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Alex Haley Interviews Quincy Jones
(Alex Haley Interviews Quincy Jones was originally published in the July 1, 1990 issue of Playboy Magazine. In addition, it was also published within Alex Haley: The Playboy Interviews by Ballantine Books in July 1993.)
A Candid Conversation With Famed Music Conductor, Record Producer, Film Composer & Trumpeter
Back on the Block, the latest hit album from Quincy Jones, may not sell as many copies as Thriller, the all-time record-setting megahit he produced with Michael Jackson in 1982. It may not have the global impact of "We Are the World," his superstar-studded 1985 musical event, which raised $50,000,000 to fight hunger. It may not earn him another Grammy award, though he has won 20 of them since 1963. But Back on the Block is certainly the most historic achievement of Jones's extraordinary career. It's also the story of his life.
A virtuoso blending of bebop, soul, Gospel, rhythm-and-blues, Brazilian and African music, rap and fusion, it's what one critic called "a virtual crash course in black popular music of the 20th Century." In his liner notes for the album, Jones wrote that his intention was "to bridge generations and traverse musical boundaries." Actually, that's what he has been doing ever since he broke into show business at the age of 15 as a trumpet player and arranger for Lionel Hampton.In the 42 years since then, he has composed, arranged or produced hits for almost every major name in the music business, from such big-band greats as Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie to modern-day superstars such as Frank Sinatra. He is also credited with helping catalyze the phenomenon of "crossover" by bringing black music across the color line into the musical mainstream. As a vice-president of Mercury Records in the early Sixties, Jones was the first black executive at a major label, and in 1963, he began a second career in Hollywood, where he became the first black to reach the top rank of film composers, with 38 pictures to his credit.His biggest professional setback came in 1978, when he served as musical director of The Wiz, a multimillion-dollar flop—but the project solidified a friendship with 20-year-old Michael Jackson (who starred as the Scarecrow) and launched a series of creative collaborations that culminated in Thriller and "We Are the World." His first excursion as a movie producer, in 1985, elevated him into the big leagues almost overnight. He persuaded Steven Spielberg to coproduce and direct "The Color Purple," cast Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg in the roles that won them Oscar nominations, then supervised the entire production—and, for good measure, wrote the score.But the strain of living in all those fast lanes, along with the disintegration of his third marriage, to actress Peggy Lipton, drove Jones into a nervous collapse that stirred memories of the near-fatal aneurysm—a hemorrhaging artery in the brain—that had stricken him in 1974 after a similar bout of overwork. This time, he took a monthlong "spiritual leave of absence" in Tahiti and returned "in control of my life for the first time."
His eclectic album Back on the Block is the harvest of that sabbatical. So is his new company, an entertainment conglomerate partnering Jones and his chief executive, Kevin Wendle, in a co-venture with Time Warner's Bob Pittman, a former MTV executive. And so is the list of honors that have come his way since then—among them this year's Soul Train Heritage Award, which turned into a star-studded 57th-birthday tribute to "Q," as he's known to his hundreds of friends and admirers in the business; a Man of the Year citation at the annual conference of the international music-business association MIDEM; and, most recently, a prestigious Legion of Honor award from the government of France, where he is considered an American national treasure.Paris was one of the settings for this conversation with Alex Haley, whom he met in 1975 while the author was writing Roots. Jones was enthralled by the stories Haley told him about his ancestors, and when David Wolper asked Jones to score the first 12 hours of the television miniseries, he and Haley became collaborators as well as friends. When we called Haley with this assignment, he was in the final stages of completing his long-awaited book Henning, but it's a measure of their friendship that he agreed to take time out for this very special Playboy Interview.
