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.”
A rich and diverse musical background, coupled with a tireless work ethic, paved the way for Jones’s success in this field. Part of what reinforced his self-confidence was the validation of his innate abilities that he began receiving after his family moved from Chicago to the integrated boomtown of Seattle. Self-taught on piano as a preadolescent, Jones started playing percussion and every brass instrument while in high school bands. By fourteen, he was gigging with local combos, bouncing from white country clubs and bar mitzvahs to stripper bars. All this preparation earned Jones two college scholarships: the first to Seattle University in 1950, and the second to Schillinger House in Boston, which would become the internationally famous Berklee College of Music.
Jones paid particular attention to music theory, because he always knew he wanted to compose and conduct for bands and orchestras. Early on he heard complex arrangements in his head and wanted to know how to squeeze the most effective voicing from every instrument. Snatched out of his composition classes at Berklee to arrange and play for Lionel Hampton’s big band, Jones earned his reputation on the road, and spent much of the 1950s working and producing records in Paris, where jazz was respected and color prejudice less oppressive than in the States. While there, he was drawn to highly structured classical arrangements and managed to study composition for five years with Nadia Boulanger, a conductor who was previously a muse to Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and others.
It was Boulanger’s attitude toward counterpoint, inversion, and harmonic structure that Jones found so useful in his determination to pursue a career in film scoring. Once, during his lessons with her, Jones raved about what he had learned from an experience in Monaco conducting a fifty-five-piece orchestra behind Frank Sinatra. In response, she gave him advice that would stay with him throughout his career: “Sensation, feeling, belief, attachment, and knowledge. That’s what every artist strives for. The type of music is immaterial when you are aiming for those five qualities.” Sinatra, who would later ask Jones to produce two of his studio albums, had taught the young producer the value of approaching every musical task with pure economy, power, style, and skill.
With his easy access to a wide range of singers and instrumentalists, as well as an international reputation as a master of both studio and live performance, Jones was able to market himself as the most economical choice for filmmakers who wanted to avoid hiring separate people to arrange, orchestrate, conduct, and complete a recording session. And his successful tenure between 1960 and 1964 as a talent scout for Mercury gave him corporate connections that would help secure distribution for a soundtrack album. Although he had always been allowed to mix his responsibilities at the company with projects for other labels, he resigned from his prestigious and increasingly lucrative position at Mercury to relocate to LA, where he would focus on scoring films and freelance production work. As a result of all the practical advantages he brought to the table, he soon broke Hollywood’s color barrier to become a “first and only” in the realm of film scoring, a status that would last until Hollywood’s “blaxploitation” trend in the 1970s briefly made scoring opportunities available to prominent R&B composers like Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown.
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. The desire to fight political and social injustice clearly had to extend to racial inequalities, no matter how much prejudice remained among Hollywood insiders. As the civil rights decade wore on, this mood of interracial solidarity would be further reinforced by increasing support among Hollywood progressives for the political goals of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commercial movies during this time were wildly diverse yet full of overt and covert social commentary. From a goofy sex farce like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, to a suspenseful melodrama like The Slender Thread, to an epic horse-and-outlaw opera like Mackenna’s Gold, many of the movies that Jones worked on during this period reflected the shifting moral tenor of the times.
The Pawnbroker (1964), Jones’s first American soundtrack, is an example. Directed by Sidney Lumet, this gritty film adaptation of a novel about an Auschwitz survivor who runs a pawnshop in a New York City ghetto was filmed in Spanish Harlem, on 116th Street and Park Avenue, and includes speaking roles for a large nonwhite cast. Jones was particularly well-suited to add emotional nuance and complexity to the movie’s psychological study of moral relativity and human nature. Born on the South Side of Chicago in the middle of the Great Depression, he was familiar with the hardscrabble life Lumet depicted. Losing his mother to mental illness before he was ten, Jones ran the streets and often went hungry in the years before his carpenter father was able to move the family to better living conditions in Seattle.
Having almost lost this gig to Lumet’s first choice, Modern Jazz Quartet leader John Lewis, Jones carefully gathered an all-star ensemble to perform his soundtrack. Space doesn’t permit listing the entire band, but suffice it to say that Freddie Hubbard and Bill Berry were on trumpets, Anthony Ortega was on soprano sax, Oliver Nelson was on alto and tenor sax, Toots Thielemans was on harmonica, Don Elliott was on vibraphone, Elvin Jones was on drums, Dave Grusin (the future founder of GRP Records) was on piano, and Carol Kaye was on electric bass. Jones even convinced Sarah Vaughan to sing the theme song over the closing credits.
