One quality that helps explain Jones' extraordinary longevity is ceaseless innovation. "With Q it's always brand-new, it's fresh," says the recording engineer and producer Phil Ramone, who has worked with Jones, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and others. Another is the unusual combination of intensity and charm with which Jones has brought out the best from a wide range of idiosyncratic performers. "About 90 percent of what goes on with Quincy is passion," says Ramone. "It's about his personality, and then he has the chops to back it up."
As a producer, Jones is known to research every nuance, hire the best players and set them free. "He creates this marvelous circus," says Patti Austin, whose 1982 No. 1 hit, "Baby, Come to Me," Jones produced. "There are about two hours of laughing hysterically and telling stories and about 15 minutes of making music...but the music comes from a place of complete happiness."
In the 1950s, Jones spent much of his time between tours in New York City, playing, arranging and composing. Offstage, he cut quite a figure, hanging out with Marlon Brando, Tito Puente and Poitier, who first saw him near the Birdland jazz club. "He was one of the most handsome guys you could lay eyes on," Poitier says. "He was laughing and smiling all the time. He was a positive presence, especially to the ladies." It wasn't just the music he loved. "Let's be real," Jones recalls. "All guys get into music because they love music and they also want to get the girls." Jones, currently single, has been married three times and has seven children, ages 15 to 54.
When he was getting ready to take his first trip to Europe with Hampton, in 1953, the veteran sax player Ben Webster sat him down. "Eat the food, listen to the music and learn 30 to 40 words in every language," Webster said. Jones listened: "It's like a code to enter another culture. If you open up your mind, it's like music."
His travels gave him fresh perspectives. In South America as the musical director and a trumpeter for Dizzy Gillespie's State Department tour in 1956, he fell for Latin rhythms, leading to his album Big Band Bossa Nova. In Paris he studied with the renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who had taught Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. "The more boundaries you set," she told him, "the more freedom you have."
"I didn't want to hear that, man, but she's right," Jones says.
In 1959, Jones assembled a band for a tour of Europe to play songs from the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer musical Free and Easy. The tour ended abruptly because of violence in Paris sparked by the Algerian conflict, but rather than return to the States, Jones kept the band together for ten months playing gigs in Europe and amassed a $145,000 debt. It took seven years to pay off.
It was at Mercury Records that he first struck gold, when he was presented with a demo tape of a clear-voiced 16-year-old girl named Lesley Gore. He hated her name, but they recorded "It's My Party" in 1963. Jones then ran into producer Phil Spector, who said he had just recorded the same song with the Crystals. Jones rushed Gore's version out to radio stations before heading to Japan to score and act in a TV drama.
He got a call from Irving Green, Mercury's president. "You still don't like Lesley's name?"
"I think we could find something better," Jones said.