Above photo: © Chuck Stewart Photography, LLC
In America, black musical genius has never been in short supply, though it hasn’t always been recognized or fairly compensated. Even a casual glance at the résumé of formally trained composer, producer, and arranger Quincy D. Jones (b. 1933) reveals a man of vast artistic range, whose contributions to movies, television, and Broadway are just as stellar as his work in studios and concert halls. Yet, as groundbreaking as many of his projects for stage and screen were, his Grammy awards (twenty-eight!) greatly outnumber his Oscar, Emmy, and Tony wins. It’s hard to say why more of those awards failed to come his way, but listening to some of his film scores back to back, you can’t miss the sly sophistication and sheer artistry of soundtracks as different in sound and inspiration as The Slender Thread (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and The Italian Job (1969).
When Jones made history in 1961 by becoming the first black Vice President of Artists and Repertoire at white-owned Mercury Records, many touring black musicians still could not stay or perform in segregated hotels. The rising popularity of early R&B and rock and roll had allowed more black talent to create hit records for white companies, but it was still rare for black executives to have authority over the means of production or distribution. At Mercury, Jones had the power to make albums with both emerging and established jazz stars, but it was as a producer of teen pop by the likes of Lesley Gore that he generated the most hit singles and immediate profits. While the label was thrilled to discover its new vice president had an ear for both styles, it did not immediately realize that Jones’s musical ambitions went far beyond the commercial limitations of what was then still a racially biased system of radio promotion in the U.S. Though widespread racial divisions in the music industry remained, Jones emerged at a time when federal desegregation laws and increasing activism were making it easier for determined black men and women to enter careers formerly denied them.
During the twentieth century, black Americans habitually measured our progress as a people in terms of individual “firsts,” because the first black person allowed to excel in any field or industry was often also enshrined as the only black person operating visibly at so high a level. Sixties kids grew up watching Harry Belafonte become the celebrity host of prime-time folk-music specials on television, while Sidney Poitier became the black actor chosen for leading-man roles in Hollywood. But personal excellence and civil rights campaigns were no guarantee of fair treatment in the competitive world of entertainment. Institutionalized racism would continue to bedevil the progress of Jones, Poitier, and other high-profile pioneers. New opportunities were not easily offered, even to the gifted.
Case in point: after years of arranging and producing for world-famous bands and singers, Jones had to go to Europe and conduct a Scandinavian orchestra in order to produce his first film score. Released in 1961, the movie was Swedish director Arne Sucksdorff’s crime drama The Boy in the Tree. Though it contained original material with pop-soul inflections, this deliciously atmospheric soundtrack, issued as a vinyl EP, could not be dismissed as merely a “Negro” project. Once Jones had that soundtrack under his belt he felt able to approach Hollywood studios as a composer who had proven he could score any type of film, no matter the style or subject matter.
“Mingling with Hollywood tastemakers in the midsixties, Jones benefitted from the rebellious mood that followed the previous decade’s vicious blacklisting of ostensibly ‘communist’ filmmakers.”
“Jones’s perennial love of jazz and ongoing awareness of folk, funk, and world-music trends kept him ever open to fresh, unexpected combinations.”
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