Quincy Jones knew even at a young age that he wanted to compose film scores.
“I used to go to movies for 11 cents,” Jones said at his mansion nestled in the Bel-Air hills. “I used to play hooky in Seattle every day. I could tell if a movie was scored at 20th Century Fox with Alfred Newman or at Paramount with Victor Young. I could just feel it.”
Jones, who studied with composers Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris in 1957, would become one of the top film composers in Hollywood by the 1960s. In 1968 he became the first African American to earn two Oscar nominations in the same year — one for his score for Richard Brooks’ classic "In Cold Blood,” and one for composing the song “The Eyes of Love” from “Banning.” Jones also wrote the score for the 1968 best picture winner, “In the Heat of the Night,” and composed the film’s songs with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, including the title tune sung by Ray Charles.
The TCM Classic Film Festival will pay tribute to Jones’ work as a film composer this week. On Friday he will sit down with Leonard Maltin for a conversation at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and later that evening he’ll be on hand for the screening of the 1969 caper flick “The Italian Job,” which features one of his most haunting songs, “On Days Like These,” which he wrote with lyricist Don Black.
Jones returns Saturday evening for the 50th anniversary screening of Sidney Lumet’s searing 1964 drama, "The Pawnbroker,” which was the first U.S. film Jones scored.
“He is such a huge part of our culture, not just film culture,” said TCM’s senior vice president of programming, Charlie Tabesh. “I think it is going to be really special to have him, not just for those two films, but for his extended conversation.”
Jones, 81, is a renaissance man. As a teenage trumpet prodigy, he toured with Lionel Hampton’s band before becoming a composer, record producer, film and TV producer, arranger, conductor, the first black executive in a white-owned record company, magazine founder and humanitarian.
He produced and arranged “Off the Wall,” “Thriller” and “Bad” with Michael Jackson as well as the historic “We Are the World” recording. He was the subject of the well-received documentary “Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones.” He even produced the Academy Awards.
Jones has been nominated for seven Oscars, three of them for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 “The Color Purple” alone — for score, for song and as a producer. And in 1995 he received the academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Duke Ellington was the first African American composer to get screen credit on an American film, with Otto Preminger’s 1959 “Anatomy of a Murder,” and Ellington earned an Oscar nomination for scoring the 1961 film “Paris Blues.” But it was Jones who played the bigger role in bringing diversity to Hollywood, film music historian Jon Burlingame said.
“When Preminger hired Duke to do ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ he was one of the nation’s most famous jazz band leaders,” Burlingame said. “But Quincy genuinely broke the color barrier in Hollywood. He was the guy who made it possible for other African American composers to score movies.”
Jones’ years of work as an arranger were great training, Burlingame said. “You learn to paint with colors musically when you are an arranger like that.”
Burlingame believes that Jones’ music for “In the Heat of the Night” was the first blues-based dramatic score for American film. “The same year, he does ‘In Cold Blood,’ which is a powerful piece of work,” he said. “Though both are jazz-infused by a certain degree, they are both very dramatic and go beyond the jazz influences that you might expect from someone who played with Lionel Hampton’s band.”
Interviewing Jones is an experience. He’s a night owl, so interviews are scheduled for late afternoon.
He’s all charm and good humor as he saunters into the room, decorated with the posters of his film work. He takes a seat on the sofa next to his visitor and speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style, akin to a horn player’s improvisational jazz. He might talk about a movie (his composing debut came in the 1961 Swedish film “The Boy in the Tree”), then riff on his love of languages (“I am studying Mandarin”), then drop fun facts (Frank Sinatra was the first to call him “Q”).
It was good friend Lena Horne who introduced Jones to Lumet. Horne’s daughter was married to Lumet, and at Horne’s recommendation, the filmmaker contacted Jones about “The Pawnbroker.”
“He said, ‘I would like you to come and look at the movie and see what you think,’” Jones said. But after seeing the film, Jones told Lumet: “I don’t think it needs music.” To which Lumet said: “You are doing it.”
Though he quickly followed “The Pawnbroker” with “The Slender Thread” and “Mirage,” Jones said it wasn’t easy to be an African American in Hollywood 50 years ago. He recalled walking into Universal to begin work on the score of “Mirage” and seeing the look of shock from the producer, who didn’t know Jones was black.
“Sidney Poitier and I were the only ones out there,” said Jones, who supplied the score to several films starring Poitier, a longtime friend. “He handed me the baton for composers.”
Oscar-winning composer Henry Mancini also “was like a brother to me,” Jones said. “He supported me a lot.”
So did composer Stanley Wilson, who ran the music department at Revue, later Universal Television. “He was colorblind from Day 1,” Burlingame said. “He used Benny Carter to score ‘M Squad’ in 1958. He was a big factor in Quincy’s success in the early days.”
Jones composed the music to such classic TV series as “Ironside,” “The Bill Cosby Show” (he and Cosby composed the title tune, “Hikky Burr”) and “Sanford and Son.” He wrote music for the first part of “Roots,” for which he won an Emmy, and Oprah Winfrey’s talk show.
“It’s amazing when I look back,” Jones said of his life. "At my 81st birthday, I said, ‘Damn. How did all of this stuff happen?’”
TCM Classic Film Festival
Talk: “A Conversation with Quincy Jones,” 6 p.m. Friday, Club TCM at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 7000 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Open only to festival pass holders.
Screenings: “The Italian Job,” 9:30 p.m. Friday, Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles; “The Pawnbroker,” 9:15 p.m. Saturday at the Egyptian. Admission is $20 ($10 for students) per movie.