Talking Out of School with.... Quincy Jones
The following is a conversation about education that I had with legendary producer Quincy Jones at a conference he convened in New York City about music education. Jones has been nominated for more Grammies than any other living artist, with a total of 79 nominations and 27 awards. He also won an Emmy Award, seven Oscar nominations, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Q) Did you start your music career in school?
A) No. I didn’t pay much attention to music when I was really young. But when I was 11, I broke into an armory and….
Q) Excuse me, you broke into an armory? An armory?
A) Yes, my father was a carpenter for the Jones brothers in Chicago. They were gangsters. We used to play baby gangster. We played war with real machine guns. Real ammo.
Q) So you are lucky to be alive.
A) For many reasons.
Q) Back to the armory and music.
A) We broke into an armory to get some weapons and ammunition and I entered a room where there was a piano. I left, but everything in my body told me to go back to that piano. So I did. And with every fiber of my being and every drop of blood I knew as soon as I touched the piano that I would be doing this for the rest of my life.
Q) So you started with the piano. Do you think all music students should start with the piano?
A) It’s a good one because it gives you the full scope, the full musical range. After I learned the piano, I went on to learn percussion, the tuba, b-flat baritone, French horn, trombone, trumpet, most of the instruments in the orchestra. Trumpet was my instrument.
Q) Where did you go to high school?
A) Garfield High school in Seattle. It was the most diverse school ever. Jimi Hendrix went through. Others too. I kept learning music there.
Q) How did you get from Chicago to Seattle?
A) My father put my brother and I on a bus, shipped us out. [Al] Capone ran the Jones brothers—they weren’t a relation; my dad was a carpenter for them—out of Chicago, and my dad wanted to get us out of the city.
Q) What about college?
A) I started at Seattle University but I wanted to be closer to New York, closer to my idols, Charlie Parker, others. So I went to Berklee [the Berklee School of Music] on scholarship. Then it was called Schillinger House. In Boston. But I didn’t finish.
A) Lionel Hampton took me in his band and we went overseas to tour.
Q) Who were your favorite teachers?
A) Ray Charles. I met him when I was 14. He was only a few years younger but he was a great teacher. He used to say back then, in ’46, that in 20 years he wanted to own three airplanes. He did.
Q) Who else do you consider your greatest teachers?
A) Clark Terry talk me how to play the trumpet. [Count] Basie, he took me in and taught me. Nadia Boulangier, she taught me in France. She taught Aaron Copland, and lots of others. She told me, ‘I can’t un-corrupt you because you started with Ray Charles.’
Q) Besides music, what was your favorite subject?
A) History. World history. Now I travel all around the world. I’ve been to China 12 times in the past 2 ½ years. You know they are going to eat our lunch.
Q) There are a lot of people who are concerned about that for sure. How important is it for young Americans to travel? Should it be part of their schooling?
A) Young people should travel and they don’t. You can’t know if you don’t go. I started traveling when I was 19 with Lionel [Hampton]. We had the first Fender bass, without which we wouldn’t have rock ‘n roll. I started studying languages, Greek, Turkish, French, Farsi, a little Portuguese, now Mandarin and Arabic.
Q) How many languages do you speak?
A) About 14.
Q) That’s almost ridiculous. You were born with a supreme musical talent AND an ear for languages? So what languages should kids be learning in school today?
A) Mandarin [Chinese]. Arabic. Spanish. Quick. They better learn quick. We are getting really behind.
A) Many ways. For one thing, American kids don’t know their own heritage. They don’t know who they are. Everywhere I go in the world people understand American music, its roots, jazz and blues, better than our own kids do.
Q) What should kids absolutely learn in school today.
A) Learn what everybody did with the 12 notes. There aren’t 13. The 12 notes. Duke Ellington, Bo Diddley, Charlie Parker, everything in every genre of music. You know, I’m not ashamed of ‘Thriller’ [the blockbuster Michael Jackson album Jones produced].
Q) Why in the world would you be ashamed of Thriller? It was fabulous. Still is. Who would tell you to be ashamed of it?
A) There are purists who told us to stick with jazz. Don’t leave jazz. But I believe in trying every genre. God gave it all to us. There is no genre that I haven’t been involved with. Kids should learn them all. What’s your sign?
Q) My what?
A) I believe in astrology as much as I do in genetics. Ever since John Glenn told me about what the Earth looks like from space, this small ball in a huge universe.
Q) Oh. I’m a Capricorn on the cusp of Sagittarius.
A) You’re strong. What day?
Q) December 22nd.
A) My son is the 23rd. He’s strong too. He’s not going to the moon. He’s ON the moon.
Q) What is your sign?
A) I’m Pisces with Leo rising. The Pisces part is the dreamer. The Leo says, Let’s execute.
Q) That sounds like a pretty complete package.
A) I try.
Washington Post editors
| November 4, 2009; 2:27 PM ET
Categories: Talking Out of School | Tags: Talking Out of School
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