He reports: "On a desk in Quincy Jones's business office in Los Angeles sits the biggest Rolodex I've ever seen. It contains, I'm told, the names of more than 5000 friends and associates in the entertainment industry. I believe it. There probably isn't a heavier hitter in the business, or one more universally admired." "Whatever Quincy's doing, whether it's work or play, he does it with his whole being. And he seems to keep busy pursuing one or the other, in grand style, just about 24 hours a day. My interview with him, appropriately, began on a private jet en route to Manzanillo, Mexico, and continued beside his pool at the spectacular Las Hadas resort hotel, between takes for a feature-length documentary of his life, Back on the Block with Quincy Jones, scheduled for theatrical release in September. Our next session followed a memorable dinner prepared by Quincy's French-Brazilian chef at his showplace Bel Air home, a stone's throw from the Reagans." "A third session took place last summer in Paris during the bicentennial Bastille Day extravaganza, the orchestral highlight of which Quincy had been imported to conduct. The mayor of Paris headed a parade of Quincy's old friends, who visited him in his flower-banked suite at the Ritz. And after festivities, before returning home, he and his traveling companions—Time Warner co-C.E.O. Steve Ross and his wife, Courtney, who was producer of the documentary—decided to stop off in London for dinner with Quincy's pal Dustin Hoffman. As we say in Tennessee, that's tall cotton. But somehow, through it all, success hasn't spoiled Quincy Jones. I wanted to know why. So that's where we began."
Haley: "Lifestyle of the rich and famous" is a phrase that could have been coined to describe the way you live, Quincy—but you don't seem to have lost your humility. Why not?
Quincy Jones: I never forget where I came from, man. When I was seven, I remember my brother Lloyd and I went to spend the summer with my grandmother in Louisville, Kentucky. She was an ex-slave, but she'd moved up in the world since then. The lock on the back door of her little house was a bent nail, and she had a coal stove and kerosene lamps for light, and she used to tell us to go down to the river in the evening and catch us a rat, and we'd take that sucker home in a bag and she'd cook it up for supper. She fried it with onions, and it tasted good, man. When you're seven years old and you don't know any better, everything tastes good to you. That kind of memory makes you appreciate everything that much more, because from then on, no matter how good it gets, you never take anything for granted. I've had the whole range of experiences, from rats to pâté, and I feel lucky just to be alive.
Haley: Why do you say that?
Jones: In the neighborhood where I was born, on the South Side of Chicago—the biggest ghetto in the world—we used to watch teachers getting killed and policemen shooting black teenagers in the back. Every street was like a territory, and every territory was run by a gang, and everybody used to carry a little switchblade. If I'd stayed there, I'd have been gone by now. Because nobody gets out, hardly.
Haley: But when you were ten, your family moved to Bremerton, Washington, near Seattle. What was it like there?
Jones: The opposite end of the spectrum. My father and my mother had split up back in Chicago, and we moved in with my new stepmother and her three kids in a decent neighborhood in this nice little town where he'd gotten a job as a carpenter down at the naval shipyards. It took me a few months before I realized I didn't have to carry my switchblade anymore. The school I went to was like a model of multiracial integration, and the kids got along together about as well as they do anywhere in the world. But it's not like we moved to Disneyland. There's no way you're going to live anywhere in America and not feel the pangs of racial prejudice. You still get that hate stare from certain kinds of white people, but that's daily experience from the time you're two years old, and you learn to deal with it.
Haley: When did you start getting interested in music?
Jones: When I was five or six, back in Chicago. There was this lady named Lucy Jackson who used to play stride piano in the apartment next door, and I listened to her all the time right through the walls. And we used to listen to the songs my other grandmother in St. Louis would play on her old windup Victrola—Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, all the greats. In Bremerton, I joined the school choir and the school band and learned how to play drums, tuba, B-flat baritone horn, French horn, E-flat alto horn, sousaphone and piano. I really wanted to learn trombone, so I could march right behind the drum majorettes. Then my father gave me a trumpet of my own, and soon I was wearing one of those red-and-white derbies and doo-wopping with my plunger mute in the National Guard band. In between the band concerts and singing in a Gospel group, me and my friends would be out playing gigs just about all the time, because this was during World War Two and Seattle had all these Army bases that were the last stop-off before getting shipped out to the Pacific, and that town was jumpin', man.
Haley: Where did you play those gigs?
