With his right hand, Quincy Jones lifts the trumpet from the dark velvet lining of the case in which it has been entombed for 20 years, then with practiced ease he puts the mouthpiece delicately to his lips. He takes a breath and holds it for a measure, thinks about the note that he would blow and the likelihood that playing it would kill him dead, pulls the horn away and holds the note in his head.
That is where all the music has come from since 1974, when Jones suffered a pair of near-fatal brain aneurysms. Two surgical scars crease the top of his forehead like the imprint from some extravagant kiss, as if his mind had developed an embouchure of its own.
“Can’t play anymore,” he says. “The main artery in my brain is held together with a clip. Deep-sea diving and playing the trumpet blow that thing straight off.”
This is the informing irony of Quincy Jones’ life, a twist of fate no less galling in its way than Beethoven’s deafness, if on a less epic scale. The man with the most Grammy Award nominations of any musician in history cannot blow a note of music without the risk of permanently hot-wiring his head.
The trumpet was a gift from Dizzy Gillespie, the first horn Gillespie ever ordered from the manufacturer with the bell turned up, and it has been Jones’ most cherished possession since Dizzy gave it to him in 1956.
“The doctor had told me, ‘Don’t touch your horn, it’s too much pressure, it’ll take that clip right out,’ ” Jones says. “But I really didn’t believe what he was talking about. I was playing the slide trumpet once right after the operation when I heard that thing start to crackle and pop. And I haven’t touched the horn since.”
Jones has had his hands in practically every other part of the music business, however, producing Michael Jackson’s landmark triptych of “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad,” as well as “We Are the World,” the highest-profile single of the modern era.
Last week, Jones took on what could be his most formidable challenge since he ran the ego checkroom at the “We Are the World” session: producing next year’s Academy Awards telecast.
“This is a serious challenge, but I’ve gotten my feet wet in some very deep waters recently,” he said the day of the announcement. “The timing feels right.”
First things first, though. On Tuesday, Jones will try to recapture some musical crackle and pop with the release of his first album in six years, “Q’s Jook Joint,” on Q’s own label, Qwest Records ( see review, Page 92 ). The album’s launch has already been given a sloppy wet kiss by Vibe, Q’s own magazine, which devoted its November cover to a Q&A; with Q.
Jones has spent much of the past month and a half making countless appearances at radio stations in nine cities--including seven stations in a single day recently in Los Angeles--doing what Jones calls the “grippin’ and grinnin’ ” that lubricates the music business at the local level.
At 62 and wealthy beyond imagining, he submits to these small tortures, he says, to help promote the career of his most recent discovery, a 19-year-old Canadian singer named Tamia. He has made her song the album’s first single. “It’s good for her, good for the record company,” he says.
The record company would seem to be in need of all the help it can get, which may be another reason Jones has taken such a hands-on approach to the new album’s promotion.
Qwest was supposed to have a new Tevin Campbell release out three months ago, “Q’s Jook Joint” is also long overdue, and the label’s production pipeline seemed to have dried up.
“If anybody doubts us, tell them to just watch,” Jones says. “Everything’s fine. Sometimes you get behind on a few records. I had planned to finish mine last Christmas, but you can’t force it.”
The night before he made his rounds at L.A. radio stations, Jones hosted a benefit at Creative Artists Agency headquarters for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to help raise funds for Lincoln Center’s jazz program. It had taken a year to work the event into Jones’ schedule. “I say no to 99% of the things I’m asked to do, and the 1% kicks my ass,” he says.
After leaving CAA, Jones has a meeting with producer Jeremy Thomas over a late dinner at Drai’s, during which the two discuss the possibility of having Bernardo Bertolucci direct one of Jones’ upcoming film projects, the story of Alexander Pushkin, the black Russian who is regarded as the father of modern Russian poetry. “Bertolucci talks about it all the time,” Jones tells his partner, David Salzman, the next night. “I think he would tear it up. It would be a killer. He understands the street sensibility of it.”
Salzman, who is co-chief executive officer with Jones in QDE--a company with holdings in broadcasting, music, movie development and publishing--expresses some reservations about Bertolucci’s recent history of box-office flops. “He has no [commercial] judgment,” Salzman says, though it is obvious that in the face of this, Jones’ enthusiasm for the director of “The Conformist” remains undiminished.
