In both music and manner, Quincy Jones has always registered — from afar, anyway — as smooth, sophisticated, and impeccably well-connected. (That’s what earning 28 Grammy awards and co-producing Michael Jackson’s biggest-selling albums will do.) But in person, the 84-year-old music-industry macher is far spikier and more complicated. “All I’ve ever done is tell the truth,” says Jones, seated on a couch in his palatial Bel Air home, and about to dish some outrageous gossip. “I’ve got nothing to be scared of, man.”
Currently in the midst of an extended victory lap ahead of his turning 85 in March — a Netflix documentary and a CBS special hosted by Oprah Winfrey are on the horizon — Jones, dressed in a loose sweater, dark slacks, and a jaunty scarf, talks like he has nothing to lose. He name-drops, he scolds, he praises, and he tells (and retells) stories about his very famous friends. Even when his words are harsh, he says them with an enveloping charm, frequently leaning over for fist bumps and to tap me on the knee. “The experiences I’ve had!” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “You almost can’t believe it.”
You worked with Michael Jackson more than anyone he wasn’t related to. What’s something people don’t understand about him?
I hate to get into this publicly, but Michael stole a lot of stuff. He stole a lot of songs. [Donna Summer’s] “State of Independence” and “Billie Jean.” The notes don’t lie, man. He was as Machiavellian as they come.
Greedy, man. Greedy. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” — Greg Phillinganes wrote the c section. Michael should’ve given him 10 percent of the song. Wouldn’t do it.
What about outside of music? What’s misunderstood about Michael?
I used to kill him about the plastic surgery, man. He’d always justify it and say it was because of some disease he had. Bullshit.
How much were his problems wrapped up with fame?
You mean with the way he looked? He had a problem with his looks because his father told him he was ugly and abused him. What do you expect?
It’s such a strange juxtaposition — how Michael’s music was so joyous, but his life just seems sadder and more odd as time goes by.
Yes, but at the end Michael’s problem was Propofol, and that problem affects everyone — doesn’t matter if you’re famous. Big Pharma making OxyContin and all that shit is a serious thing. I was around the White House for eight years with the Clintons, and I’d learn about how much influence Big Pharma has. It’s no joke. What’s your sign, man?
Me too. It’s a great sign.
You just mentioned the Clintons, who are friends of yours. Why is there still such visceral dislike of them? What are other people not seeing in Hillary, for example, that you see?
It’s because there’s a side of her — when you keep secrets, they backfire.
Like what secrets?
This is something else I shouldn’t be talking about.
You sure seem to know a lot.
I know too much, man.
What’s something you wish you didn’t know?
Who killed Kennedy.
Who did it?
[Chicago mobster Sam] Giancana. The connection was there between Sinatra and the Mafia and Kennedy. Joe Kennedy — he was a bad man — he came to Frank to have him talk to Giancana about getting votes.
I’ve heard this theory before, that the mob helped win Illinois for Kennedy in 1960.
We shouldn’t talk about this publicly. Where you from?
I was at the Massey Hall show.
Really? The Charlie Parker concert with Mingus and those guys?
Yeah, man. I saw the contract after. The whole band made $1,100. I’ll never forget that. At the time it was just another gig. It wasn’t historical. Like with Woodstock, Tito Puente told me he wanted to go out to that gig. Those festivals ain’t my thing. Elon Musk keeps trying to get me to go to Burning Man. No thank you. But who knew what Woodstock would turn out to be? Jimi Hendrix was out there fucking up the national anthem.
Wasn’t Hendrix supposed to play on Gula Matari?
He was supposed to play on my album and he chickened out. He was nervous to play with Toots Thielemans, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, Roland Kirk — those are some scary motherfuckers. Toots was one of the greatest soloists that ever fucking lived. The cats on my records were the baddest cats in the world and Hendrix didn’t want to play with them.
What’d you think when you first heard rock music?
Rock ain’t nothing but a white version of rhythm and blues, motherfucker. You know, I met Paul McCartney when he was 21.
What were your first impressions of the Beatles?
That they were the worst musicians in the world. They were no-playing motherfuckers. Paul was the worst bass player I ever heard. And Ringo? Don’t even talk about it. I remember once we were in the studio with George Martin, and Ringo had taken three hours for a four-bar thing he was trying to fix on a song. He couldn’t get it. We said, “Mate, why don’t you get some lager and lime, some shepherd’s pie, and take an hour-and-a-half and relax a little bit.” So he did, and we called Ronnie Verrell, a jazz drummer. Ronnie came in for 15 minutes and tore it up. Ringo comes back and says, “George, can you play it back for me one more time?” So George did, and Ringo says, “That didn’t sound so bad.” And I said, “Yeah, motherfucker because it ain’t you.” Great guy, though.
Were there any rock musicians you thought were good?
I used to like Clapton’s band. What were they called?
