Working with Quincy changed everything for me. Just being on the set made me feel connected with myself and my purpose. On one of my days off, I remember sitting in a tree, watching him and thinking, "This is what love is." He has a big, open heart and treats everybody as if they're the most important person he's ever met. You just want to be around him. Months after the movie was released, I gave Quincy an entry from the journal I'd kept. I'd written "Alice Walker and I talked about Quincy walking in the light. He is the light. No shadows. He brings joy. Just being around him is joyous—makes me glad I was born." He was the first person I ever loved unconditionally.
Few careers have spanned more eras of music and entertainment than Quincy's. His work as a composer, arranger, score writer, and movie and television producer has included forays into swing, big band, jazz, pop, soul, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues. Most people remember him as the person who collaborated with Michael Jackson on his 1982 album, Thriller (with record-breaking sales of more than 40 million worldwide), and who brought celebrities together to record "We Are the World"—a 1985 effort that raised money for hunger relief in Africa. He has also worked with Frank Sinatra, Sara Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin. He has written music and produced countless arrangements for such hits as The Cosby Show and The Wiz . He is the founder of the urban music magazine Vibe , and he began his own record label, Qwest, in 1980.
At 68, Quincy is the all-time most nominated Grammy artist—he has garnered 77 nominations and 26 awards. The breadth of Quincy's work is so gigantic that one of his greatest challenges has been to boil down his story for Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones , which arrives in bookstores this month. Another project that debuts this month: a five-part VH1 documentary, Say It Loud: Black Music in America .
After The Color Purple , I said to myself, "Maybe Quincy will still remember my name ten years from now—that would be the nicest thing!" Then months later when I stayed at his house, I said, "I can't believe I'm in Quincy Jones's house—in his guest bedroom, using his towels!" Now I am honored to know him not just as the legendary musician he is but as the dear friend I call Q.
At his Bel Air home one Sunday afternoon, just before Quincy served his delicious ribs , he and I talked about everything from the brain aneurysm that nearly took his life to the one regret he has about his family—and I was filled with as much love for him as I was on the day I sat in a tree and experienced his light.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Quincy Jones
Note: This interview appeared in the October 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: In my imagination I could never have conceived of a person with a life as big as yours. Do you sometimes marvel at your life?
Quincy: It's unrecognizable to me. I look back and say, "This must have been somebody else." I am not going to tell you that when I was 4, I dreamed about all of this—give me a break. Back then, black musicians didn't know how to dream this big—the media is what lets entertainers dream so big now. A hit could take 12 years to get around by word of mouth! Now with satellite and videos, it's like, whoa.
Oprah: I know your beginnings in Chicago gave you the drive to become who you are today. Did you feel loved in your home?
Quincy: I don't remember feeling love. I was with my brother, Lloyd, a lot because my father, whom I loved more than anyone in the world, worked so hard as a carpenter. When he was with us, I felt love from him, but he was just busy—like I was when my kids were growing up.
Oprah: You've written that your mother was mentally ill. When did you first know that?
Quincy: When she threw my coconut cake outside on the back porch on my birthday. I was 5 or 6 and it freaked me out. I didn't understand it, because in my mind that cake was a symbol of what family was supposed to be about. That stuck a long time—even now, I don't like coconut.
Oprah: You once told me that you also remember when your mother was put into a straitjacket.
Quincy: Until 1989 I totally blocked that out. When I was working on Listen Up [a 1990 documentary of Quincy's life], I went back to my old neighborhood. I was hoping our house had become a supermarket, but it was the same, with the same paint my father had put on it. That day I saw my friend Lucy, who had been our next-door neighbor and was a young girl when I'd last seen her. She was 63 and in a wheelchair. When we went into my old house, Lucy said, "When you go upstairs, you'll see where they took your mother and put her in the straitjacket." She thought I remembered that—but I didn't. They say trauma is frozen, and when Lucy said that, it was as if someone slapped me on the head.
Oprah: When your mother went into a mental institution, you went to live with your grandmother in Louisville, Kentucky. When I lived with my grandmother, I was poor—but you-all were po'!
Quincy: Honey, it was raggedy. My grandmother had this high-tech security system—a rusty nail she used to lock the door. And in the winter, there was literally frost on the floor. But when you're 7, you don't care. It only freaks you out when you're 40 and think back on it. My grandmother was tough, too. I know she loved us, but she didn't know how to express it.
Oprah: Did you wonder when your father would come get you?
Quincy: Exactly. He was the only one I could depend on. My brother didn't think Dad was coming back.
Oprah: But after your father came to get you when you were 8, he kept his promise to never leave you again.