The next morning, Jones is an hour and 20 minutes late for his first appearance on alternative-rock citadel KROQ-FM’s “Kevin and Bean Show,” and the interview gets off to a surly start because Bean has been making indelicate suggestions on the air about what might happen if Jones “doesn’t get his black ass up here.”
On four hours’ sleep, Jones is in no mood for this or a question about O.J. Simpson’s acquittal the day before. Later that night, however, at a taping of “In the House,” one of the three network television shows he produces (the others are “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Mad TV”), Jones says of Simpson: “If he did, in fact, do it, a higher power will take care of him in a worse way than if he had gotten convicted. No question about it.”
Though his taste for rich foods has given him a certain avoirdupois in recent years, Jones looks as stylish as ever in tan corduroy pants, a striped shirt with no collar, his trademark vest and a pair of plum suede shoes.
On the drive from KROQ to KPWR-FM, the top-rated hip-hop station, someone in the seven-member entourage from Qwest Records that accompanies Jones on this tour offers him a small bottle of amber fluid with a root floating in it, which turns out to be ginseng, and he chugs it.
Whether this has anything to do with the buoyant session that follows with KPWR hosts the Fabulous Baka Boyz is difficult to say, but the starchy Mr. Jones of the previous half-hour gives way almost instantly to the positively funkadelic Q. He explains that the jook joint he has created in the recording studio is metaphorical but modeled on real places that flourished in America’s black communities after the abolition of slavery. Q’s Jook Joint is his own field of dreams.
“I figured if we build it, everybody will come,” he says. “And everybody did.”
B y 5 p.m., most of the homeboys who work as gardeners and domestics in Q’s ‘hood are hurrying down the hill away from Bel-Air, but after five interviews with print reporters and a series of conference calls to resolve some problems that have arisen involving his company’s ownership of TV stations in New Orleans and Atlanta, Jones is ready for a night out. He keeps a driver and a Lincoln Town Car on hand at all times because he does not know how to drive. Unlike a lot of people in California who don’t know how to drive, Jones has never had a driver’s license.
In the downstairs billiard room of the hilltop home in which he has lived for a decade, the Grammys are out for polishing, all 26 of them. They are arrayed in rows along the top of a bamboo-frame pool table, their golden bells fixed on the eastern sky like listening trumpets straining to hear the voice of God. Or Allah.
“All music comes from a very pure place,” Jones says. “There’s a science to orchestrating, certain principles that are there, and then you have to have your gift on top of that. But with melody there are no principles, there is no science. All melodies come straight from God.”
They have not come to Jones, however, not recently. He has all but abandoned composing since writing the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” a movie that he also co-produced.
“It’s something I miss, but I have to be very realistic in terms of the amount of time things take now,” Jones says. “As you get older, you dig in more. You don’t have too many 18-month cycles in your life left to be promiscuous with. That’s a ridiculous way to have to think, but it’s true.”
His work as a producer allows him to be more painterly in his approach to music.
“My thing is more visual than it is sound,” he says. “I try to paint pictures with sound. In the beginning it feels like charcoal sketches, then pastel and watercolors as you start to figure out the contour and shape of it, its climaxes, its rises and falls. It has a shape just like a dramatic form, and you’ve got to make each climax a little higher. You can’t go back to a lower climax and build anything. It’s like sex, you know.”
M ixing jazz, rap and R&B; on the new record, just as he did in 1989 with “Back on the Block,” Jones has produced a crossover confection so insistent upon blurring conventional boundaries--Barry White meets Toots Thielemans! Phil Collins and Heavy D!--that “Jook Joint” finally ends up as a kind of musical salad spinner: We Are the Whirled.
For more than three decades, it was Jones’ ability to produce both jazz and pop tunes that appealed to predominantly white audiences--most notably with Michael Jackson but also with Frank Sinatra and Lesley Gore, whose “It’s My Party” in 1963 was Jones’ first No. 1 single--that has made him a commercial powerhouse. But after dabbling with rap in “Back on the Block,” he began to immerse himself in hip-hop culture in a way that some of his old musical cronies no doubt found unsettling.
Jones seems not to have considered the possibility that this move to hip-hop might make him look silly, in the way that Sinatra had seemed foolish when he began trying to cover Bee Gees songs.
