Quincy Jones in town to open his jazz club Q’s Bar and Lounge at Palazzo Versace Dubai
There are famous people – and then there are living legends. You can tell the latter the minute one walks into the room.
When a “regular” star enters a space, the air shifts imperceptibly – those present subconsciously clock the arrival, but do their best to pretend they haven’t noticed.
When a legend arrives, the change is sudden and pronounced – the room falls silent, heads turn, and all attention is sucked into a deferential slipstream.
I’ve seen the first effect countless times, but the second only a few – and three of those times were in the presence of one man: Quincy Jones.
His legend is indisputable. A 65-year musical legacy, with a record 79 Grammy nominations, who has worked alongside Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Lesley Gore and, of course, helmed Michael Jackson’s seminal first three albums (including Thriller, the best-selling album ever).
“What’s that squiggle at the end?” he asks when he sees the venue’s logo for the first time, artfully lit in neon above the stage (that would be the apostrophe-S).
Jones makes both an ideal and infuriating interviewee – an intimate and unguarded soul bursting at the seams with anecdotes.
During the course of our 45-minute chat, we talk about his 47-year relationship with Nelson Mandela, his annual lease of David Bowie’s yacht, and smuggling smoked salmon into Paul McCartney’s strictly vegetarian household.
He tells how he helped to launch the careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, when they starred in the Oscar-winning 1985 Steven Spielberg film The Color Purple, which he co-produced, and how he “discovered” Will Smith.
There is also that time he flew a 55-piece band to Monte Carlo, to back Sinatra in 1958, at a few days’ notice, on the invitation of Grace Kelly – he wears the gold ring Sinatra left him to this day.
The most overused word in Jones’s vocabulary is “unbelievable” – which is apt, given that this one man can boast such embarrassing riches of experiences.
His latest venture, Q’s, is a return to his jazz roots for a man who cut his teeth, as he tells it, begging for trumpet lessons from Clark Terry, touring with Ray Charles as a teenager, and working on records for Count Basie and Billy Eckstine by his twenties.
It could all have been very different. After growing up in the South Side of Chicago, and losing his mother to dementia at the age of 7, Jones’s first career ambition was a life of crime.
“My father was a master carpenter who used to build homes for the most notorious black gangsters in America,” he says.
“Every day, we saw dead bodies, tommy guns, stogies – we’d go in the back room [and] see piles of money. I wanted it to be my life, because that’s all I ever saw.”
Everything changed at the age of 11. Following a wartime move to Washington state, Jones broke into the naval armoury his father worked at “for some pie and ice cream” and discovered a piano.
“I touched that piano and said ‘That’s the rest of your life,’” he says. “I would have been dead or in prison.”
The opening of Q’s is a fitting 60th-anniversary commemoration of Jones’s first visit to the region, when he was trumpeter and musical director of the Dizzy Gillespie Band during a 1956 tour, sponsored by the United States Information Agency. As he remembers it, it took the band through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan.
“I look at Aleppo today – we used to party in Aleppo,” he says.
Jones’s talents as an arranger and producer helped him become the first black vice-president of Mercury Records, in 1964, and led to a long, successful career in film composition.
In 1978 he took a gig producing the soundtrack to the film adaptation of Broadway musical The Wiz – starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. A year later, Jones produced The King of Pop’s breakthrough album, Off the Wall, followed by Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987). He bristles at the idea that shifting from jazz to pop was a challenge.
“I didn’t have to learn anything to do Michael. You think I had to listen to somebody else? Uh-uh,” he says. So, it was easy, then?
“Nothing’s easy if you’re going to do it big – it’s not easy, but it’s not new,” he says.
At 83, a sense of mortality hangs ominously in the air. Old friends, he says, are “dropping like flies”, the most recent being Beatles mastermind Brian Epstein, songwriting legend Leon Russell, and Rod Temperton, who wrote some of Jackson’s biggest hits, including Thriller and Rock With You.
“I was with him two weeks before he died,” says Jones of Temperton. “For 20 years I’ve been telling him: ‘Stop smoking, Worms’ – we call him Worms – and he wouldn’t listen. Even then he would go out and smoke after every meal. And he died of lung cancer, 66 years old, and it’s a very painful thing.”
More stories follow – about a failed collaboration between Prince and Jackson, about arranging the first tune played on the Moon, Sinatra’s 1963 recording of Fly Me to the Moon – then suddenly Jones steps out of the nostalgia, and casts his eyes gleefully over his new club.
“Who knew back in the 1950s, that we’d see this today? It’s like a dream,” he says. “I’m just starting – we’re doing 10 movies, six albums and four Broadway shows, and a lot of other great things like this thing here.”
Throughout our interview, cameras flitter around, and I am asked to sign a release allowing the footage to be used – “You’re in Quincy’s film,” says a beaming cameraman.
The mysterious project is rumoured to be an upcoming 10-part TV special – but even that epic runtime is likely to only scrape the surface of this man’s legacy and vitality.
Read our first impressions of Q’s Bar and lounge at www.thenational.ae/arts-life