Q at the Castle

Why the Smithsonian Institution can’t get enough of American music’s top artist-entrepreneur, Quincy Jones

Jones is currently on the council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture William Coupon

It seems Quincy Jones pops up everywhere. He produced the best-selling album of all time (Michael Jackson's Thriller, recently re-released in a 25th anniversary edition), played with jazz greats of the 50s and 60s, wrote music for everything from "Roots" to "Sanford and Son" and even had one of his '60s classics revived in Austin Powers.

Jones, who turns 75 this March, was involved in many of music's great moments of the last 50 years. But that's not news to the Smithsonian Institution.

Both the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the institution's jazz and music scholars have sought out Jones for his expertise on a number of projects.

"Quincy has really been one of the people to shape American music in profound and dramatic ways since World War II," says Lonnie Bunch, director of the African American museum.

Jones is on the council of the museum, which is awaiting construction. Bunch says the entrepreneur's business instincts help Bunch come up with fundraising strategies; and since Jones travels around the world, he brings in ideas from things he's seen in museums from Sweden to Abu Dhabi. Jones' connections to hip-hop artists and the younger generation also help Bunch plan a "youth strategy" for the museum.

"He reminds me all the time of the array of audiences we have to serve," says Bunch.

David Baker, director of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, played trombone in Jones' band in the early 1960s. Jones also wrote the foreword to Baker's book Arranging and Composing for the Small Ensemble.

Jones is "a walking history book," Baker says. "He has marvelous retentive powers."

Jones has experienced 20th century history firsthand, from arranging music for Frank Sinatra to his rise as one of the first African-American executives at a major record company in the early 60s.

"The historian in me comes out and I like to listen to him tell stories about the time he traveled with Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk," Bunch says. "He's really this wonderful treasure."

But it's Jones' unique and seemingly endless compositions that have made his music a natural choice for Smithsonian's jazz orchestra.

"Quincy's composing and arranging was, and still is, a singular voice," says Smithsonian jazz expert John Edward Hasse. "His music doesn't sound like anybody else's and it has a secure place in history."

Last winter, the Smithsonian orchestra developed a program, The Big Band Works of Quincy Jones, which it performed in Toronto, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Indiana. Baker says Jones has gone out of his way to help the orchestra. The group often has trouble getting the rights to play music, but Jones "has been so big hearted. Every time we called on him the music was made available to us."

Baker remembers visiting Jones in preparation for the recent tour. He says Jones went into his vast music vault and sorted through dozens of different arrangements of a particular song to find the right one for the orchestra.

Jones got to hear the orchestra play his tunes last January in Toronto, when he was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. He "was knocked out," Baker says. "It was so much fun to watch him in the front row digging on that stuff."

Hasse, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, has also worked closely with Jones, who wrote the foreword of Hasse's book Jazz: The First Century.

Hasse first met Jones in the early 1990s while working on a video about Duke Ellington. In July 2001, Hasse took Jones on a tour of the museum's jazz collection, showing him Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet, 100,000 pages of unpublished music by Duke Ellington and even a letter Jones wrote to Ellington.

And that month Jones also conducted several of his songs with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

"It was marvelous," says Hasse. "He poured himself into the conducting with such intense passion that he actually got so excited that he jumped up into the air about a foot, twice, and at that point he was no spring chicken."

As Baker says of Jones, "He seems indefatigable."

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