Quincy: He did. My mother was in a sanitorium, and after we'd returned to Chicago he took us to see her a couple times. Then one day he said, "We're outta here." We packed a few things and took a Trailways bus all the way to Seattle. When we stopped in Idaho on the way, whites wouldn't serve us in their restaurants—this was in 1943—so we had to find a black home. Until then I hadn't really been around white people, but on that trip I became aware that they treated us differently.
Oprah: Before then, you hadn't perceived yourself as a colored boy in a white world?
Quincy: That was my first glimpse. When we finally arrived in Seattle, we had to take a ferry to Bremerton, then drag our suitcases three miles up a hill to Sinclair Heights, a section of homes built for blacks during World War II.
Oprah: What was your father there to do?
Quincy: Work as a carpenter in the Bremerton shipyard—like everybody else.
Oprah: And when you arrived, your father said, "Here's 50 cents to find yourself something to eat," then he went off to work.
Quincy: Yes. And you know what's funny? My brother and I, who were used to being by ourselves, felt empowered. We were going to take over this place!
Oprah: So you moved to Washington, and shortly after, your father married your stepmother, Elvera. That really shook up your world, right?
Quincy: Oh, yes. Back in Chicago, my father had done some work for the boxer Joe Louis, and after winning a fight, Louis gave Daddy his boxing gloves. I didn't care about the gloves—I wanted the BB gun of my friend Waymond, who lived three doors down from us, so I traded Daddy's gloves for the gun. After my father wore my butt out, he went to get the gloves—and he came home with Waymond's momma, Elvera! Once we moved to Washington, Elvera and her three children came to live with us.
Oprah: I read that Elvera made a big distinction between you and her own children. Did you feel motherless?
Quincy: We didn't just feel motherless—we were motherless. When Elvera came, it was like the Third Reich moved in. We had to wax floors and wash windows every day! That lady was rough. There were times when my brother and I, not really understanding what we were thinking, would try to figure out how to poison her—it was that deep.
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."
Oprah: Tell me about the time you asked Clark Terry to teach you to play the trumpet.
Quincy: Back then, Clark was working the northwest circuit, so every day after school I'd go see him. I bothered him to death about teaching me—same with Ray Charles later. So Clark finally showed me how to hold my horn so I could play high notes. By the time he got home from the clubs, it was six in the morning, but he'd get up and show me how to play.
Oprah: When did you first meet Ray Charles?
Quincy: At a club called the Rocking Chair in Washington. When Ray moved to Seattle [in 1947], his name spread like a plague. He was 16 and already he could sing like Charles Brown and Nat Cole, and Nat was the king. When Ray would sing songs like "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons," the girls would fall down. And he played jazz, too: bebop alto. We'd play our white gigs from seven to ten at night—the money gigs—then we'd go to the black clubs till one in the morning.
Oprah: And you were impressed with Ray because at 16 he had his own apartment and a woman.
Quincy: And his own record player—oh, baby. I thought it would be great to have my own place like Ray's—and to have a honey up there in it instead of Elvera!
Oprah: How did you keep from becoming depressed in Elvera's house?
Quincy: I told myself I would get out. I didn't know how, but I was sure that I would.
Oprah: While you were still in Washington, didn't you fall in love—with Jeri Caldwell—for the first time?
Quincy: I'd been in love before—I was always in love.
Oprah: But your first serious love was Jeri?
Quincy: No, Gloria Jenkins.
Oprah: But Jeri was the first major love, right?
Quincy: She's the first one I married.
Oprah: Today, we're only going to hit the major loves, Q—just the top 10!
Quincy: Jeri hit on me first. Back then I was dogging it up, and Jeri and her sister were the hotsy-totsies at school. I noticed that she stopped at the water fountain every day—the dog squad is real good at noticing patterns. My daughters have since taught me that guys think their rap is so strong that women can't resist—but that's not it: A girl has a guy spotted a year before he even knows she's there!
Oprah: So Jeri was your first of five wives.
Quincy: There haven't been five wives! There have been five mothers, three wives.
Oprah: I got it. Five mothers, three wives, seven children.
Oprah: You have a whole chapter in the book on dogging, in which you admit you were a dog in some of those relationships.
Quincy: Yes—but I never cheated on Ulla [Anderson, Quincy's second wife] or on my third wife, Peggy [Lipton].
Oprah: Okay, Q—this is really no one's business, but the perception of you is that you have only been with white women.
Quincy: I have been with every kind of woman of every nationality. Do you think that with a soul like mine, I would limit myself to one kind of woman when I'm in Taiwan, Tokyo, Pakistan, Turkey, and Morocco? That's crazy! All the jazz guys had interracial relationships, and even the ladies did. Over the years, interracial relationships have been a hip, almost defiant thing, a way of saying "Nobody can put a boundary around me." And back when I was in Garfield High School in Washington in the late 1940s, there were only about five black women—and the other black dudes already had the ones I was into covered! Yet if I was willing to go with Filipinos and whites, I had 1,800 women to choose from.