Yeah, they could play. But you know who sings and plays just like Hendrix?
Stop it. The Microsoft guy?
Yeah, man. I went on a trip on his yacht, and he had David Crosby, Joe Walsh, Sean Lennon — all those crazy motherfuckers. Then on the last two days, Stevie Wonder came on with his band and made Paul come up and play with him — he’s good, man.
You hang out in these elite social circles and doing good has always been important to you, but are you seeing as much concern for the poor as you’d like from the ultrarich?
No. The rich aren’t doing enough. They don’t fucking care. I came from the street, and I care about these kids who don’t have enough because I feel I’m one of ’em. These other people don’t know what it feels like to be poor, so they don’t care.
Are we in a better place as a country than we were when you started doing humanitarian work 50 years ago?
No. We’re the worst we’ve ever been, but that’s why we’re seeing people try and fix it. Feminism: Women are saying they’re not going to take it anymore. Racism: People are fighting it. God is pushing the bad in our face to make people fight back.
We’ve obviously been learning more lately about just how corrosive the entertainment industry can be for women. As someone who’s worked in that business at the highest levels for so many years, do all the recent revelations come as a surprise?
No, man. Women had to put up with fucked-up shit. Women and brothers — we’re both dealing with the glass ceiling.
But what about the alleged behavior of a friend of yours like Bill Cosby? Is it hard to square what he’s been accused of with the person you know?
It was all of them. Brett Ratner. [Harvey] Weinstein. Weinstein — he’s a jive motherfucker. Wouldn’t return my five calls. A bully.
What about Cosby, though?
What about it?
Were the allegations a surprise to you?
We can’t talk about this in public, man.
I’m sorry to jump around —
Be a Pisces. Jam.
If you could snap your fingers and fix one problem in the country, what would it be?
Racism. I’ve been watching it a long time — the ’30s to now. We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. The South has always been fucked up, but you know where you stand. The racism in the North is disguised. You never know where you stand. That’s why what’s happening now is good, because people are saying they are racists who didn’t used to say it. Now we know.
What’s stirred everything up? Is it all about Trumpism?
It’s Trump and uneducated rednecks. Trump is just telling them what they want to hear. I used to hang out with him. He’s a crazy motherfucker. Limited mentally — a megalomaniac, narcissistic. I can’t stand him. I used to date Ivanka, you know.
Yes, sir. Twelve years ago. Tommy Hilfiger, who was working with my daughter Kidada, said, “Ivanka wants to have dinner with you.” I said, “No problem. She’s a fine motherfucker.” She had the most beautiful legs I ever saw in my life. Wrong father, though.
Would your friend Oprah be a good president?
I don’t think she should run. She doesn’t have the chops for it. If you haven’t been governor of a state or the CEO of a company or a military general, you don’t know how to lead people.
She is the CEO of a company.
A symphony conductor knows more about how to lead than most businesspeople — more than Trump does. He doesn’t know shit. Someone who knows about real leadership wouldn’t have as many people against him as he does. He’s a fucking idiot.
Is Hollywood as bad with race as the rest of the country? I know that when you started scoring films, you’d hear producers say things like they didn’t want a “bluesy” score, which was clearly code-speak. Are you still encountering that kind of racism?
It’s still fucked up. 1964, when I was in Vegas, there were places I wasn’t supposed to go because I was black, but Frank [Sinatra] fixed that for me. It takes individual efforts like that to change things. It takes white people to say to other white people, “Do you really want to live as a racist? Is that really what you believe?” But every place is different. When I go to Dublin, Bono makes me stay at his castle because Ireland is so racist. Bono’s my brother, man. He named his son after me.
Is U2 still making good music?
I don’t know. I love Bono with all my heart, but there’s too much pressure on the band. He’s doing good work all over the world. Working with him and Bob Geldof on debt relief was one of the greatest things I ever did. It’s up there with “We Are the World.”
There’s a small anecdote in your memoir about how the rock musicians who’d been asked to sing on “We Are the World” were griping about the song. Is there more to that story?
It wasn’t the rockers. It was Cyndi Lauper. She had a manager come over to me and say, “The rockers don’t like the song.” I know how that shit works. We went to see Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Billy Joel, and all those cats and they said, “We love the song.” So I said [to Lauper], “Okay, you can just get your shit over with and leave.” And she was fucking up every take because her necklace or bracelet was rattling in the microphone. It was just her that had a problem.
What’s something you’ve worked on that should’ve been bigger?
What the fuck are you talking about? I’ve never had that problem. They were all big.
From a strictly musical perspective, what have you done that you’re most proud of?
That anything I can feel, I can notate musically. Not many people can do that. I can make a band play like a singer sings. That’s what arranging is, and it’s a great gift. I wouldn’t trade it for shit.
