Oprah Talks to Quincy Jones
Oprah: Was your own mother still in the mental institution?
Quincy: Yes—Manteno State Hospital in Illinois. As black children, we were shifting around, trying to find out who we were, and there was no MTV, no A&E Biography, no Oprah to help us identify ourselves. We didn't even have books with black people in them. We might've heard a smidge about George Washington Carver or Booker T. Washington, but everything else was "See Jane run." So if you're a black child growing up in the 1940s, where do you find your identity? What do you hold on to?
Oprah: Did you-all even own a TV? What am I thinking? No one had TV.
Quincy: We didn't even have good radio. In those days when Daddy would go to work, we'd just do whatever we wanted all day long—like stealing a case of honey and going into the woods to eat it.
Oprah: And you can't eat honey now because you got so sick once.
Quincy: That's right. One day we broke into a recreation center stocked up with goodies like ice cream, Twinkies, and candy bars. While we were in there eating as much as we could, I broke into an administrative room that had a piano in the corner. I almost closed the door, but something told me, "Open that door, fool." And I did. I walked over and just put my finger over one piano key to see what sound it would make. I tried to do a little boogie-woogie I'd heard—and then I left. Just like that, I heard music and I felt a feeling I had never had in my life! In moments like those, you know you have nothing to do with who you become. If I had closed that door, I might have had a whole 'nother life. For several days after that, I sneaked into that room. Finally, this sweet gray-haired lady with glasses, Mrs. Ayres, said, "Here are the keys—you don't have to break in. You can come through the front door."
Oprah: When you put your finger over that first key, you had found your mother.
Quincy: Yes—that was it! I didn't have the wherewithal to say that then. All I knew was that I had never felt like that before. It was as if someone had opened a door in me. And I wanted to write music.
Oprah: Had you had any inclination toward music before?
Quincy: I'd heard a lot of music at my grandmother's house—Billy Eckstine, Lonnie Johnson. But not until I decided to go into that room did music become seductive and addictive—it touched something in me. Back in those days, a guy named Junior Griffin would come and honk with me on his sax while I messed up on that piano. I started to feel how two people could make music at the same time. Then I began seeing the bands come through Washington. I saw these musicians with dignity, pride, talent, a sense of humor, and all the girls, and I said to myself, "Man, this is it." I'd watch those bands every day and all night, nearly crying because they had music. I'd sit there and wonder what it was like for them to play their songs in St. Louis and Chicago and Texas. I started imagining this whole different world. It was a society of musicians, a family I hoped I could belong to one day. Duke Ellington was the most elegant one. When I saw him, I said, "Damn, he's more elegant than the Duke of Wellington."