Oprah: You've said you were in love with every one of the women you were with. How could you have been in love with all of them?
Quincy: Honey, I had a lot of love to give! I just got attracted by kindness—by someone who acknowledged me as a human being.
Oprah: You hint in your autobiography that your relationships with women were often affected by your feeling of motherlessness.
Quincy: No doubt. I wasn't aware of it, but whenever a woman would come too close, I would cut her off. Part of that was vindictive—but that was totally subconscious. And after coming out of Elvera's house, I wasn't sure I could make a relationship work. I had a lot of fear. I was 19 when I married Jeri, and I didn't know what I was doing.
Oprah: You were really just a boy looking for love from his momma.
Quincy: No doubt. There are two kinds of people: those who have nurturing parents or caretakers, and those who don't. Nothing's in between. When you've been nurtured, you know it. My parents didn't even come to my graduation.
Oprah: Your father didn't come because your stepmother didn't want to, right?
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.
Quincy (continued): Black music is the most powerful music on the planet. We have an amazing heritage: Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind & Fire. And until I die, I'm going to put most of my life into helping us understand our own power. It's the first step for self-esteem. We have something to hold on to because the whole world has decided to adopt our music—not string quartets, not bagpipes, but black music from the Delta and New Orleans and Chicago. It drives the entire planet musically, and it's not just the music of one or two people but of an entire group. It represents every black person who ever lived and all those who had their asses kicked.
Oprah: That's so true. Now let's talk about Michael Jackson. When you did Thriller with him in the early eighties, did you know it would become a huge success?
Quincy: Did you know you would become as successful as you have? Hell, no. But you know what? You were prepared, baby. I love what you say about luck being a matter of opportunity meeting preparation—that's what it's all about. Michael had the look and the voice, and I had every sound you can think of. By then I'd done enough movies to understand drama—and my arranging has a sense of drama to it.
Oprah: As you've said, you always knew you wanted to be the greatest arranger.
Quincy: Subconsciously I knew that, but I didn't understand the size of it. I improvised my life along the way—I just moved step-by-step. And I knew that if I got better, something would happen.
Oprah: That's how I feel.
Quincy: And what happens when you get a big break and you haven't prepared yourself? That becomes the biggest mistake you've ever made. I see it happen all the time.
Oprah: Yes. And once you create a vision for yourself and work toward it, you must surrender that vision to a power bigger than yourself.
Quincy: And you have to understand that there's power in the collective. If you don't believe me, just watch a symphony orchestra with a conductor and 120 people who are thinking about exactly the same thing at the same moment—no babies, no stock markets, no mortgages. Just 32nd notes.
Oprah: I got it—that's concentrated energy going into one note!
Quincy: That power is what got me wanting to write music for the big bands. And the principle of collective power applies to everything in life, whether it's "We Are the World" or anything else.
Oprah: Where did the idea for "We Are the World" come from?
Quincy: Before Thriller, I did an album with Donna Summer. In the middle of one song, there was a big hole for a big choir. I thought, "I may as well get the best choir." So I called Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, and others. One-third of "We Are the World" was on that album.
Oprah: And there's never been anything like "We Are the World" since.
Quincy: Someone wants to try another "We Are the World" idea every week. I have four pitches upstairs—"We Are the Ocean" and stuff. But you've got to do something different, something exciting. I think that's the secret to life: Never finish. I see these suckers retiring and I think, "Why? To prepare to die?" How long can you get massaged and play tennis in Hawaii? Please! Oprah, after a year of that, they'd take you away to the funny farm, babbling—and I'd be right behind you! Picasso painted until he was 91. He sat with a bottle of wine and friends and laughed and made love to his lady and died in his sleep. That's the way to go.
Oprah: I agree. Q, I know that when you were 41, you nearly lost your life to a brain aneurysm. Was that a wake-up call?
Quincy: Oh, baby, yes. It made me realize that if I lived to age 82, I would have about 30,000 days on this earth. And that number had to be cut in thirds—I'd sleep for 10,000 days, work for 10,000 days, then do whatever else in the remaining time. After the aneurysm, the doctor told me that deep in our subconscious, each of us has either a life force or a death wish. He said those who have a death wish can be taken out by the flu. But the ones who have a life force survive. When they operated on my brain, they had to tie my hands down because even under all the anesthesia the doctors used when they cut my head open, I was fighting to survive.
Oprah: After The Color Purple was released, you seemed to be on a downward spiral. What were you going through?
Quincy: A lot: My marriage with Peggy was a mess, and we were moving into a new home. But you know what hit me the hardest? The Oscars. It kicked my ass.
