"Well, guess what, it's number one. Bring your ass home and do an album."
"It's My Party" was the first of Gore's 17 hits. "The minute I met Quincy I knew the man was destined for absolutely astronomical things," says Gore, who lives in Manhattan and still performs. "He took a 16-year-old kid and got a performance out of me. You don't do that without knowing people well and having a real sense of what you want to hear."
While other African-Americans had little success breaking into film scoring, Jones wrote a well-received, jazzy score for his first film, Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964). Before Jones got his next assignment, to score the film Mirage (starring Gregory Peck and Walter Matthau), a producer asked the composer Henry Mancini if Jones could handle it, adding, "This is not a black film."
Jones remembers what Mancini said: "'This is the 20th century. You think the guy's gonna write the blues for Greg Peck? Hire him!'" They did.
It was Sinatra who gave Jones his nickname—Q—while Jones was conducting the singer and a 55-piece orchestra at an event for Princess Grace at the Sporting Club in Monaco in 1958. Jones later arranged the music for Sinatra's 1964 album with Count Basie, It Might as Well Be Swing, which included "Fly Me to the Moon." Jones and Sinatra remained close until Sinatra's death in 1998. "He took me to another planet," Jones recalls, flashing the gold pinkie ring Sinatra left him. "He either loved you, or he'd roll over you in a Mack truck in reverse. There was nothing in between."
Following two aneurysm surgeries in 1974 that left Jones unable to play the trumpet, he composed music for the first episode of "Roots." Jones says he cried over the diagrams of slave ships that Alex Haley sent to him, and he became entranced with African music, including "Many Rains Ago (Oluwa)," a beautiful Nigerian folk song. "It's a life force," he says, "so powerful." Haley helped Jones trace his own ancestry: two-thirds African (from Cameroon) and one-third French, Cherokee and Welsh, Jones says. George Washington was an ancestor, but Jones identifies with his African heritage. "Does this look Welsh?" he says, pointing to his skin.
Jones was already well known when Michael Jackson asked him to produce an album. They would do three—Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987)—a collaboration that would change pop music forever. Before making Off the Wall, Jones went to discos to learn the latest beats by watching people dance. The record has sold more than ten million copies. But it was the pulsating Thriller, with the songs "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the title track, that reached every demographic, transformed Jackson into the king of pop and brought black music to MTV. "Michael and MTV rode each other to glory," Jones says. "I still hear those songs everywhere I go."
Gates, the historian, notices a big difference in Jackson before and after Jones. "With Quincy, Jackson makes the best-selling album in history. Without him, he's floundering. Every time I think of Thriller or Bad, I just hear Quincy there."
Right before Duke Ellington died in 1974, he inscribed a photograph for Jones: "To Q, who will de-categorize American music." Jones feels he met that challenge when he made Back on the Block, his 1990 multi-Grammy-winning album. For it, Jones brought together Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles and Sarah Vaughan (her last session) and rappers such as Ice-T and Melle Mel to create a blend of zulu, gospel, jazz, rap and swing—global gumbo. Jones may be one of the few 75-year-olds who follow rap.
At the moment, the project on his mind is this summer's Olympics in Beijing, joining the movie directors Steven Spielberg and Ang Lee as artistic consultants. Jones is confident he can handle it. After all, he produced the 1996 Academy Awards show, the concert for Bill Clinton's first inauguration and America's millennium show in Washington, D.C. "I just like to mess with big stuff," he says.