Quincy Jones: a Conversation

By Ben Cardew 9/30/10 Music Week

“Musical training is not enough”. When Quincy Jones utters these words before adding, “the conscious mind is full of shit”, who are we to argue? After all, he is the genius behind landmark works performed by Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson and hundreds of thousands of football fans every week. In this exclusive interview, Jones talks to Music Week about the finer points of music production.

However music you think you know the work of Quincy Jones, he still has the power to surprise.

You know, of course, that he produced Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and Thriller albums, revolutionising pop music in one amazing purple patch. But the sheer scale of his achievements is astounding.

Towards the end of our interview, the talk turns to football. Warming to the subject, Jones starts to sing The Self Preservation Society. “I wrote that, you know,” he adds with a glimmer in his eyes. “And they still sing that at football matches. Beckham told me.”

None of this should surprise you: not the reference to Beckham – Q’s rolodex is notoriously well-filled – nor that he penned such an iconic tune. After all, his career is packed with such achievements and a CV that would put even the most active artists to shame.

Born in Chicago in 1933, Jones first became interested in music when he took trumpet lessons at the age of 10. In 1951 he won a scholarship to Schillinger House (later to become the Berklee College of Music) but turned it down when he received an offer to tour with Lionel Hampton. It was on this tour that Jones’s gift for arranging songs first became apparent.

The next 10 years saw him tour with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, lead his own big band and become vice president of Mercury Records, helping to discover Lesley Gore. After resigning from Mercury, he concentrated on composing film scores, including work on iconic movies including The Italian Job and the Color Purple.

His own hits include the evergreen Soul Bossa Nova, taken from the album Big Band Bossa Nova and later used as the theme for the 1998 World Cup. But he is inevitably best known for his work with two of the cultural giants of the 20th Century: Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.

His work with Sinatra included arranging the singer’s second album with Count Basie, It Might As Well Be Swing; while for Jackson he famously produced his 1979 solo album Off The Wall, Thriller, the best-selling long-player of all time, and Bad.

Now in his seventies, Jones remains incredibly engaging company, with a ready laugh and a big smile, holding court in the opulent surroundings of The Dorchester Hotel in London’s Park Lane as he promotes a new signature line of headphones with AKG.

“Rules?” he questions, as I set out the Masterclass format. “They don’t have rules! A thousand people will get to the top in 1,000 different patterns and journeys.”

Nevertheless, as he sits down to what will turn out to be a cheerfully extended interview, it is clear he has a world of knowledge to impart, starting with the lesson that he considers to count above all others.

Have humility with creativity and grace with success

And tell them not to be ghetto like me! You can’t break those, or guys will just walk out of the room. When a person starts out, nobody knows who they are. When they get to the point where people know them, like Justin Bieber or Lady GaGa, after a while you are startled by that kind of reaction and you have two attitudes: I deserve all this adulation and money; or you think you don’t deserve it and you are fooling everybody. I see people go through this every day; not just musicians but athletes, singers… You have to realise, when you boil it down, that you are a terminal for a higher power.

Listen to your subconscious

The subconscious mind is 88% of you. The conscious mind is 12% – and the conscious mind is full of shit. It’s judgmental and the subconscious mind doesn’t know anything about that. It is affected more by images than it is verbally.

The subconscious mind can be negative, but it can have a positive effect; it can be turned either way. When you are struggling with a musical problem, I have learned how to let it go and lie down and leave my pad of music there and, boy, in six or seven hours those pages have been working down there, and there it is.

Don’t work with anybody you don’t love…

Because if you don’t love them, you will not graciously perceive their essence as a human being and love them enough to know everything about their musical abilities, how good their range is, can they be stretched to go to a teacher? Michael on Thriller, we went to a teacher.

You have to love them to honestly evaluate them because this is a very, very close relationship between producer and artist if you are going to go where you want to go. You go in the studio with Ray Charles or Frank Sinatra and you don’t know what you’re doing… you better know what you’re doing! You tell them to jump without a net – you will get in a lot of trouble, because they know.

