The legendary musician and producer reflects on the evolutions of music and race in America.
On many occasions I have spoken of the men and women who hoisted me on their shoulders when I was a teen so that I could achieve my dreams of being a musician. Men like Clark Terry, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter and Ray Charles, among countless others, who took me under their wings and encouraged me and enlightened me not only about music, but about the great wide world that existed out there for me if I wanted it.
Being born in Chicago and then growing up in Bremerton, Washington, in the 1940s, during the war, my friends and I would try to emulate the style of the various jazz bands that came through our town. Whether it was the Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford or Basie bands (the latter of which I would eventually write arrangements and conduct for), all of its members exuded a hip, almost regal dignity in regard to how they carried themselves. That dignity, that style, that pride, had an aura which was not prevalent among the majority of African-Americans at that time. As for me, I wanted to be a musician because I loved music so unconditionally on so many different levels, but the feeling of importance that those cats exuded made me even more passionate about it. I wanted that sense of pride. Of individualistic freedom.
At that time, people didn’t speak about “Black Pride.” The philosophy of “Black Pride” was instead an unwritten, unspoken anomaly which could only be perceived somewhere in the ether of everyday life. Musicians weren’t the only ones who were helping to establish a new reality of self-worth for our people, but it was black musicians across the country that became the purveyors of “the message” through their music and by the way they carried themselves. As a boy, and to this day, I’ve admired that quality in us. That unfettered sense of dignity, creativity, style and pride.
Looking back at that time as I grew older and traveled the world, it became less of a surprise to me…that innate sense of pride that we carry, because I realized that we were born of kings and queens. It is in our DNA. For all of the injustices that have been heaped on our people around the world, we have consistently found ways to overcome and succeed as human beings, as a people, as men. The passing down of that sense of pride in who we are to our younger generations is one of the reasons why, and continuing that tradition is as important today as it ever was, maybe more so.
I’ve often said that you have to know where you come from to know where you are going, so when I’m asked why giving back and trying to help others is so important to me, the answer is very simple…it is who I am. None of us can claim that whatever successes we have achieved in life were done on our own. It was with God’s will, the help of those who cared enough to take the time to guide us, and a little luck that we are here today. To me, it’s not a lot to ask to give as much back as has been given to you.
Quincy Jones’ career has encompassed the roles of composer, record producer, artist, film producer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, TV producer, record company executive, magazine founder, multi-media entrepreneur and humanitarian. Perhaps his most remembered charitable contribution was when he produced and conducted the best-selling single of all time, “We Are the World”, in 1985. The charity effort, which raised more than $63 million for Ethiopian famine relief, featured more than 30 popular musicians, including Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder. In 1990, Jones started the Quincy Jones Foundation, whose mission is to help children build self-esteem, foster sustainable self-sufficiency and develop those characteristics of leadership that can drive change.
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(Photo: Greg Gorman)