best jazz singers I’ve ever heard,” says Jones.
“You’re kidding me.”
“He was influenced by Jimmy Scott,” observes the maestro producer, namechecking the much-admired, birdlike countertenor, whose treble notes were best appreciated by small dogs.
|Jones on trumpet in the 1960s.|
Jones describes his first encounter with a piano as life-changing. When he brushed the keys, it was as if he’d been plugged into a Van der Graaf generator. “I touched that piano and every cell in my body said, this is what you do for the rest of your life: music.”
And he’s done it in style. Today he’s wearing one of the black jackets with three-quarter length sleeves that he has specially made in China. It is trimmed in red and gold. He’s been honoured with a mashup of his music at the Proms this week, and if Jones Sr were alive today he’d still be building cabinets to house the awards his son has collected, including an Emmy and many Grammys. Jones is probably best known for producing the platinum-selling Off the Wall and Thriller, arguably Michael Jackson’s best albums. For all of Jackson’s vertiginous achievements, is his story ultimately a tragedy?
|At Royal Festival Hall for his Proms appearance on 22 August. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC|
“It is a tragic story. I said a lot of stupid things after he died,” says Jones, who reportedly claimed that Jackson had wanted to be white. “You cannot make records like that without extreme love, trust and respect,” he adds now, with what might be a note of contrition.
But how did the pair of them get on?
“He would come to the studio with Muscles, his snake, chimpanzees …”
“The whole menagerie?”
“I didn’t like that. The snake used to wrap itself around my leg. Man, I didn’t like that at all. It would crawl across the console. I’m not into snakes.”
So who prevailed: artist or producer?
“Oh no, they stayed there. One day I said, ‘Where’s Muscles?’ and we went downstairs and Muscles was in the parrot cage. He had just eaten the parrot and his head got stuck in the bars of the cage.”
|Top 40 today is just beats and drums’ … Jones with Michael Jackson at the 1984 Grammys. Photograph: William Nation|
Jones admits that he doesn’t have a lot of time for today’s Top 40 radio. “Just beats and rhymes and hooks. I mean, I love hip-hop, but it’s very much related to jazz. I was calling [Count] Basie a homeboy years ago.” That said, a stalled collaboration with Justin Bieber may yet come to something, and Jones is championing a prodigy from London, 22-year-old multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier.
What does he make of the controversy surrounding recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of armed police? “Police and black kids? It’s been like that all the time. You should have seen it in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Racism? Are you kidding me? It was really bad then.” Jones got his start in the music business playing four dates a night with Ray Charles, gigging at whites-only country clubs and strip joints. When Jones was backing Frank Sinatra at the Sands casino in Las Vegas in 1964 as part of the Count Basie Orchestra, stars such as Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne were being served their meals in the kitchens, not the casinos, and had to stay at ’black’ hotels.
|‘Frank was tough, man’ … Jones with Sinatra in 1964. Photograph: John Dominis/Time|
“When we came in, Frank said, ‘We’re not going to have that.’ I was told that the old man wanted to see me by the slot machines. Basie’s whole band was lined up there with 18 goombahs.” Jones flattens his nose so he looks like a mobster’s mugshot. “Frank put one with each guy, like a bodyguard. And he said, ‘If anyone so much as looks at them funny, I want you to break both of their legs.’ Frank was tough, man. But he got rid of racism there.”
No mean talent himself, Jones has known more of the towering artistic figures of the last century than perhaps anyone else alive. He recalls a lunch of sole meunière at Cannes with his then-neighbour, Pablo Picasso. “When he finished, he took his plate on to the Croisette so the sun could parch the bones. He took out his colours – red, yellow and blue – and drew his designs on the plate beside the fish bones. And when the waiter brought ‘l’addition’, he gave him the plate. And there were Picasso’s plates all around the wall. That’s how he paid for his dinners.”
Jones worked with the so-called Picasso of jazz, Miles Davis, on what turned out to be Davis’s final appearance, at Montreux in 1991. Davis had a famously difficult reputation, but his old arranger won’t hear of it. “He was just like Sinatra,” he says, perhaps not laying the issue to rest as finally as he might wish. There’s a part of Jones that is still the old sweat on the bandstand, holding down the trumpet stool. He won’t hear a word against the freemasonry of jazz musicians. “It’s love, man. That’s why I didn’t like that movie that won an Oscar, Whiplash. That was BS. No jazz musician would take that, you know, when the fella throws a chair at a drummer! Get out of here! He’d kill him.”
• Stephen Smith is culture editor of Newsnight.