Oprah: I just read that The Color Purple tied a record as the film with the highest number of nominations—11—that didn't win an Oscar.
Quincy: I was devastated. And in the middle of that, Peggy's mother died. I began taking Halcion. I hadn't been able to sleep, so my [former] doctor prescribed it. I didn't know what the effects of Halcion were [in some cases, it can change your thinking and behavior], and I got strung out.
Oprah: You've said the Halcion blocked your dreams at night.
Quincy: Right. I didn't dream for ten months.
Oprah: Did you think you were repeating your mother's cycle of mental illness?
Quincy: Yes. Another physician, Dr. Larry Norton, an oncologist who had worked with Peggy's mother, finally told me I had an adrenal syndrome. He said I was in big physical, mental, and medical trouble, and that I had to take off work.
Oprah: So you went to Tahiti to find yourself?
Quincy: They had more nutty characters than me over there. It was great! But when I came home, I was more messed up than ever. I had this demon look in my eyes, as if my soul had left my body. I finally had to face the end of my marriage, which was really scary. I said to myself, "Your ass is in trouble." I couldn't even write music, Oprah. All my feelings were gone. I couldn't cry—nothing.
Oprah: How did you come back to yourself?
Quincy: I called Dr. Norton and said, "I'm losing my mind, and I need you to help me find a sanitorium." He said, "You will never lose your mind. I know you too well."
Oprah: So the whole time you were on Halcion, no one had ever asked you what you were taking?
Quincy: No—but they had no reason to because I knew how to play over it. But by this time, I couldn't play over anything. When I called Dr. Norton, he said, "You haven't had a dream? What are you taking?" When I said Halcion, he said, "Are you nuts?" I said, "Yes, I am." He then put me on Valium. "All you need is two dreams," he said, "and you'll be okay." When he said that, tears started streaming down my face. By the second night, I was dreaming again. I was so happy that I stopped taking the Valium. I was back to being human. All my sensual thoughts and my joy came back. Greens were greener, people's eyes were deeper and warmer, and I felt like I could look right into others' souls.
Oprah: What did that experience teach you?
Quincy: The same thing the brain operation taught me: that you have to tell the people you care about how much you care about them. Just let it all out. I was so happy to be alive.
Oprah: Do you have any regrets?
Quincy: My only regrets are about my children. When they were growing up, I didn't know how to be there for them. I think my son got hit hardest. Maybe it was the Oedipus complex: My 4-year-old boy wanted to take care of his mother, and to do that he had to turn against his father a bit. That didn't straighten out until much later.
Oprah: I heard that one Thanksgiving you and all the mothers, wives, and children were together. How can you all get along so well?
Quincy: There was a time when I would battle with my ex-wives, and the kids would be dying inside. There's something immoral about making children suffer so you can be right, so I decided it wasn't worth it. I chose to make peace so they could feel better. Why damage them any more than they'd been damaged?
Oprah: Do you think you damaged your kids in the early years?
Quincy: A little bit.
Oprah: Because they wanted you and they couldn't have you.
Quincy: Yes—but resolving that has been helpful, even cathartic, particularly for my son and me. Because we had to work through all of that, we really talk now. We're close.
Oprah: Now that your children are grown and you have grandchildren, how old do you feel?
Quincy: About 24. When the doctor gave me a heart test, he said, "People would kill for the 22-year-old heart you have! How old is your girlfriend?" I said, "Twenty-nine." He said, "She's too old." What I've learned is that there's no advantage to growing up. Grown-ups take themselves too seriously.
Oprah: Are there still things you want to do?
Quincy: Oh, yes. My dream is to put together a performance of the evolution of black music with Cirque du Soleil [an international troupe that blends circus and performing arts]. I would also like to do street opera and children's books. But even as I work toward these things, I want to simplify my life.
Oprah: How will you do all this and still simplify your life?
Quincy: Well, I can't just sit and fish for six months. Once you're not needed, you're done. Every day you must be able to say, I have to get up because I'm needed by someone. As long as you have that, you're healthy.
Oprah: Q, I've never met one person who doesn't love you. Where did your big, open heart come from?
Quincy: It came because people were good to me, honey. Though negative things have happened to me, God somehow let me know that becoming bitter was not the way to go. You die when you do that. Someone once told me that if you fully open your arms to receive love, you'll get some scratches and cuts on your arms, but a lot of love will come in. If you close your arms, you might never get cut—but the good stuff won't come in either.
Oprah: And right now, you're sitting up here on a hill at the top of Bel Air!
Quincy: There is a God! They say a blind hog will find the acorn one day.
Oprah: This has been great, Q. I'm so proud of you.
Quincy: I'm proud of you, too, sweetheart. I love you.