Writing and arranging songs that were meant to introduce characters of various races and sexual orientations, Jones mixed incidental theme music with more commercial sounds to evoke a complex urban atmosphere. “Soul Bossa Nova,” a rearranged Brazilian boogaloo track Jones first recorded in 1962, accompanies a sex scene featuring the pawnbroker’s Puerto Rican assistant and his black girlfriend. Why did Jones recycle this particular composition for an original soundtrack? Possibly because he knew its incongruous cheerfulness would serve as an effective reference to an idyllic spirit of cross-cultural collaboration that escapes all but these two characters. The flute-driven song almost seems too light for the movie, until we realize that it symbolizes the unrealistic fantasies of this mixed-race couple, who are convinced they can transcend the many social limitations imposed on them.
After this project, Jones went on to deliver rhythms, string pads, and reedy melodies in everything from crime capers to sex comedies to melodramas. As he mastered this craft, his melodic interventions were at times subtle and at others as extreme and obvious as a pratfall. When asked to describe his approach to this kind of work, Jones replied: “The psychology of scoring is totally subjective, reactive, and highly personal. The science is the technical process of synchronization. The soul is the process of painting the psyche with musical ‘emotion lotion,’ of finding the appropriate voice and tone for a film.”
Jones scored many pictures starring fellow “first and only” Sidney Poitier. Their inaugural collaboration was director Sydney Pollack’s feature-length debut, a black-and-white thriller called The Slender Thread. Beginning with sweeping aerial shots of Seattle, the opening sequence introduces us to two protagonists with distinct identifying musical themes. A pensive, despairing Anne Bancroft gets tentative call-and-response riffs between anxious strings and mournful horns, while Poitier’s ambitious college student is followed across a predominantly white (though visibly activist!) campus to his sporty convertible by a jaunty organ and high-hat motif, which swells into a speedy jam session of wailing reeds and horns by the time Poitier hits the highway. Two years later, Jones would work on another Poitier film, the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, which yielded a crossover radio hit featuring Jones’s old friend Ray Charles crooning ominous lyrics over a sultry, country-blues arrangement.
Despite this obvious commercial success, Jones still faced skepticism when scoring films that did not center on a black protagonist. Director Richard Brooks, who adapted Truman Capote’s true-crime novel In Cold Blood (1967), allegedly had to fight Capote and Columbia Pictures to use Jones. Evidently unaware of Jones’s extensive classical training, Capote didn’t understand why Brooks had “a Negro doing the music for a film with no people of color in it.” The studio argued that the established symphonic composer Leonard Bernstein should do it instead. Jones responded to their objections by using his improvisational skills to incorporate the kind of artful dissonance and microtonal inflections pioneered by Stravinsky and Shostakovich into key scenes, proving that he was up to the task of giving Brooks’s film the innovative soundscape it deserved. During the infamous murder scene, Jones deploys a French horn with a section of cellos, low basses with very dissonant chords at the bottom, and a repetitive ostinato underneath. Atop all this, Jones lays on a vintage organ figure so spooky it drove his female harp player out of the recording session. Sonic elements like this helped cement In Cold Blood as an important contribution to an emerging style of American realism.
“Jones’s perennial love of jazz and ongoing awareness of folk, funk, and world-music trends kept him ever open to fresh, unexpected combinations.”
Though many of the early films Jones worked on were psychological dramas, he would go on to apply his skills to an array of lighter genres. In 1969, as if bidding a bittersweet farewell to the “swinging” decade, Jones would score two hippie-era sex comedies: Paul Mazursky’s encounter-group satire Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and Gene Saks’s more farcical Goldie Hawn vehicle Cactus Flower. To underscore Mazursky’s skeptical view of the Esalen-based Human Potential Movement, Jones arranged both a marching band version and a Sarah Vaughan–voiced swing version of material from Handel’s Messiah. To its benefit, Cactus Flower boasts both Vaughan and several bouncy Monkees covers in a more eclectic compilation that bridges rock, pop, R&B, and jazz in ways that suit the May-December romances spoofed in the film.
The year 1969 also saw Jones cutting an elegiac ballad sung by José Feliciano as the opening track for the metaphysical western Mackenna’s Gold. Then he persuaded a cast of zany British actors in The Italian Job to croon rude Cockney rhyming slang over a music-hall melody for the unorthodox crime caper’s closing credits. International pop music often surfaces in Jones’s soundtracks, most notably in the hybridized bossa nova number in The Pawnbroker and a cascade of Middle Eastern riffs heard during Poitier’s jail scene in Brother John.