Jones: A typical night for us would be from seven to ten at the Seattle Tennis Club in our white tuxedos, playing Room Full of Roses and all that hotsy-totsy stuff for a totally white audience. Then, at ten-thirty, we'd make the rounds of all the black get-down clubs, like the Reverend Silas Groves's Washington Social and Education Club, which was nothing but a juke joint with strippers. Or to the Black and Tan, where we played R&B for an incredible character named Bumps Blackwell, who owned a meat market and a jewelry store and a chain of taxicabs in addition to heading up a band. He's the guy who discovered Sam Cooke and Little Richard. Bumps's band even played for Billie Holiday when she came to town. And we didn't just play horn for Bumps. We danced, we sang, we did everything. We had two girl singers, a stripper, four horns, a rhythm section, a male singer and two comedians—that was me and a friend of mine. We doubled as the comedy team of Methedrine and Benzedrine. We put on a hell of a show. Anyway, around two a.m., after blowing with Bumps for a few hours, we'd wind up down at the Elks Club playing bebop for ourselves till five or six.
Haley: Didn't you meet Count Basie around that time?
Jones: I met Basie when I was thirteen years old, when he was playing at the Palomar Theater in Seattle. At that time, he was the biggest and the best big-band leader in the world, but he took me under his wing, and we formed a relationship that lasted the rest of his life. He was my uncle, my father, my mentor, my friend—the dearest man in the world. And his trumpet man, Clark Terry, practically adopted me. He taught me and talked to me and gave me the confidence to get out there and see what I could do on my own. These are the guys who really trained me. They were my idols as musicians, but even more important, they were my role models as human beings. They were more concerned about getting better than about getting over.
Haley: You've said that Ray Charles was another big early influence on you. When did you meet him?
Jones: When I was about fourteen. I went over to Bumps's house one night, and there he was—this sixteen-year-old blind kid playing the piano and singing Blowin' the Blues Away. He was so good he gave me goose bumps. He already had his own apartment, he had all these women, he owned four or five suits. He was doing better than me, and he was blind, man. So I just attached myself to him, and he became like a big brother to me. Taught me how to read and write music in Braille and how to voice horns and how to deal with polytonality, and that opened up a golden door for me, because I was fascinated with how all those instruments I'd learned how to play in the band, each of them with its own distinctive sound, could play their own individual variations on the tune and yet interweave them all into the fabric of a song. And from then on, I was hooked on the idea of orchestration and arranging.
Haley: But it was Lionel Hampton who gave you your first big break. How did that happen?
Jones: I kept hanging out with his band whenever it was in town, until finally, when I was fifteen, he gave me the chance to blow trumpet and write some arrangements for the band. Well, that's all the encouragement I needed to pack up and get on the bus. Only, before we could pull out, his wife, Gladys, caught me on board and yanked me back onto the street. "That boy's gonna finish his schooling before he gets back on this bus," she told Hamp.
So I was highly motivated to finish school so I could go join that band. And the moment I graduated from high school—and completed one-semester musical scholarships at Seattle University and Berklee College of Music in Boston—that's exactly what I did. Because Lionel Hampton was a superstar back then. He had the first rock-and-roll band in America—I'm talking about that big-beat sound with the honking tenor sax and the screaming high note trumpet. Hamp was a showman. He even had us wearing these outlandish purple outfits—matching coats and shorts and socks and shoes and Tyrolean hats.
Haley: Weren't you embarrassed?
Jones: Mortified. But I didn't care, man, because I got to go to New York with the band. I was eighteen, and it was like going to heaven for me, because that's where all my idols were. Oscar Pettiford was like my big brother, and he introduced me to all of them: Miles, Dizzy, Ray Brown, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, all the bebop dudes. They were the new generation of jazz musicians, and they thought it was unhip to be too successful. They said, "We don't want to be entertainers. We want to be artists. We want to explore." But when they went into bebop, we lost some of our greatest warriors, because the public rejected them and they didn't make a dime, not a dime. I mean, they lived from day to day. And they went into this little cocoon and we ended up with a lot of casualties—a lot of people in the gutter, dying from heroin.
Haley: What was it like touring with Hampton's band?
