The Arranger

From bebop to hip-hop, nobody alive has done more for American music than Quincy Jones

Jones (sporting Frank Sinatra's ring) has a hand in the Beijing Olympics as well as ongoing music and movies (William Coupon)
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His house stands atop a hill in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, at the end of a gated, guarded driveway, nestled among citrus trees and bougainvillea and caressed by Pacific breezes. It's a grand stone structure, both a monument to Quincy Jones' success and a metaphor for his particular way of making things happen. The sprawling property—house, cabana, pool, tennis court, vine-draped grounds—was six years in the planning and building, and Jones helped arrange the disparate elements into a harmonious whole. He picked the earth-hued travertine, alabaster and limestone with Egypt's pyramids in mind. He modeled the central feature, a rotunda, after an African mud hut. The compound's layout accords with his reading of the ancient Chinese principles of feng shui. And the place is filled with the gatherings of half a century as the music industry's most influential artist-entrepreneur. "The whole world is represented here, from Morocco to Nefertiti to the Tang dynasty," Jones says. "Global gumbo, that's where it's at."

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Wearing a gray suit, gray Crocs with Mickey Mouse imprints and zebra-striped socks, Jones is giving a tour of the place, which also serves as a tour of his astonishing career. In the cabana is a display of 40 platinum records commemorating 40 million sales of Michael Jackson's Thriller, which Jones produced in 1982 and which has reached global sales of 104 million—the biggest-selling record ever. The walls of his screening room are lined with posters of the three dozen movies he has scored. A brief film Jones made about the construction of his house is accompanied by Ray Charles' 1959 hit "Let the Good Times Roll"—Jones arranged the song, and he and Charles were close friends since they were teenagers—and by Frank Sinatra's iconic "Fly Me to the Moon," which Jones arranged at the age of 31. Next to the piano in the rotunda is Jones' Oscar statuette, for the motion picture academy's 1995 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. There are 27 Grammys—a total second only to that of the classical music conductor Sir Georg Solti—and an Emmy, for the score of the first episode of "Roots," the TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley's search for his African ancestors. "I keep on adding to it," Jones says of his house, though he might as well be speaking of his life in music. "I don't really want to finish it."

Jones turns 75 this month, and sports a hearing aid along with a gold hoop earring, but he's busy. He's producing an album and several movies. He's opening Q's Jook Joint, a club honoring the black musical tradition, in Las Vegas. He's a creative consultant for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies. And he still parties like a youngster. "He thinks he's 25," says daughter Rashida Jones, 32, an actress who has appeared on "The Office."

Still, three-quarters of a century is the sort of milestone that has journalists, historians and his fellow artists focusing on Jones' legacy. "His music threads its way throughout popular culture," says Sidney Poitier, a Jones pal for more than four decades. "You won't be able to speak of Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson or many other artists without some reference to Quincy."

"He has an extraordinarily deep sense of music," says the jazz critic Nat Hentoff. "He never loses the melody and he has the pulse of jazz, which is the pulse of life, in everything he does." That pulse courses through the lush strings caressing Sarah Vaughan's deep voice on her signature "Misty," the sax and xylophone interplay on Dinah Washington's "Makin' Whoopee" and the brass and sax notes dancing around Ella Fitzgerald's singing on "I'm Beginning to See the Light." Jones' work is so much a part of contemporary sound that there are plenty of tunes people know by heart without realizing that he created them, including the jaunty theme for the TV show "Sanford and Son" and the groovy "Soul Bossa Nova," recently revived by Austin Powers some 35 years after Jones wrote it, reportedly in 20 minutes.

"Quincy Jones was right up there with George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as one of the cornerstones of American music," says Gerald Early, an English and African-American studies scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. "He's influenced American culture and had a presence that few other musicians have had."

Jones started out as a trumpet player, first performing at around age 14, but he would make his mark—and his fortune—as a composer and especially as an arranger and producer who made others shine. If Jones had simply made music, he would have had an amazing career. But he also became the first prominent African-American to break into Hollywood as a composer and the first black executive at a major record label, appointed a vice president at Mercury Records in 1962. He founded Qwest Records and co-produced the movie The Color Purple (casting Oprah Winfrey as Sofia) and TV's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (discovering ex-rapper Will Smith). In 1990, he started a charity, now known as the Quincy Jones Foundation, which has disbursed some $20 million for, among other things, anti-malaria measures in Africa and a project in which disadvantaged youths from South Los Angeles helped build houses in South Africa. He also has ties to the Smithsonian, serving on the council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard historian, compares Jones to such great American innovators as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates. "We're talking about the people who define an era in the broadest possible way," Gates says. "Quincy has a lifeline into the collective consciousness of the American public....It's one thing to find a person who is a brilliant creator and composer. It's another to find a person who is just as brilliant as an entrepreneur. That's unprecedented in the history of jazz and the history of black music."

Quincy Delight Jones Jr. was born in Chicago on March 14, 1933, the son of Quincy Delight Jones Sr., who worked as a carpenter for the Jones Boys, gangsters who ran the rackets and a five-and-dime chain, and Sara Wells Jones, who spoke several languages and managed apartments.

Music was everywhere. There was a neighbor named Lucy who played stride piano, and young Quincy heard the risqué boogie-woogie number "The Dirty Dozens" on his maternal grandmother's Victrola. But there was chaos, too. Quincy Jr. once saw a corpse hanging from a telephone pole with an ice pick in its neck. He has a scar on his right hand where he was stabbed. For a time he would carry a .32 snub-nosed pistol.


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