Los Angeles Times Interview : Quincy Jones : Transforming America's Music Into the World's

Janet Clayton is assistant editor of the Editorial Pages of The Times

Whether you are 14 or 64, Quincy Jones' music is in your head. It is Jones who was the driving sound behind Michael Jackson's album "Thriller"; it's Jones who wrote the humorous ditty of television's "Sanford and Son"; it's Jones' who devised the elegant arrangement of Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." Jones didn't write that song--he just made it memorable. Originally written as a waltz, it is Jones' version that has stuck in the public consciousness. So much so that if any singer now were to deliver the lyrics in their originally intended stateliness, noted one critic, that would prove "about as incongruous as rescoring 'She Loves You' for operatic tenor." And the movie scores: "In Cold Blood," "Roots." The list of hit tunes that Jones has been associated with as producer, arranger or composer is full of surprises: Try Lesley Gore's "It's my Party (and I'll Cry If I Want to)."

And Jones has done more than make American music, he helped make it the first "world music." In the late 1950s, Jones was the organizer and trumpeter for a ground-breaking goodwill tour with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra--the first such tour sponsored and paid for by the U.S. State Department. Jones was, in effect, a dazzling ambassador of the arts, dousing U.S. diplomatic fires with large doses of American jazz in Europe, the Middle East and South America. Along the way, he met with the shah of Iran one day, revolutionaries in the making another--and he managed to give some Pakistani music fans their first exposure to jazz. It's no small irony that today, as a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Jones is now fighting congressional attempts to kill federal funding for the arts.

Jones' early exposure to diplomacy no doubt helped him as a music producer: He was said to be the only person who could have brought together the energies and egos of the 46 singers who participated in the "We Are the World" benefit recording that raised more than $55 million for Ethiopian famine relief. Jones also is a film and television producer and entrepreneur.

At 62, Jones has been just about everywhere and has won just about every entertainment award invented. Tomorrow night, at the Oscars, he will receive the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Still, he is restless. He's working the phones with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, making his case about a major broadcast television deal. He's in the studio working on a new album. He is sitting in a room full of pictures of his seven children, a room whose centerpiece is a grand piano. But he has more than music on his mind.

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Question: Congress is talking about drastically cutting the funding of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Artists are screaming mightily, but I don't hear the average American responding much to this. Why do you think that is?

Answer: . . . Many Americans don't really relate to something, I guess, until it's taken away. It's like a lot of things . . . . Many Americans have never experienced war. But you can feel the difference in the people who have, who are living in France, in Spain, in England. They felt those buzz bombs threaten their lives, on their own ground. To us, war is like a miniseries; "Desert Storm" was like a miniseries. I couldn't believe it, one day they had titles, "Day 3" of "Desert Storm."

But I'd love to see this country go a month and just take the arts away and see what would happen. That would be an incredible movie to see. Just take all the music away, everything--the elevator music, the things we take for granted, that are part of our everyday life. I think the soul would shrivel up.

Q: What many in Congress would say is, "We're not against the arts, we just don't think the federal government should have to pay for it."

A: But it's the soul. Why do the German, the Italian, the French governments subsidize the arts so heavily? They've been doing it for a lot longer than we have. They've figured out it's important to the life of a nation.

Q: Another Washington question: You and a few other prominent minority entrepreneurs announced, in the fall, a joint venture with Tribune to purchase TV stations. Since then, the House voted to strike down the FCC rule that gives special tax breaks to companies that sell broadcast properties to minority-owned concerns. Does that affect your deal?

A: Very much so. What they're saying is that affirmative action is over. But what bothers me most are the issues of welfare, issues of affirmative action, issues of crime--in front of each of those titles, they put a black face. They put a black woman in front of the welfare title, they put young, black men in front of crime, affirmative action, maybe a middle- aged black. It's the same old stuff . . . .

Q: What about critics who say minority tax certificates merely enrich a handful of minority entrepreneurs like you, that it has nothing to do with helping the masses?

A: But that's not true. There is only a handful of white people controlling communications in this country. What happens is that the people who control the networks also control the editorial policy spread throughout the country. And so a country that is this diversified has to be represented by the same kind of diversity behind the scenes, behind the cameras, to have a different voice to express different needs and concerns and issues. It's about jobs, it's about employment, points of view, to represent the voices of the people who live in this country.

I remember what it was like on radio as a kid. I was influenced a lot by radio, because that's all we had. You had Amos and Andy--and the actors were white. You had Beulah and Rochester and that was it.

Yes, I've "made it." Oprah has "made it." You can always point to a few. But racism doesn't go away, and anybody who relaxes on that is a fool. If you are coming into Bel-Air, every now and then we've run into the dudes who stop the car. At three blocks, they can't tell if it's Eddie Murphy or Magic, they can't see that far, but they can see the color of the skin.

Q: You've talked a lot about U.S. culture as a resource, both here and abroad. In 1956, you and Dizzy Gillespie were sent on a tour sponsored by the State Department?

A: Ah, the kamikaze tour! It was introduced by Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman, and it was to spread American culture all over the world. But it was also used as a device to send us to all the trouble spots! Where we went, there was serious trouble.