“Listen, man, nobody came from Sutton Place or Buckingham Palace,” Jones says, bristling. “I come from the heart of the Chicago ghetto. I’ve been through the same [expletive] that Ice-T and them have been through. It’s been a long time, but you don’t forget that journey. Ever. Bel-Air is where I live, but my soul is not up here.”
The sudden shift in his musical tastes came about just as his only son, Quincy Delight Jones III, known as QDIII, was coming of age. (Jones also has six daughters, the youngest of whom--2 1/2-year-old Kenya--he had with his current companion, actress Nastassja Kinski.)
“I always worried about my son, about him having the first-generation money,” he says. “You want him to have the same street background you had. I think it’s important for a male child to understand what the street’s about, because the sensibility of the world is really driven by the street, no matter what anybody says, whether it’s fashion or culture. It’s OK for your daughters not to experience that, but for a boy, I think you can set him back by not letting him have that part of his life. Especially if he doesn’t know it exists.”
In hip-hop culture, Jones saw a way both to expand his own business empire and to help along the trend toward blacks’ retaining ownership of their art.
“Everybody worked very hard to see that that didn’t happen,” Jones says. “But eventually it’s going to happen. When you shut people out with such intensity, you make them more intense too, more determined, smarter.”
In 1992, he developed an idea for a magazine that he envisioned as “the Rolling Stone of urban culture.” His first meeting with the top editors at Time Inc. was daunting: “I saw all those white socks and said, ‘Man, I’m dead.’ ” But from that meeting came Vibe, an almost instant succes d’estime , though it has yet to turn a profit.
“There’s never been a [mainstream] magazine where black writers can come and have a home,” Jones says. “We didn’t really have a place to go.”
If conservative politicians--and not a few liberals--are troubled by the violence and sexual mayhem in gangsta rap, Jones is not.
“That’s drama,” he says. “If they weren’t venting that on records, they may be doing it. Because they’re just representing what they see every day and making it theatrical. Do you think Ice-T’s ever killed a cop? It’s a world you don’t understand, anyway. It scares you, it terrifies you, sure. There was a time when banjo pickers made black people feel the same way, scared the [expletive] out of them, you know?”
There are few institutions left in the world that divide along color lines as unvaryingly as American churches and American restaurants. But the crowd of music tip-sheet writers and industry insiders at Roscoe’s on Pico--holy sepulcher of the chicken and waffle--on hand this evening to meet Q and hear a few tracks from “Jook Joint” is largely nondenominational. Jones says he has learned most of what he knows about the rest of the world’s music--subtle inflections of which can be heard throughout the new album--in restaurants.
“If you indulge in what they eat and drink, the language and the music, you can really get inside a country,” he says. “And I love that entry point. I never wanted to know about American hamburgers in Paris. I want to eat what they eat, what they’ve been eating for thousands of years.”
This has occasionally tried his tolerance.
“You have to be game, ‘cause you miss the good stuff too if you start getting too selective,” he says. “Everyplace you go, they have a different dish, and in places like Italy and France that’s beautiful. But you’d run into those rough ones now and then, where they’d tell you about some hand cheese in Germany, and that tastes just like it sounds. Wooo, that’s some terrible stuff.
“But I’m game, I’ll try it one time. That’s being alive. I ate sea slugs in the Orient once. They called it beste la mer . Slug of the sea.”
There have been few enough bestes la mer in Jones’ mostly charmed life. He has been a Gump-like figure, present at much of what was important in the history of music for the past half-century. He played with Charlie Parker and Gillespie during the birth of be-bop, worked with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie and influenced the careers of such divas as Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.
“I was born at the right time, you know?” Jones says. But there was a moment when it all could have turned out differently.
“When I first went to New York in 1951, I went to see an arranger who I really adored,” Jones says. “He was very famous. I had just come from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and I was full of what I was going to do. I went to this arranger out of total admiration, and I asked him would he mind if I looked at his scores. And he said, ‘No, I can’t let you do that. I’m the greatest Negro arranger in the United States.’
“And it shocked me,” he says, “because that’s not what I wanted to be. That was exactly what I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be the greatest arranger in the world, man. I didn’t want to know about being the greatest Negro arranger. I thought, ‘What the [expletive] is that? You got 12 notes. Those notes don’t know the difference who’s using them. Some of ‘em are white, some of ‘em black.’ ”
And he holds those notes in his head.*