Unmasking a maestro

An adventurous movie profiles Quincy Jones

Brian D. Johnson October 15 1990

Unmasking a maestro

An adventurous movie profiles Quincy Jones

Brian D. Johnson October 15 1990

Unmasking a maestro


An adventurous movie profiles Quincy Jones

He has an instinct for being at the heart of what is hot. He was the studio wizard who propelled Michael Jackson into orbit a decade ago, and the maestro who recorded We Are the World at a 1985 pop-star summit for African famine relief. The career of Quincy Jones runs like a vein of gold through the bedrock of American music—from his trumpet-playing days with jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie to his recording sessions with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Jones has covered all the bases, from smooth jazz to souped-up soul, from bebop to hip-hop, from film scores to top-10 hits. In the 1960s, he discovered a teenage singer named Lesley Gore, who patented soap-opera pop with It’s My Party (1963). This fall, his Hollywood production company launched television shows starring rap artist Fresh Prince and politician Jesse Jackson. But now the star-maker with the Midas touch gets his own star treatment as the

subject of an astonishing new movie documentary, Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones.

At first, Listen Up appears to have all the trappings of an adoring Hollywood tribute to a favorite musical son. The corporate packaging certainly looks cosy. The movie was created by Jones’s close friend, producer Courtney Sale Ross, wife of Time-Warner chairman Steven J. Ross, whose studio financed it. Warner Bros, is giving it unusually wide distribution for a documentary. And, in a multimedia onslaught, the company has published a lavish spin-off book, boxed with an album. Miraculously, however, Listen Up does not turn the life of Quincy Jones into Hollywood hype.

On the contrary, it is an intensely honest portrait. And stylistically, it marks a milestone in the art of combining music and images. Listen Up is, without exaggeration, the most adventurous music documentary ever made. It uses a revolutionary technique of rapid-fire editing, in which the material is not just inter-

cut, but layered and syncopated like multiple tracks on a record. Zipping back and forth through time like a needle on a rap-master’s turntable, the film mixes interviews, performances and archival clips into a kaleidoscopic jam of images. The film-makers have displayed the sort of jazz-inspired virtuosity in the editing room that Jones brings to the recording studio: they have done a Quincy Jones on Quincy Jones.

As well as documenting the triumphs of his career, Listen Up explores the shadows of his life with disarming candor: a Chicago ghetto childhood of fear and violence, an absentee mother confined to an insane asylum, his three failed marriages, his nervous breakdown and the two aneurisms that almost killed him. As the film-makers take Jones back through his past, the movie unfolds like an exceptionally vivid form of psychotherapy. “It feels like music to me—it feels like my memory,” Jones told Maclean ’s last month, shortly before Listen Up’s world première at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. After Quincy the movie, Quincy the book and Quincy the sound-track album, it was time for Quincy the interview: “It seems strange doing press on your life,” he said.

Charismatic and casual, Jones has a talent for creating instant rapport. His eyes are cat-like, and curious. The scars from neurosurgery that dent his forehead add an intriguing hieroglyphic to his handsome features. He still talks with the soft, darting inflections of a jazz hipster. “I did the movie without knowing what I was getting into,” said Jones, 57. “It was cathartic but scary—like having somebody crawl inside

your head and do micro-photography inside your veins. But,” he added,

‘Tm happy that Courtney made it an avant-garde, chance-taking movie rather than a sleepy, PBS kinda thing.”

An art curator whose previous films have been about painters, Ross brings a taste for abstraction to Listen Up — one critic called her editing “cubist.”

She also produced the Listen Up book, which is more than a marketing spinoff. Its jazz-inspired typography mimics the movie’s editing. Even the biographical notes on the flyleaf are written in ghetto verse by rap artist Melle Mel—he calls it “flap rap.”

The movie’s visual dazzle is disorienting at first. The style keeps interrupting the content. But, in time, the mesmerizing rhythm of images creates its own music, which has a humbling effect on the subject—and the celebrities talking about him. Working with first-time feature director Ellen Weissbrod, Ross drew up a wish list of interview subjects. And the producer says that no one turned her down. The

list includes Sinatra, Gillespie, Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Vaughan, Steven Spielberg and two Jacksons—Michael and Jesse. Deadpan reminiscences by such jazz veterans as Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry are sliced and diced with hot-wired declamations from rap artists

with names like Flavor Flav and Iced-T.