Be subtle when you disagree with artists

A very simple rule that I have learned over the years – suggest to them in private, rather than tell them in public, because you force them to be the star they are. Frank Sinatra and I were working in Vegas and I had just re-orchestrated My Kind Of Town. We were doing the line-up and Frank said we open up with it. I had just written this thing to leave no prisoners as a closer. Nothing could follow it. And he wanted to close with Fly Me To The Moon. During rehearsal I softly said, “No way,” so we get back to the dressing rooms and mine was right next door to his and I said, “Francis, all we have to do is this. Put Fly Me To The Moon and My Kind Of Town here and we’ve got a show.” And he said, “Let’s go.” But I couldn’t put him in the corner.

Relationships are important

With Sinatra, we worked and played with each other, we partied together and we did everything together. That is the sign of real serious love; it is a powerful friendship. The other key words are love and trust. He [Sinatra] trusts you and you trust each other. When I feel him trust me, he is going to get the best out of me every time.

Learn from your mistakes

The more mistakes you make, the more you learn, but you don’t do them twice. There’s the old phrase, insanity is when you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. You learn in a very dramatic way because you blow it. Going after, you don’t do it. Every mistake leads to something else.

The song is the key

A great song can make a very low talented person a star. And a bad song, with the three greatest singers in the world, you can’t make it work. It’s very true.

It is important for musicians to get to know the music business

If you are smart you will realise why God gave you two ears and one mouth. I talk a lot now but you are supposed to listen twice as much as you talk.

Take it all the way

As an orchestrator and arranger you are enhancing the impact of the song. Your imagination has to recognise the not so obvious platforms and be able to take them to the maximum. You need a lot of training as a composer and instinct, too. You have to imagine a lot of other elements that weren’t in the song in the first place. When you have got a good song you can take it into something great.

Always keep open to new ideas

[Former teacher] Nadia Boulanger said it best. She said, “Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” No matter how much musical skill or technique you have, you have to live a life to have something to say. If you have got musical training, that’s not enough. Mentors and apprenticeships, there is nothing like it.

There is no science for melody

While it is still a cousin of mathematics, music is the only thing that engages the left and right brain simultaneously: there is always emotion and intellect. You can’t get away from it; that is what music is.

A melody, there is no science for that. You study counterpoint or harmony or composition or orchestration but there is really no science for melody. We all know about the power of the fifths and the fourths, the strongest intervals. But after a while all of that scientific junk becomes part of your body, you don’t even think about it.

Where does melody come from? God. And God leaves his hand on some shoulders a little longer than others.

The album is a life experience

An album should always be in the hand of one person. Sequencing is half of the job, what follows what and what keeps you interested and keeps you glued to that sound and moving. That journey is important.

Equipment is important

Equipment is as important as you can get. That’s why we are talking today. Because, with Harman and AKG I didn’t even have to think, before I could even pronounce the name I was using their equipment, that’s all we used because they were at the top of the game.

Editing is king

Every album has extra songs that didn’t make it to the album. There’s a little bit of advice I like to use all the time on an album: we went through 800 songs to get to Thriller and we ended up with nine, finally. They must have been very impressive to us.

When you get to nine, the producer has to, in his mind, pick and be very honest and say, “These four in relationship to the nine are the weakest of the entire nine.” It takes a lot of truth to do that. You have to bury the ego.

And then you attempt to take the four weakest out and make them the four strongest in the entire album. I have used that a lot and, boy, it works. We took the songs out of Thriller and we added The Lady In My Life, we added PYT, Beat It and Human Nature and they are the elements that make that album jump.

When you put a song like Billie Jean, which has got this groove, it speaks for itself, but it is a monster, maybe three chords in it, and you follow it with Human Nature, which is this kaleidoscopic collage of harmonics all over the place, your soul responds to that.

Mixed with Thriller and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, it makes a big difference. The combination of songs is what does it. If you listen to that you are getting this experience, this ride.

Also, especially working with Rod [Temperton], just the way I like it, you are dealing with counter lines, a bassline that you will never forget. Like the Billie Jean bassline.

Layer your records

I like to make records that you can enter with any one of six tickets, a record where you cannot hear it all during the first listening, you have to listen many times.

When we were getting ready to make Rock With You, I told [the song’s drummer] John Robinson, “I want a one-bar drum lick upfront that the whole world can hum.” And he did! All of these personalities start to join hands. It’s like painting. I was in art first and I still think of it like painting. I start with a charcoal sketch and go to water colours and then to oil. I put all of it together. Oil – that makes it permanent. I know it’s psychological and sounds gooky but it works.

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