When Quincy Jones Covered The Beatles (And Other Insights From a Shrewd Jazz Career)

Feb 13, 2018

Quincy Jones, who will turn 85 next month, retains his ability to electrify audiences.

As you probably know, a pair of interviews with Jones — the producer, composer, arranger, trumpeter and media mogul — recently set the Internet ablaze. The interviews, published by GQ and Vulture, catch him in a voluble, unfiltered mood, with no shortage of salacious detail.

But buried amidst gossipy bombshells are some pertinent observations about pop music. Not just Q’s widely noted disparagement of the Beatles (more on that in a moment) but also his complaint in the Vulture interview that pop today is “just loops, beats, rhymes and hooks.” He continues:

What is there for me to learn from that? There ain’t no fucking songs. The song is the power; the singer is the messenger. The greatest singer in the world cannot save a bad song.

He made a similar point in dismissing Taylor Swift’s compositions to GQ: “We need more songs, man. Fucking songs, not hooks.”

Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones at the the 26th Grammy Awards in 1984.
Credit William Nation / Sygma via Getty Images

It’s tempting to view these remarks through the lens of Jones’ regal achievements in pop — first and foremost, as the producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. But it’s also instructive to consider his somewhat overshadowed legacy as a jazz artist.

A trumpeter from his childhood in Seattle, Jones left the Berklee School of Music after one semester to join the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Despite that promising start, his career as a trumpeter was undistinguished, mainly involving section work in big bands. It was when he started bringing in arrangements for Hampton that his real success began.

He was soon a busy freelancer, scoring important early small-band sessions for trumpeters Art Farmer and Clark Terry, and accompaniments for the singers Dinah Washington and Betty Carter. He wrote big-band charts for the likes of Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra, and in 1956 he formed his own 18-piece big band.

In other words, it was by honoring the song that Jones built the foundation of his career. Not by playing parts of a song, or soloing over its changes, but by working within its machinery. In a 1959 interview with critic Ralph J. Gleason, he relays some relevant insight from the composer Henry Mancini. How best to appeal to a broad audience? “Extreme authority. And, not too complex.”

Jones was doing complex, inventive work in the late ‘50s, to great acclaim. (Among other things, he did a lot for the flute as a big-band voice.) This work wasn’t paying the bills. But within a few years, he had a minor hit of his own that demonstrated his assimilation of Mancini’s lessons. The single in question was “Soul Bossa Nova,” a 1962 composition best known these days as the mod-camp theme to the Austin Powers film franchise.

This track presents a curious contrast to Jones’s current pronouncements about pop. What is “Soul Bossa Nova” but a hook, repeated — looped, in effect — over blues changes?

Jones spent the next few years issuing covers of “Watermelon Man,” “Take Five,” “The Sidewinder,” and — surely no coincidence — a Mancini tribute album. He also tried his hand at interpreting James Brown, the Rolling Stones and, yes, The Beatles. (Given his reverence for song craft, Q apparently had more respect for the Fab Four in their heyday than he now seems to suggest.)

None of these moves was a breakout success, and from 1964 on, Jones concentrated on freelance arranging, on film composing, and on his responsibilities as vice president of Mercury Records. He’d inaugurated his career as a hit producer the previous year, with four Top 5 singles for Lesley Gore, including the Number 1 hit “It’s My Party.” Still, his other production work, prior to the mid-70s, was almost exclusively the realm of jazz singers with big-band accompaniment.

Jones finally achieved some commercial success as a performer with 1969’s Walking in Space — whose title track, a song from the musical Hair, was both catchy and clearly inspired by Miles Davis’s burgeoning experiments with funk. It was Jones’ first album on the Billboard jazz charts since 1961, and it reached Number 56 on the Billboard 200. Notably, it also reached Number 6 on the R&B chart. Jones had finally struck the right balance: neither simple nor too complex, with a grasp both of the zeitgeist and of what makes a good song.

By 1974, Jones’s album Body Heat — his tightest, most song- and R&B-intensive yet — was in the Top 10. That year, however, a near-fatal brain aneurysm effectively ended his performing career. There would be other faintly jazz-inflected albums, but for the most part Jones worked from this point on as a producer and media executive.

Today he’s the most successful record producer of all time; his critiques of pop music are hard-earned and not to be ignored. But he has never abandoned his first musical love. The GQ piece finds him spending 20 minutes playing YouTube videos of his current jazz protégés. At Vulture, Jones shows how his jazz chops inform his popcraft when he connects the Thriller track “Baby Be Mine” to bebop. (“That’s Coltrane done in a pop song.”)

The most recent and promising development is Qwest TV, Jones’s jazz-dedicated video streaming platform, which debuted in December. Think of it as a public reclamation of his jazz pedigree, bringing him full circle while still keeping his fingers firmly on the pulse of the moment. For some of us, that’s potentially more electrifying than even a bombshell interview.

Check back for an episode of The Checkout focusing on the user experience of Qwest TV.