Quincy Jones Can't Help But Look Back on His Life and Legacy

Quincy Jones does not go to funerals—hasn't for a long, long time. He turns 76 on March 14, and at his age, there's no time for backward-glancing, not when every day is "like starting all over again." He does not stand still, certainly not by a graveside—not when "I've almost died several times myself," he says, referring to the cerebral aneurysm in 1974 that forced him to quit playing the trumpet.

"I've lost 144 friends in two and a half years," he says. "That's a lot of people. I don't want to keep track of it, but people remind me of it all the time. I don't know why. They don't have to. I dial Ray Charles' number, and he doesn't answer. Brando, Sinatra, Basie—shit, it's a bitch, man. I can't handle these funerals anymore."

So, instead, he sends a wreath and passes along to the survivors a copy of a book called Crossing: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting Go, which features an introduction by The Color Purple author Alice Walker.

"It helps the people get through it, because that's who you care about—the ones left behind," he says. "It's a reality of life. And I finally realize and rationalize it: There's a chemical energy and spiritual energy, and thank God the creative people leave their spiritual energy here. We lived our life, and it'd be a drag to say, 'I wish we spent more time together.'"

So onward and onward he marches, a titan in the trenches, the only man alive whose résumé stretches from Lionel Hampton to Ray Charles to Peggy Lee to Miles Davis to Michael Jackson to Sean Combs... and hundreds of other household names in between. Which is not to say he runs from his past—far from it. Jones is on his third history book now: The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey and Passions, a mesmerizing coffee-table history-of cobbled together from the scraps of a life collected by his sister-in-law Gloria and bookended by a Maya Angelou preface, a Clint Eastwood foreword, a Bono introduction and a Sidney Poitier afterword.

It's all there in bits and pieces, reproduced to look like the real thing—a ledger documenting every note played and every cent paid on sessions dating back to 1954 with (among many others) Ray Charles and Count Basie, sheet music from "We Are the World," a handwritten note from Oprah Winfrey, reproductions of his platinum-album awards won with Michael Jackson, even a typewritten note from 1950 notifying him of his scholarship to the Schillinger House music school.

"I don't know how Gloria found all that stuff," he says. "I saw some stuff in there of all the records I was making when I was starving to death in New York and making $30 an arrangement." He laughs. "But it's all good, man. God is good. That's what your work is—your life. I remember when I studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1957. She said, 'Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being. If you haven't lived, you don't have anything to say, no matter how much technique you have.'"

Which is why he shares, again and again, the most intimate details of a rough, violent childhood in Chicago's South Side, where he lived from 1933 until moving to Seattle in 1944; the trauma of living with a mother whose madness eventually landed her in an asylum; the anguish of suffering at the hands of an abusive stepmother. The book is loaded with not only famous faces and family photos, but even a newspaper clipping about his carpenter and electrician father's encounters with government-sponsored racism during the late 1930s.

"Our secrets are emotional poison, man," he says, when asked about the ease with which he's so intimate. "I've been with the Nobel doctors in the last five years, and since I was a kid with Ray Charles, we've come to know this. There are a certain few things we come to discover in life that you hold on to forever, and it doesn't take many words. It's the old cliché: Watch your thoughts, because your thoughts become the secret. You become your thoughts. The Nobel guys remind me of that all the time, and that's why your thoughts should be: Love, laugh, live and give.

"It's that whole thing: Watch your thoughts, because they become your words. Choose your words, because they become your actions. Understand your actions, because they become your habits, and study your habits, because they become your character, and your character becomes your destiny. It's so true, man, and if you take mean stuff and dark stuff and keep it buried, you'll get sick. We're self-contained emotional machines."

If all this sounds too good to be true—the further mythologizing of legend—it is not. Jones was in town last October for the Tate Lecture Series at SMU, and I had the honor of moderating his hour-long chat. We spent the better part of two days together—when he wasn't visiting with his dear Dallas friends, among them beloved pediatrician Robert Kramer, who sits on the board of the Quincy Jones Foundation; Stanley Marcus' daughter Jerrie and her daughter, photographer Allison V. Smith; and PR agency Levinson & Hill's namesake, Stan Levinson. Or when he was not visiting St. Phillip's School and Community Center near Fair Park, and listening to students perform or asking executive director and headmaster Terry Phillips how he might help.

His legend certified but his life incomplete, Jones is as kind as he is immortal. Those who show up at Barnes & Noble on March 18 will see for themselves—one handshake, and you'll feel as though you've known him your whole life.

Which, of course, is true: He's provided the soundtrack for several generations already, with countless more to follow. Here, from Bono's delightfully awestruck and appropriately overwrought introduction to The Complete Quincy Jones: "Music lovers who are not yet born will remember the records that Quincy Jones produced, arranged, wrote and/or played on. They will know Ray Charles, they will know Thriller, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Sanford and Son, Count Basie, Roots...Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, 'We Are the World,' 'It's My Party'...If God has a jukebox, I know which name is on more of the selections than any other. It starts with a Q. It ends there too."

For his 76th birthday, Jones celebrated in London with dear friend Michael Caine—"my celestial twin," he says, noting they share the same birthday down to the "year, month, day and hour." Paul and Stella McCartney were also there. Then, he attended three birthday parties in Cairo. Next, he'll come to Dallas for the book signing. That night, he will fly to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival and conference, where he will deliver the keynote address. After that: Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, then back to the States to record Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett's duets album. He also has movies to produce and appear in, among them a 3-D documentary on Carnival and the history of recorded music. And, thus far, more than a quarter-million people have signed an online petition begging President Obama to appoint him U.S. Ambassador of Culture—which Jones at once embraces and shrugs off, though he would like to scatter an army of musicians in public schools to teach kids about Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the other friends Q's buried over the decades.

"I just go with what's in my heart and listen to God's whispers," he says. "My life is balanced between my kids, my friends, my foundation, my professional life and my love life, which is pretty wild right now. It's beautiful, man. I love sweet ladies. Really beautiful women are beautiful on the inside. I just take everything one at a time."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky