Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones


There was at least one undeniably amazing moment at Michael Jackson’s recent two-night stand at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It came during the opening night’s finale, when a team of musicians and singers trooped on stage to perform the feel-good chestnut ”We Are the World.” It wasn’t the song itself that was so moving—it was the crazy-quilt assortment of talent assembled in one place. Old-school jazz greats such as Clark Terry and David ”Fathead” Newman stood side by side with vapid pop royalty like ‘N Sync and reggae-lite rapper Shaggy. Conducting the music and overseeing the proceedings was the one man who could have drawn such disparate artistic souls together. No, not Jackson, though he was the nominal guest of honor, but Quincy Jones, musician, producer, arranger, entrepreneur, and godfather to decades of titanic music.

Jones is an odd sort of celebrity. He’s a behind-the-scenes mover who gained A-list status by having a hand in the creation of many of the most notable pop-cultural events of the past years, from Jackson’s Thriller to Spielberg’s The Color Purple to Vibe magazine, which he cofounded. He has an uncanny knack for being center stage at big events with big-name people. As he writes in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones: ”I’ve worked with the best, and I’ve never tried to chase celebrity. We just happened to stumble into each other.”

Reading Q, which alternates chapters written by Jones with ones by family, friends, and colleagues, one can’t help but be impressed by the continuous upward momentum of the man’s career. A musical prodigy who transcended a hardscrabble childhood (his grandmother often served fried rats) in Chicago, Kentucky, and Seattle, he was hired by Lionel Hampton to play in Hamp’s band at the age of 15 (although Hampton’s wife and manager, Gladys, vetoed her husband’s decision, insisting Jones finish school first). By the time he was 20, Jones was regularly gigging with the best jazz players around, and before long the fresh-faced wunderkind was arranging and producing albums for the likes of Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Frank Sinatra. In the ’60s, he began a lucrative career scoring films, before adding pop- music production to his resume.

It would be easy to dismiss Q as an exercise in name-dropping—and there seems to be nary a famous soul whose path hasn’t intersected with Jones’—if he were not such a gifted storyteller. The book is rife with memorable scenes: a strung-out Charlie Parker rooking a star-struck young Jones out of $17; Pablo Picasso paying for a meal by coloring the bones of his just-consumed fish with Magic Markers; Tina Turner turning down the lead in The Color Purple with the words ”I wouldn’t do a black picture if I was dying”; Jackson hiding behind a studio console, freaked out after being flashed by a female fan. Perhaps most entertaining are the accounts of Jones’ womanizing, detailed with humor and a tinge of regret in a chapter called ”My Life as a Dog.” (Two of Jones’ three ex-wives, Jeri Caldwell-Jones and Peggy Lipton, contribute tender chapters that serve as testaments to their powers of forgiveness. As Jones quips of himself, ”It ain’t easy being sleazy.”)

Floating like a harbinger of doom throughout the book is Jones’ mother, Sarah, a mentally unbalanced woman who keeps showing up at unexpected moments to torment her son. (There’s a harrowing description of a visit with her at an Illinois mental hospital in which a pre-teen Jones, his father, and brother, Lloyd, witness Sarah at her most dehumanized.) Jones readily acknowledges that he’s never fully been able to come to grips with his mother’s illness and is to some extent emotionally shut down because of it. To his credit, he allows other family members, including his once troubled son, Quincy Jones III, to express their anger and love in their own chapters, giving the reader several alternate viewpoints.

Ultimately, Q is worth reading as much for the way it traces the evolution of African-American music over the past five decades as for its portrait of Jones’ undeniably fascinating life. Face it: There aren’t many musicians who came of age in the bebop era who relate with equal ardor to the hip-hop world, making this possibly the only book that fans of Duke Ellington and Tupac Shakur alike might agree on. A-

Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones
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