A few years back there was a quote you supposedly gave — I couldn’t find the source of it, so maybe it’s apocryphal — where you dismissed rap as being a bunch of four-bar loops. Is that an opinion you stand by?
That’s true about rap, that it’s the same phrase over and over and over again. The ear has to have the melody groomed for it; you have to keep the ear candy going because the mind turns off when the music doesn’t change. Music is strange that way. You’ve got to keep the ear busy.
Is there an example from the work you did, maybe with Michael, which illustrates what you’re talking about?
Yeah, the best example of me trying to feed the musical principles of the past — I’m talking about bebop — is “Baby Be Mine.” [Hums the song’s melody.] That’s Coltrane done in a pop song. Getting the young kids to hear bebop is what I’m talking about. Jazz is at the top of the hierarchy of music because the musicians learned everything they could about music. Every time I used to see Coltrane he’d have Nicolas Slonimsky’s book.
Yeah, he was famously obsessed with the Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. That’s the one you’re talking about, right?
That’s right. You’re bringing up all the good subjects now! Everything that Coltrane ever played was in that thesaurus. In fact, right near the front of that book, there’s a 12-tone example — it’s “Giant Steps.” Everyone thinks Coltrane wrote that, he didn’t. It’s Slonimsky. That book started all the jazz guys improvising in 12-tone. Coltrane carried that book around till the pages fell off.
When Coltrane started to go far out with the music —
Even further out, though, like on Ascension —
You can’t get further out than 12-tone, and “Giant Steps” is 12-tone.
But when he was playing atonally —
No, no, no. Even that was heavily influenced by Alban Berg — that’s as far out as you can get.
Do you hear the spirit of jazz in pop today?
No. People gave it up to chase money. When you go after Cîroc vodka and Phat Farm and all that shit, God walks out of the room. I have never in my life made music for money or fame. Not even Thriller. No way. God walks out of the room when you’re thinking about money. You could spend a million dollars on a piano part and it won’t make you a million dollars back. That’s just not how it works.
Is there innovation happening in modern pop music?
Hell no. It’s just loops, beats, rhymes and hooks. What is there for me to learn from that? There ain’t no fucking songs. The song is the power; the singer is the messenger. The greatest singer in the world cannot save a bad song. I learned that 50 years ago, and it’s the single greatest lesson I ever learned as a producer. If you don’t have a great song, it doesn’t matter what else you put around it.
What was your greatest musical innovation?
Everything I’ve done.
Everything you’ve done was innovative?
Everything was something to be proud of — absolutely. It’s been an amazing contrast of genres. Since I was very young, I’ve played all kinds of music: bar mitzvah music, Sousa marches, strip-club music, jazz, pop. Everything. I didn’t have to learn a thing to do Michael Jackson.
What would account for the songs being less good than they used to be?
The mentality of the people making the music. Producers now are ignoring all the musical principles of the previous generations. It’s a joke. That’s not the way it works: You’re supposed to use everything from the past. If you know where you come from, it’s easier to get where you’re going. You need to understand music to touch people and become the soundtrack to their lives. Can I tell you one of the greatest moments in my life?
It was the first time they celebrated Dr. King’s birthday in Washington, D.C., and Stevie Wonder was in charge and asked me to be musical director. After the performance, we went to a reception, and three ladies came over: The older lady had Sinatra at the Sands, I arranged that; her daughter had my album The Dude; and then that lady’s daughter had Thriller. Three generations of women said those were their favorite records. That touched me so much.
I’m trying to isolate what you specifically believe the problem with modern pop is. It’s the lack of formal musical knowledge on the part of the musicians?
Yes! And they don’t even care they don’t have it.
Well, who’s doing good work?
Bruno Mars. Chance the Rapper. Kendrick Lamar. I like where Kendrick’s mind is. He’s grounded. Chance, too. And the Ed Sheeran record is great. Sam Smith — he’s so open about being gay. I love it. Mark Ronson is someone who knows how to produce.
Putting aside the quality of contemporary songs, are there any technical or sonic production techniques that feel fresh?
No. There ain’t nothing new. The producers are lazy and greedy.
How does that laziness manifest itself?
Listen to the music — these guys don’t know what they’re doing. You’ve got to respect the gift God gave you by learning your craft.
Are you as down on the state of film scoring as you are on pop?
It’s not good. Everybody’s lazy. Alexandre Desplat — he’s good. He’s my brother. He was influenced by my scores.
Again, when you say film composers are lazy, what does that mean, exactly, in this context?
It means they’re not going back and listening to what Bernard Herrmann did.
Do you see a future for the music business?
There isn’t a music business anymore! If these people had paid attention to Shawn Fanning 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be in this mess. But the music business is still too full of these old-school bean counters. You can’t be like that. You can’t be one of these back-in-my-day people.
You’re talking about business not music, but, and I mean this respectfully, don’t some of your thoughts about music fall under the category of “back in my day”?