As fragments in a mosaic, all of the celebrities are reduced to human scale. And any gestures of superstar ego seem laughably selfdefeating. The film-makers ask every interview subject, no matter how famous, to state his or her name. Pompously, Sinatra introduces

himself as Francis Albert Sinatra. A haughty Streisand says simply, “Barbra,” then, after a pause, “Streisand.” The chronically shy Michael Jackson refused to be filmed, but agreed to talk on audio tape—with the lights out.

Jones, too, proved a difficult subject at first. Ross told Maclean’s that her initial on-camera session with him ended in confrontation. “The mask was just not dropping,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Quincy, if you don’t want to let go of it—which I find completely acceptable—then we can’t make the film.’ ” Jones thought about it, she added, and then resumed the interview with some painful childhood memories, including a flashback to a man’s face being ground into cobblestones covered with shattered 8lass-

Like therapy, the process of making the movie unlocked traumatic memories that Jones had blanked out. The camera follows him back to his old neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side, where, for the first time in 50 years, he revisits the house where he spent

his early boyhood. His family of 10 lived in two rooms. Jones remembers spending long nights in a closet dreaming of escape. His father was a carpenter named Quincy Jones Sr. His mentally ill mother, Sarah Jones, spent most of his childhood in institutions. “The word ‘mother’ doesn’t mean too much to me,” Jones re-

calls. “I got a hole there that I keep trying to fill up. I’m sure that affected my relationship with women later.”

When Jones was 10, his family moved to Seattle. He soon became a busy entrepreneur. “I used to shine shoes for pimps,” he says, “take bleach with the toothbrush and go real easy around the sides—all the pimps used to love the way I did that.” Meanwhile, he picked up the trumpet and by 14 he was learning the art of musical arrangement from Ray Charles, then 16. In the 1950s, Jones toured the United States and Europe as a trumpeter and arranger with Lionel Hampton. Later, he won acclaim for solo jazz records and memorable collaborations with Gillespie, Count Basie and singer Sarah Vaughan, who made her final film appearance in Listen Up before her death last April.

With the decline of the Jazz Age, Jones scored success in Hollywood by composing music for such movie classics as The Pawnbroker, In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood. Director Sidney Lumet, commenting on the jagged sound track that Jones wrote for The Pawnbroker, says, “I knew that there must be an enormous amount of violence in his background—or somewhere—because, boy, it is present in that score.”

As portrayed in Listen Up, it is the violence of growing up black and poor in postwar America. Performing with Hampton’s band in the segregated Carolinas, Jones was exposed to a racism “that you could just smell," he recalls in the film. But he also looks back to that time with nostalgia. “It was more carefree,” he said. “You’d get on the band bus and do 70 straight one-nighters. There were girls. You’d play pool.” Added Jones: “I didn't know about fame and success and wealth. My idols were Miles, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, who were just scuffling around. It wasn’t about limousines and a pound of cocaine. We were lucky we didn’t have all that dangled in front of us. All we thought about was being real good.”

But for Jones, the road eventually led to the studio, to Hollywood and to the most successful record of all time: Michael Jackson’s album Thriller (1982), which sold over 40 million copies. Since then, Jones has begun a movieproducing career with The Color Purple (1985). And this year he formed the Quincy Jones Entertainment Co., a multimedia concern that extends his talent-broker touch to television.

But Listen Upis not a success story. The film is saturated with a poignant sense of loss— Jones’s lost childhood, and his own absence from the early lives of his six children, now aged from 14 to 37. The movie “makes me cry,” said Jones. “It hurts a lot—the price that my kids had to pay for me to have a career like this.” Listen Up turns the tables on its subject. As a record producer, he is the cool voice in the headphones, the man behind control-room glass who coaxes performers into surrendering their emotions on tape. In Listen Up, it is Quincy Jones who surrenders his heart.