Rabbit Holes #5: Quincy Jones: An Appreciation in Five Albums

Behold the genius of Quincy Delight Jones Jr., well known as Q, still with us at age 90. There isn't enough space to get into all his accomplishments, so I will focus on five favorite albums, which he either headlined or was heavily involved with.

After entering the music scene with Lionel Hampton's late-era big band as a trumpet player and arranger, Q moved to New York City and landed gigs arranging for Ray Charles, his childhood friend and surrogate big brother, and other jazz and pop artists including Dinah Washington. His work with Washington brought him to the attention of Mercury/Emarcy producer Bob Shad, who appointed Q music director and arranger on a series of consequential mid-'50s recording sessions.

Over less than a month in 1954–55, Q ran the music for debut LPs from Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, and Clark Terry (footnote 1). All these self-titled Emarcy platters are excellent, but Merrill's debut stands out for its sexy intimacy and perfect blend of her voice and Clifford Brown's trumpet. Vaughan's album is no slouch, and Terry's debut as a leader sets a mid-'50s standard for hard bop beyond the Blue Note label. Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill are currently in print on vinyl from Analogue Productions. All three albums stream in CD or better resolution on Qobuz.

After establishing himself in the record biz at Emarcy and making his first headliner albums for Ampar/ABC, Q took a sabbatical to study composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and to work as music director for the Barclay record label, Mercury's French licensee. Upon his return to NYC, he got the notion to form a working big band and recruited the cream of young jazz players (footnote 2). The group made its debut album, The Birth of a Band!, for Mercury in 1958 (footnote 3). Musically, the album is a bridge between old-school swing-era dance-band music and the new wave of big-band jazz that emerged in the later 1950s and erupted in the 1960s. There is spectacular playing throughout, and the music selections and sequencing work perfectly. Another cool thing about the album: The liner notes were written by "Bill Basie," better known as Count. The Birth of a Band! was expertly remastered for a Mosaic CD box set, which unfortunately is out of print. You can stream it, though, on Qobuz.

Unfortunately, Q's big band ended up a big bust. Q signed it on as pit orchestra for a French production of the Harold Arlen musical, "Free and Easy," and the show flopped. Stuck in Europe, the band worked its way around the continent but needed Mercury to pay its way home. Laden with debt, Q took a job as a Mercury VP in the New York office, where he produced hits for Dinah Washington and other jazz-pop artists and struck gold with a teenager from New Jersey, Lesley Gore.

In the mid-'60s, Q turned toward pop music with a jazz bent and to composing movie scores. At the end of the decade, he made another masterful album, Walking in Space, for Creed Taylor's new label, CTI. Again assembling an A-list of jazz talent, Q started out with two tunes from the then-controversial hit musical "Hair," including the album's title cut (with lovely ethereal vocals by Valerie Simpson). Then there's a smooth, sashaying cover of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe." The album ends on a churchy note with a soulfully swinging version of "Oh Happy Day." The album synthesizes what Q had learned from 20 years in the music biz, blending his jazz roots with soul and lush movie-score arrangements and bringing that potent mix to bear on popular music. The album streams in HD on Qobuz.

Two years later, in 1971, Q hit greatness again, with Smackwater Jack. This time, he moved away from jazz and embraced soul and funk while keeping a foot in movie and TV music. Two cuts are his theme music for TV shows, the crime drama "Ironside" and "The Bill Cosby Show." Highlights include the title cut (a Gerry Goffin/Carole King tune) and a cover of Vince Guaraldi's hit, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." The album ends with a classic-Q think-outside-the-box composition, "Guitar Blues Odyssey: From Roots to Fruits," in which Eric Gale, Jim Hall, Toots Thielemans, and Joe Beck trace the history of axe-grinding from Robert Johnson through Charlie Christian and on to Jimi Hendrix. The Verve Originals CD reissue appears to be out of print, but Smackwater Jack is available on all the streaming services.

No appreciation of Q would be complete without Michael Jackson's Thriller, the best-selling album of all time. MJ was a young star of The Wiz, and Q was the show's music director. Jackson mentioned that he wanted to change musical directions; after observing MJ's talent and work ethic on set, Q took the gig. They struck platinum with Off the Wall, but that was just foreplay.

Those of us who were kids in the mid-'80s understand what a huge thing Thriller was, but it's a hard thing to describe to young people today because the entertainment world is so fragmented. Yet the album stands up today because it's so great, an ideal blend of performance and production. It's available on CD, on vinyl as a Mobile Fidelity One-Step, and streaming in HD on Qobuz.

Here is one man's thank you for the many hours of enjoyment these five albums have provided. Keep swingin', Q.

Footnote 1: Nepotism note: These three albums were made at my father's studio, so they've been in my musical orbit since childhood.

Footnote 2: Check out the personnel on the band's first album! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Band!

Footnote 3: Nepotism note #2: My father recorded this album and cited it as one of his favorite projects in a long engineering career.

jimtavegia's picture

He even wrote charts for Frank Sinatra back in the day, showing his versatility.

I don't know if Thriller will ever be topped in the POP genre. A tremendous influence in the industry.