Oprah: And the school was across the street from your house.
Quincy: Exactly. I was in the band, and I had written a whole concert piece that I was so proud of. More than anything, you want your parents to say, "Hey, I'm proud of you." When you don't hear that, you learn to compensate. You say, "Hell, I don't need their approval. If I get my music right, I'll have everyone else's approval." I didn't understand it then, but I now know that's what happened to me.
Oprah: At 15 you were playing for Billie Holiday, and at 25 for Frank Sinatra. In a life as huge as yours, who has taught you the most about how to really live?
Quincy: In the beginning, it was Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Duke had such self-esteem. Later on, it was [orchestra leader and composer] Eddie Barclay. In 1957 he said, "Come to the south of France." When I went, I walked into a fantasyland: There were people with yachts everywhere, and I even stayed next door to Picasso. His ducks and goats were wandering over!
Oprah: What did you learn from Frank Sinatra?
Quincy: A lot—it was around him that I learned how to live, boy. I first met him in 1958 in Monaco, at a gig for Grace Kelly. I had never seen anyone like him—he was like a king. He and Nat Cole are two of the best singers who have ever lived on the planet. I said to myself, "Sinatra's got everything!" I didn't talk to him much then, because I was scared. But six years later, in 1963, I got a call from him: "Hey, Q!" He asked me to come down to Hawaii where he was in a bungalow. There, he had a big flagpole with a Jack Daniel's flag on it, and when I saw it I thought, "This is my kind of guy."
Oprah: Was Sinatra the first to ever call you Q?
Quincy: Others had, but he just slammed it in—and he didn't even know me well. He said, "Q, I love the things you do with Basie"—I had just received my first Grammy. You can't just call up someone like Frank Sinatra—you have to wait to be called. So when he asked me if I could get over to Hawaii in a week, I at first tried to act like I had to work it out—but I was ready to swim over there!
While working with Sinatra, I had a chance to get my core skills down. I said to myself, I'm going to be the best arranger on the planet. And I think I hit Sinatra at the right time: I had written thousands of arrangements, so I was ready. As a professional, you had a lot of pressure because if people like Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, and Frank Sinatra sensed that you didn't know what you were doing, they'd make dog meat out of you because they were so professional themselves.
Oprah: We don't have a work ethic like that anymore.
Quincy: It's not necessary—nowadays we have technology to do the work for us. I used to practice piano for hours, and now, with a synthesizer, you can input the music and the machine perfects the song. That's why we have so many people in the music business who should be plumbers. They don't really understand music because they haven't been trained.