SXSW Music 09 keynote speaker Quincy Jones, 'from bebop to hip-hop'
His voice comes over the line like that of an elder: convincing, tried and true, worn in not out. He laughs a lot, chuckles really, when he mentions partying with Elton John or our connection through Lionel Hampton. His voice crystallizes when his children come up in conversation. All the work Quincy Jones does – his initiatives to teach kids about American music – is for them and their offspring.
"We're trying to figure out what the answer is for tomorrow," says Jones, who turned 76 on March 14, at the tail end of our near-hourlong conversation. Then he tells me to stay in touch, "because it takes an army." And he says this with such sincerity, such promise, such optimism. It's hard not to get on the side of one of the pre-eminent music-industry figures – musician, composer, producer, arranger, label executive, film and television cultivator – of the last century.
Austin Chronicle: All right, Quincy: How are you?
Quincy Jones: Pretty fair for a square.
AC: So what's on your mind these days?
QJ: Everything, man. I've got an online petition for secretary of the arts and culture. America's the only country in the world that doesn't have one. It's just the stupidest thing. And I'm around the world all the time. I do 500,000 miles. I'm in the Middle East every year. Or China or Beijing or Shanghai, Xinjiang, Xi'an, you know? I go everywhere in the world, all the time. I have for 54 years. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, everywhere.
AC: I understand we're the only country without one, but how do you think that it can be a benefit to our country?
QJ: I'll tell you. I just went to Seattle to my high school, Garfield, where Jimi Hendrix went, and Bruce Lee. I think it's the best high school in America. It's the richest whites, Chinese, Jews, Filipinos, blacks. It's the most diverse school in America, man. I lived right across the street, and I never will forget it, you know? Because my music teacher – I used to work four nights a week, at 13 years old, and I wouldn't get to school sometimes until 11 because I wouldn't get out 'til 5:30, you know? – he said: "You're doing what you believe in. You're doing what you're supposed to do."
They dedicated a $107 million building to me. They called it the Quincy Jones Performance Center, and it was just the most – it made me cry. I just wished my daddy could see it. I asked one of the black kids there, I said, "What do you think of Louis Armstrong?" He said, "I've heard his name." I said, "What do you think of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Coltrane?" He said, "I have no idea who they are." Most American kids are like that. They have no idea of the basis of their culture. They don't know.
AC: What can kids learn from these artists?
QJ: Let me put it like this: The only two absolutes are mathematics and music. Music is the only thing that engages the left and the right brain simultaneously. That's the intellect and emotion, simultaneously. Nothing else does that. Maybe romance [laughing]. And that's it. That's some powerful stuff, man. That's why it has healing abilities for autism or Down syndrome. It's a healing process. The melody itself is the work of God. There's technique for counterpoint, and there's technique for harmony and all that stuff, and that's a science. But melody, there's no technique. That's straight from God.
AC: And you think the best way for kids to learn about this is through the people you've been mentioning?
QJ: First, I'd tell the kids to listen to Kind of Blue, because that's Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball [Adderley], Bill Evans, et cetera. All the rest too, because we've got the Mississippi Delta blues, which is part of Louisiana. If it wasn't for the French, we wouldn't have jazz. They nurtured jazz, you know? And the people in Virginia, they destroyed the culture and destroyed the families so they could control the slaves, you know? And we just thank God for Louisiana. They brought the servants over who had cornets and clarinets and trombones and powdered wigs and all that. In 1908 or whenever they had the Jim Crow law, they threw them all together. And Africans had never seen trumpets and trombones and clarinets. And that's why you have names like Sidney Bechet and Theodore Dollis. They all had French names because it came from another country. The music came from a melting pot. It's fascinating, man.
AC: Who needs to be taught?
QJ: Everybody. I love Chris Martin from Coldplay. I love Brian McKnight. There are so many people out there today. I work with rappers, too. I know their abilities. When I first met LL Cool J in 1985, he said, "Mr. Jones, what do the singers and musicians think about us?"
AC: What did you tell him?
QJ: I said, "They're discovering it, and they respect you very much." Because to me, rappers have the improvisational ability of the bebop players. I always say, "from bebop to hip-hop." Now, it's important to get them to talk about something that really means something, other than just a lot of "bling, bling, bling" and "bitches and ho's" and all that stuff. But they're ready. And I know all these cats, from Akon to Pharrell. You name it. I've worked with all of them. 50 Cent. Everybody. They're talented, talented dudes. They can revolutionize education in a year, I'm telling you. If they got into knowledge and education, every kid in the world would pay attention.
And I've heard the bad and the good, too. Because they hear the rappers, and they're saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger." They don't even know what it means, man. They're using it because they hear it, you know? But it's so influential. The body language and the colloquialisms. They're using the colloquialisms we used in bebop: "homeboy." Les[ter] Young was calling Count Basie "homeboy" 80 years ago. "Cribs" and all those things – that all came from bebop, man. They didn't make that up. Beboppers did that, way back in the Forties. I was there.
AC: You produced both Off the Wall and Thriller. Can anyone do today what Michael Jackson did 25 years ago?
QJ: You'd have two problems. Number one, we had vinyl. And vinyl would wear out after three years, so people would buy three copies. Also, MTV and Michael Jackson rode each other to glory. Michael Jackson was the first black artist MTV ever played. They didn't play black artists before him. Rick James was trying to get "Super Freak" on there, and they wouldn't let it on. But Michael, until it came out June '84, man. They do this contest all over the world every year. And even the Asian prisoners do it. You saw it. You saw it on TV, them doing their crazy "Thriller" dance. All over the world, every year.
They can't do it today. Absolutely not. They had Lil Wayne on the cover of all the major magazines – and I love Lil Wayne – because he sold 1.3 million records. Are you kidding? Man, Michael in his 60th month was selling a million and a half a week.
AC: Is that from the fan side or the artist side?
QJ: There's a generation that believes you don't have to pay for music. And they wouldn't work for nothing. It's wrong to steal someone's creation. It's wrong, I'm sorry. There's no justification for that, under any circumstances. If you did all your interviews all month, and then at the end of it they said, "Forget it man, you don't get any money." Come on, man.
Shawn Fanning, he's one of my closest friends, he started Napster when he was 18, just playing around. It was pro-access. Kids could go back and hear Sam Cooke and whatever they wanted to hear. Anything. It's just gotta be fair. Nine billion downloads and stealing all that music? Come on.
The composers have to feed their families. You don't just take somebody's work. It's not right. Maybe we'll have to change the revenue stream, whatever. It might get down to us giving it away and getting paid for it in another way, but the people that create it still have to survive, you know? It doesn't make sense. It's not God-like.
Quincy Jones' keynote address is Thursday, March 19, 2-3:15pm, Room 18ABC of the Austin Convention Center.