We played Beirut, which was like the Paris of North Africa. I remember the first time we came: There was a plane that looked like Air Force One right next to the plane Dizzy's band was on--3,000 people outside were screaming and we said, "It must be somebody really important over there." It turned out to be (Secretary of State) John Foster Dulles, there to deal with an Israeli crisis. But all those people were there for the band, for Dizzy.

We went to Damascus in Syria, to Turkey and then they rushed us over to Athens. There, the Cypriots were bombing, stoning the U.S. Embassy and everything else. The night after they stoned the embassy, we gave two concerts in Athens. And the same kids who had stoned the embassy rushed the stage and grabbed us. We were scared to death. They put us up on their shoulders; we thought it was over! But they were singing the songs, treating us like heroes.

The music diluted the anger and diffused a lot of the hassles we'd run into. Right after that, we came back for the White House Correspondents Assn. ball--they sent us right back down to other trouble spots. In Buenos Aires, they were having problems, and in Equador; they'd just cut the coffee budget in Brazil. Every trouble spot they could find, we were there!

It was a goodwill tour, and that's just what they needed. I remember in Tehran, the people thought Dizzy was a baseball player--they didn't even know who he was. It was a very interesting tour . . . . The shah of Iran would have a reception for us during the day. And then at night, because we were very young, we'd hang out with the students, the rebels readying for revolution.

Even today all these changes happening around the world didn't come from armies or government or government agencies; they came from television shows, from seeing how other people live, from movies, music, attitudes, expressions of freedom--that's the real motivating force in the world, because that reflects the soul of everybody, it collects the soul of everybody, it unifies the soul of everybody.

Music helps neutralize things; people cannot think about that kind of hostility when they are engaged in music. Some of the people in Pakistan, in Karachi, had never seen trombones before. But they knew hearing them made them feel good.

Even though Americans may not know it, the music of this country is the most powerful music in the world. It has become adopted as the Esperanto of the world. Everywhere you go. I never could figure out how that happened. Every place in the world is into American music, that's the trademark, one of the most powerful exports.

Q: You started Vibe, a hip-hop magazine, and in one of your albums, "Back on the Block," you brought rap and jazz together for the first time. Many adults say they can't see the appeal of rap, won't listen to it, and many kids say the same about jazz. Why do you think it's important that these two groups listen to each others' music?

A: I came out of a very eclectic spawning ground in Seattle. I met Ray Charles when I was 14 and he was 16, and during that World War II climate, it was one of the hottest areas for music. It was jumping. We played almost nine hours a night. With concert music at school, and classical music, and when we played at white tennis clubs, we'd play theater music, or pop music, and at 10 o'clock at night, we'd go to black clubs, we played rhythm and blues. And then at 3 o'clock in the morning, we'd go to the red-light district and play be-bop all night, for nothing.

So my whole life I've been totally surrounded with a whole pot of gumbo. We ate all of it. That's the way it is now. I just feel that rap has come out of a very organic place, a youth culture that felt disenfranchised, who said, "The hell with it. You won't let us in, we'll start our own." It's not so much unlike be-bop, in essence. It's the newest musical black baby.

Everything that's been new has always been positioned to jolt. I mean, please, Alice Cooper bit chicken heads off. This sort of thing has always happened--the burning of the flag, Hendrix's (version of) "Star Spangled Banner" . . . . All young music has always done that.

It's just different degrees, and it's getting stronger and stronger because it has to penetrate. Today, an earring in the nose is not going to shock anybody. We, unfortunately, are in an era right now where the youth has chosen to look at their romance through violence.

Q: Is that healthy?

A: No, it's not healthy, it's not healthy at all. But it's certainly a statement about our society . . . . Forget about looking at "Boyz N the Hood"; think about the conditions that cause the basis for boys in the hood. How did we get to this point?

Q: That's why you think people ought to listen to rap?

A: Yes, I do. They'll also find out, in some cases, it's not one thing--it's 150 tributaries. Some of it is protest, some is commerce, theatricality, drama, bull-- --a lot of bull--! But that's true in any kind of theatrical situation . . . .

When anyone just blanketly rejects rap, then that lets it become a generation gap. That's a trap right there. That's like saying, "Everybody who looks like that, sounds like that, I don't like them." What are you going to do--have genocide? There are too many young people that are into it.

I agree, in some cases, they have a strong, powerful platform that has no politic to it--that's the part that bothers me. Some of them are not taking the young people anywhere. Just chillin' is OK, but that's about doing nothing, and proud of doing nothing.

Q: Your Listen Up Foundation was formed to "respond to the erosion of values and seeks to uphold the dignity of work, creativity, education and pursuit of excellence." Can it be that those traditional goals are not so different from those who say they want to kill federal funding for arts?

A: This isn't about traditional values. We're talking about philosophies when we start talking about people who would kill funding for the arts. You don't see as many kids today channeling their energies into music, dance, the arts after school as 20 years ago because they don't have the opportunity now. It has to be available. Build it, and they will come.

When you think about the future, the 21st Century coming, cars can be manufactured anywhere, but American culture can only come from here.*

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