From jazz to hip hop: 8 words to describe the legendary producer Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones: the name doesn't ring a bell? And yet, you've probably heard dozens of his greatest hits, including his famous Soul Bossa Nova.

From jazz to hip hop: 8 words to describe the legendary producer Quincy Jones
From jazz to hip hop: 8 words to describe the legendary producer Quincy Jones, © Getty / Bobby Holland

What do the song Soul Bossa Nova and the Michael Jackson album Thriller have in common? The television series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Vibe magazine? One man, a jazzman, an arranger, a composer, and a legendary producer: Quincy Jones.

From the ghettos of Chicago to the studios of Hollywood, not to mention Paris during the 1960s, Quincy Jones has worked with many of the greatest musicians and composers of the 20th century: Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Henri Salvador, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, George Benson to name but a few.

Here is the story of one of the most famous music producers in American history: the (famous) Q!

Trumpeter (originally)

Quincy Jones's first love? The trumpet. He first discovered the instrument at the age of 11 when he first listened to jazz music, and began to secretely frequent   Chicago's popular bars and clubs in order to better understand this "degenerate" music.  

However, the young Quincy was forced to leave Chicago when his family decided to move to Seattle, where he eventually met a sixteen-year-old Ray Charles. "It was like somebody forgot to tell Ray he was blind", remembers Jones in his autobiography, impressed by his independence and strength of character. Both amateurs of be-bop, the two teenagers created a musical duo and soon joined the town's local jazz orchestras.

Ray Charles et Quincy Jones bien des années après leur rencontre, en 1973, sur un plateau de télévision.
Ray Charles et Quincy Jones bien des années après leur rencontre, en 1973, sur un plateau de télévision., © Getty / David Redfern

Jazzman (forever)

For Quincy Jones and his friend Ray Charles, be-bop was much more than a musical genre: it was a way of life, "cool" and open-minded. "I'm a bebopper to my core, and always will be", wrote the Q in his autobiography, almost forty years after his first jam sessions.

Quincy Jones never left the world of jazzmen, even after topping the pop music charts with record-breaking sales. The musician performed and collaborated  with many of the industry's biggest names (Lionel Hampton, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra…) and joined countless initiatives et such as the Jazz Foundation of America, an association that aims to support jazz and blues musicians.  

(Legendary) arranger

Quincy Jones is a veritable hit-producing machine. He knows how to find the right melodies, how to choose the perfect accompaniment and orchestrations, and how to guide the performers and composers. Fly me to the moon by Sinatra, Thriller by Michael Jackson, Give me the Night by George Benson? Quincy Jones was there, in the studio.

Quincy Jones discovered early on his talents for musical arranging. "I'd done my first recording with Hamp [Lionel Hampton] when I was eighteen, "Kingfish", my first composition, solo, and arrangement." Several years later, he signed a contract with the record label Mercury and gradually began making a name for himself in the American music industry.

In the late 1950s, Quincy Jones was living in Paris and working for Barclay. There he worked with France's biggest names including Henri Salvador, Charles Aznavour and even Michel Legrand, and even began studying with the composer and legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Keen to learn the secrets of the "classical" masterpieces, his teacher told him firmly: "Learn your skills but forget about great American symphonies. You already have something unique and important. Go mine the ore you already have."

Pop (& success)

Who hasn't danced to Thriller or Billie Jean, the King of Pop's greatest hits? Quincy was Michael Jackson's producer for almost 10 years, and their legendary collaboration resulted in two of the biggest successes of the 20th-century music industry: the albums Thriller (released in 1982 with over a million copies sold in one month), and Bad (1987), composed by Rod Temperton

To those who criticise the jazzman's more "popular" inclination, Quincy Jones simply replies (in his autobiography): "Since age thirteen in Seattle, I'd played rhythm and blues, swing, big band, Sousa marches, polkas, Debussy, and bebop [...] There were never any limitations."

Composer (also)

Trumpeter, jazzman, arranger and conductor (often of his own arrangements), Quincy Jones is a man of many talents, not to mention a skilled composer. He composed the famous Soul Bossa Nova, a dance with jazz and latino influences widely used in television and cinema (does the Austin Powers theme tune ring a bell?) 

The musical talents of Quincy Jones were warmly welcomed by the world of cinema. The arranger/composer worked on over forty film scores, amongst which Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964), Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), and even Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003).

Producer (& chief)

For Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985), Quincy Jones, now a wealthy music producer after the release of Thriller, looked beyond the limits of the music industry, hoping to become a film and television producer. The jazzman's foray into the world of television began with him not only composing the music but also producing one of the 1990's biggest television hits: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Quincy Jones et l'acteur Will Smith sur le tournage du Prince de Bel-Air, en 1990.
Quincy Jones et l'acteur Will Smith sur le tournage du Prince de Bel-Air, en 1990., © Getty / NBC

Still a skilled music producer, Quincy Jones continued his career in the music industry. Recruited by Mercury in the early 1960s and later becoming its musical director, he left in 1980 to create his own label, Qwest Records. Co-owned by the American giant Warner Bros Records, the company was finally shut down in 2001.

Hip-Hop (& Vibe)

Upon discovering rap and hip-hop music for the first time, Quincy Jones felt reunited with the energy of the early forms of jazz and soul music: "Hip-hop came straight from the street, and in the tradition of Afriacn life-force music it's as powerful a form in its way as any of its predecessors". 

In 1993, he founded Vibe, a magazine dedicated to hip-hop and other urban genres, choosing the rapper Snoop Dogg for the cover of its very first issue. In the world of the music press, Vibe quickly became for hip-hop music what Rolling Stone Magazine was for rock music: a benchmark reference.

Influencer (& force for change)

When Quincy Jones was recruited by Mercury in the 1960s and given various responsibilities, the United States was still undergoing rampant segregationism: the succesfull rise, therefore, of an Afro-American jazzman within a large public record company was not without its symbolic meaning and importance. 

As a man of influence, Quincy Jones sought to use his force for good. He publicly supported Martin Luther King in his civil rights movement, and various other humanitarian causes including USA for Africa. In 1985, in order to help the victims of the Ethiopian famine crisis, Quincy Jones and the composer Michael Omartian gathered around forty American musical superstars to sing together We Are the World

Another hit for the jazzman, and a particularly impressive feat, for who else but the legendary Quincy Jones could convince Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Whitney Houston to sing in a choir?