It took many months and twice as many phone calls to get legendary producer Quincy Jones on the line. But once he called back and started to talk, the man was everything you could have hoped for in an interview—genuine, high-spirited, and insightful. As the purpose of my call was to get a couple quotes for the biography I was currently writing [Bright Moments: The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk (Welcome Rain, 2000)], we mostly stuck to Quincy’s experiences in the jazz world. But his mercurial mind and unbridled appreciation for other people’s music were hardly fixed to any particular genre. I finally had let him go after a generous twenty-minute chat, not wanting to take up any more of his time. Talking with Q, as Rahsaan would say, was some “big, bad, beautiful bright moments” indeed.
Back in the early 1950s, you were on the road, playing trumpet in big bands.
Quincy Jones: I was with Dizzy Gillespie. Benny Golson was my roommate! In those days, the young guys were just out there to blow, man… guys like Clifford Brown. We never thought about limousines. [laughs]
We’d run into people, like Ornette Coleman down in Texas. So, when we got to Columbus, Ohio, we ran into Roland Kirk. That was in 1951, when I was playing [trumpet] with Lionel Hampton’s band. [Kirk] was definitely an individual. He was awesome! He reminded me of a bag lady! He had the three horns and all that shit around neck and something he called the “evil box,” that he played that made wild sounds. He was always experimenting, and I loved that. Rahsaan could go way out, but he always started with the basics—the blues. A consummate musician.
When you became vice president of Mercury Records, you went to Europe and made some albums over there.
Yeah, I recorded Roland at the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen [in 1963]. He really tore it up. Two or three years later, I moved to Hollywood and began working in film. I first used Roland playing flute on [the 1967 soundtrack for] In the Heat of the Night. There were a bunch of strange situations working on that film. I had Glen Campbell [on guitar] who had been on the road with Roger Miller at the time. He couldn’t read music. So, he’d come in around two in the morning, after his gig, and I’d teach him the music. Then there was Roland, who was sitting in a room full of studio musicians. I’d tell the guy sitting next to him to pull on his pantleg on bar before he was supposed to come in. We also did a Mancini songbook album that Rahsaan played on [Quincy Jones Explores the Music of Henry Mancini, from 1964, which featured Kirk’s flute and saxophone]. He could do anything. He had it, man! At the top of my list!
Was his sightlessness ever a problem at all?
Not for me! And not for him! Communicating is how you make it work. I’ve been doin’ it all my life. Forget about [sight] readers. Just play, man. I put the readers on the other side of the room! It’s music! In the end, all you can do is listen to it! [laughs] I got tired of the movies and just wanted to go into the studio with my favorite musicians—Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock, and just let ’em blow. I didn’t want to know about synchronization… I wanted to make those long fifteen-minute tracks, like on Walking in Space . Create a canvas behind them, so they can paint all the different colors.
As an arranger and bandleader, what have you learned from the artists you collaborate with?
I learn from everyone, y’know? If you love the person’s talent and style, whether it’s Sinatra or whoever it is, it makes you focus on everything they can do, and you find the parameters of what they think they can’t do. So, as the producer, it’s always fun to get the artist to jump without a net every now and then and know they won’t get hurt. Basically, you just put them in the surrounding that you’ve arranged and they will automatically respond. Toots [Thielemans, master harmonica player] always said I knew just how to push his buttons! One thing I learned from Duke [Ellington] was to take the essence of the person and never let it get smothered, to let it shine! It’s all about respect and love!
Well, speaking of respect and love, any anecdotes about your friendship with Ray Charles?
We were fourteen and sixteen together! I remember Ray making dinner for me one night with no lights! He was choppin’ onions, green peppers, and potatoes, and cooking steak with salt and pepper. I said, “Wait a minute, man!” I could hardly eat, he made me so nervous! [laughs]
Ray used to fix the glass tubes in the old record players. He’d get shocked all the time. He’d run his own board at gigs.
As an arranger, what do you look for in a song? And how do composers generally respond to changes you make to their music?
It’s all about the song. I think every songwriter is always impressed when a jazz musician plays their music. The jazz musicians are the ones who really turn the songs into “standards,” like “How High the Moon,” or “Green Dolphin Street,” or “Body and Soul.” They make the song eternal. That’s always the aim…