Blended genres, special guest stars, and unconventional instrumentation (like harmonica and Moog synthesizer) became regular features of Jones’s film scores during the 1970s. For $ (1971) he brought in Little Richard, Roberta Flack, and violinist Doug Kershaw to add their signature flavors to an all-star studio band that included future Prince collaborator Clare Fischer. Jones’s perennial love of jazz and ongoing awareness of folk, funk, and world-music trends kept him ever open to fresh, unexpected combinations. This kind of eclecticism set Jones apart from many of his Hollywood peers, most of whom would not have thought to put together artists from such different eras—the legendary Little Richard was already officially retired, while soul diva Roberta Flack had only recently become a darling of pop radio.
Other seventies projects, like the soundtrack to James Goldstone’s philosophical sci-fi mystery Brother John (1971) and Mark Warren’s all-black period piece Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972), gave Jones and his collaborators the freedom to indulge in fantasy and music history in ways few other movies would. If nothing else, such films helped expand the range of subject matter expected from black-oriented cinema. But Jones was by now signed to A&M Records to make jazz-funk solo albums and was becoming less enthusiastic about the tight-laced discipline of producing film music. According to him, he had been churning out close to eight soundtracks per year when, in 1969, he grew increasingly frustrated with the medium. Until the 1970s, when new Dolby sound technologies were developed for feature films, composers lost both the highest and lowest frequencies in their arrangements after sound designers squeezed the music onto lo-fi optical tracks during the film syncing process. And while vinyl copies of a film score restored the fidelity of Jones’s mixes, he felt this was beside the point, since he’d cut those tracks specifically to enhance the filmgoing experience.
While Jones never gave up film and television scoring completely, by the midseventies most of his attention had returned to popular music and the emerging jazz fusion, quiet storm, and smooth jazz radio formats his production style helped create. Soon, between his albums for A&M, freelance productions, and the Qwest boutique label that Warner Bros. helped him launch, Jones was earning more money and winning more awards than his film work had ever generated. In 1978, when Jones teamed with Motown to work on The Wiz, he was just coming off an influential string of solo recordings on A&M and one Emmy-award-winning score for the 1977 television series Roots, for which he invoked the origins of modern black music from before trans-Atlantic slavery through to the end of the Civil War. It must have been both exciting and daunting for him to transition from the anthropological research he did for Roots to a high-concept adaptation of a popular Broadway musical.
Motown tasked Jones with retooling material from the stage production while also supplying new songs to fit an expanded storyline. But The Wiz fell short of everyone’s expectations. Despite big-name stars like Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, and director Sidney Lumet, audiences didn’t buy its convoluted premise and slow pacing. The one good thing that came out of this debacle was a musical rapport between Jones and Jackson, which resulted in three multiplatinum solo albums, all supported by elaborately choreographed mini-movies. Jones used his award-winning affiliation with some of MTV’s most videogenic artists to gain entrepreneurial traction with younger consumers. By proving he had his finger on the pulse of America’s multiracial youth market, he was then able to get Hollywood backing for a multimedia company that developed TV series, movies, and documentaries that promoted new trends in black and popular entertainment.
It can be argued that changing popular tastes gradually led even the most old-school filmmakers away from the complex arrangements and symphonic orchestrations of yore toward simpler, catchier pop sounds. Evidence suggests that trends in radio and retail drove the content of most soundtracks in a more “modern” direction. Black-oriented films in particular—from Shaft and Superfly to Lady Sings the Blues and Wattstax—succeeded by building soundtracks around radio-friendly soul singers of the 1970s. Subsequent generations of black filmmakers in the 1980s and ’90s had similarly tough decisions to make when deciding what kind of score they could afford, and what kind of score might make their films more popular with a target audience. That’s why revisiting Jones’s film music from the 1960s and ’70s is so revelatory. It’s not just his long list of collaborators or the breadth of his musical influences that make this work important to preserve. His catalog of cinematic soundscapes also reminds us of a time before filmmakers felt compelled to pander to the lowest common denominators of public taste, a time that gave us adventurous film music that ambitiously flirted with both the commercial and the avant-garde.
A series of films that Quincy Jones scored is playing on the Criterion Channel through May 31, 2020.
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