Musical principles exist, man. Musicians today can’t go all the way with the music because they haven’t done their homework with the left brain. Music is emotion and science. You don’t have to practice emotion because that comes naturally. Technique is different. If you can’t get your finger between three and four and seven and eight on a piano, you can’t play. You can only get so far without technique. People limit themselves musically, man. Do these musicians know tango? Macumba? Yoruba music? Samba? Bossa nova? Salsa? Cha-cha?
Maybe not the cha-cha.
[Marlon] Brando used to go cha-cha dancing with us. He could dance his ass off. He was the most charming motherfucker you ever met. He’d fuck anything. Anything! He’d fuck a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye.
He slept with them? How do you know that?
[Frowns.] Come on, man. He did not give a fuck! You like Brazilian music?
Yeah, but I don’t know much beyond Jorge Ben and Gilberto Gil.
Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso are the kings! You know, I visit the favelas every year. Those motherfuckers have a hard life. They’re tough, though. You think our shit in America’s bad? It’s worse there.
I read that as a young man you used to carry around a .32.
Did you ever fire it?
[Grins.] Just practicin’.
Okay, let me ask you a left-field question. In your memoir, there’s a section where you talk about —
Being a dog?
That’s not what I was thinking of, but yeah, that’s in there. I was thinking of a section where you describe having a nervous breakdown not long after Thriller. You talk so often about your ups — I’m wondering if maybe you can talk about one of your downs.
What happened was that I was a producer on The Color Purple. Spielberg and me are still great friends, man. He’s a great fucking guy. I loved working with him.
Yep, but what happened on The Color Purple that caused your breakdown?
What happened was that I was a producer on that movie and everybody went on vacation after we finished filming — everybody except me. I had to stay home and write an hour and 55 minutes of music for the movie. I was so fucking tired from doing that, I couldn’t see. I put too much on my plate and it took its toll. You learn from your mistakes and I learned I couldn’t do that again.
What’s the last mistake you learned from?
My last record [2010’s Q: Soul Bossa Nostra]. I was not in favor of doing it, but the rappers wanted to record something as a tribute to me, where they’d do versions of songs that I’d done over my career. I said to them, “Look, you got to make the music better than we did on the originals.” That didn’t happen. T-Pain, man, he didn’t pay attention to the details.
What’s something positive you’ve been feeling about music lately?
Understanding where it comes from. It’s fascinating. I was on a trip with Paul Allen a few years ago, and I went to the bathroom and there were maps on the wall of how the Earth looked a million-and-a-half years ago. Off the coast of South Africa, where Durban is, was the coast of China. The people had to be mixing, and you hear it in the music — in the drums from both places. There are African qualities to Chinese music, Japanese music, too, with the Kodo drumming. It all comes from Africa. It’s a heavy thing to think about.
You’re about to turn 85. Are you afraid of the end?
What do you think happens when you pass?
You’re just gone.
Are you religious?
No, man. I know too much about it. I knew Romano Mussolini, the jazz piano player, the son of Benito Mussolini. We used to jam all night. And he’d tell me about where the Catholics were coming from. The Catholics have a religion based on fear, smoke, and murder. And the biggest gimmick in the world is confession: “You tell me what you did wrong and it’ll be okay.” Come on. And almost everywhere you go in the world, the biggest structures are the Catholic churches. It’s money, man. It’s fucked up.
On the subject of money, I have a crass question. You spent the first half of your career working in jazz, which isn’t especially lucrative. When did you start to make serious money?
When I started producing after Lesley Gore. I was the first black vice-president at a record label [Mercury], which was great — except that meant they didn’t pay me for producing her. You know how they do; you know your country. But after that, in the ’70s, when I started producing for other artists, and then with Michael of course, that made me a lot of money. And big money came from TV producing — The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, that was huge for me. Mad TV was on for 14 years. That syndication money is great, man.
How much did your upbringing — the difficulties with your mother and growing up in real poverty — affect how you perceive success?
Of course it affected it. I appreciate the shit I have because I know what it’s like to have nothing.
What about having a fractured family? How did that change you?
Same as with money, man. I appreciate what I got.
How often do you think about your mother?
All the time. She died in a mental home. Brilliant lady, but she never got the help she needed. Her dementia praecox could’ve been cured with vitamin B, but she couldn’t get it because she was black.
When you think about her now, what comes to mind?
That I wish I could’ve been closer to her. What happened to her — for kids, that’s a bitch.
What’s the most ambitious thing you have left to do?
Qwest TV. Everybody is excited about it. It’s going to be a musical Netflix. It’s the best music from every genre around the world. So if kids want to hear something great, it’ll be right there for them. I can’t believe I still get to be involved in things like this. I stopped drinking two years ago and I feel like I’m 19 years old. I’ve never been so creative. I can’t tell you, man — what a life!
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.