Jones: It was an education, and not just about music. After we left New York, Hamp's band went on a long tour through the South, seventy-nine one-nighters in a row in the Carolinas alone. It was a grind. And every night was like going into a battle zone. About two thirds of the way through the show, somebody out on the dance floor would start a fight, and before the evening was over, there'd be two or three stabbings. You got used to that kind of thing.
What I didn't get used to was the discrimination. It was on that trip that I got my fist real exposure to segregation in the raw, and it just about blew my head apart. Every day and every night, it kept hitting us in the face like a fist. It was like being in enemy territory. The older guys had been on the road for thirty years, and they'd seen it all. They knew just what to say and what not to say around white people down there, where you could stay and where you couldn't stay, where you could eat and where you couldn't eat. We'd show up in some towns and our white bus driver would have to go get us sandwiches and bring them back aboard, because there was no place we could eat. And once, in Texas, we pulled into this little town around five in the morning and there was an effigy of a black person with a rope around his neck hanging from the steeple of the biggest church in town. Man, that just fucked my mind up. I didn't know how to handle it.
But whenever it got to be too much for me, the older guys would say, "Don't feel so bad. It's no different for Lena Horne or Sammy Davis or Harry Belafonte. They may be big stars, but when they play Vegas, they still got to eat in the kitchen, they can't stay in the hotel where they're working, they can't even mingle out front with the people who just paid to see them on the stage." Well, that didn't make me feel any better. But that's the way it was in those days. We've come a long way since then, but back in the Fifties, if you wanted to be treated like a person and appreciated for your musical talent, the older guys said Europe was the place to go.
Haley: Was there less prejudice there?
Jones: Let's not get carried away, now. You'll run into the same attitudes in Europe as you'll find anywhere else in the world.
But in this country, jazz and blues had always been looked down on as the music of the brothel. In Europe, they were mature enough to understand it from the beginning for what it was: one of the true original art forms ever to come from America.
Haley: You toured Europe with Hampton's band in 1953. How did you go over?
Jones: We were a smash everywhere we went, and while we were in Stockholm, I also got the chance to compose, arrange and conduct four songs in a landmark recording session for Art Farmer, Clifford Brown and the Swedish All-Stars. After it came out, the word about us spread like wildfire all over Europe, and when we got to Paris, they wanted us to record some more albums. We were in Paris, I remember, when I got word from Jeri, my high school sweetheart, that she'd given birth to a little girl named Jolie. We'd gotten married before I left the States, and I didn't get to see either one of them till I got back home to New York. I quit the band to work in the city as a free-lance arranger, so I wouldn't be on the road so much. But we were too young to be married, let alone raising kids, and so it never worked out.
Haley: Did you make it as an arranger in New York?
Jones: Scuffled around awhile, arranging for James Moody's band, but then Dinah Washington grabbed ahold of me and asked me to start writing arrangements for her. Dinah's material could get pretty raunchy sometimes. One of the songs I arranged for her, I remember, was called I Love My Trombone Playing Daddy with His Big Long Sliding Thing. I was ready to move on in 1956 when George Avakian of Columbia Records asked me to write arrangements for the first album by a twenty-year-old San Francisco track star named Johnny Mathis. I told him yes, but before I had the chance to do it, Dizzy Gillespie called and asked me to do all the arrangements for a band that the State Department wanted him to take on a good-will tour of the Middle East.
As it turned out, America needed all the good will it could just then because of the political situation in that part of the world. We arrived in Turkey in the middle of a crisis, and the same people who were stoning the American embassy came to our concert at night. And after the concert they went rushing up to the stage and grabbed Dizzy, and we are scared to death about what they were gonna do. But they just picked him up on their shoulders and cheered, man, like he was a hero.
When we showed up in Pakistan, they'd never ever seen a trumpet or a trombone, but they responded to our music like it was their own. We communicated with them on a level that transcended language and politics and cultural differences. It was on that trip that I felt for the first time the real power and universality of music as a bond among people everywhere.
Haley: You've said that your next European tours, in 1957 and 1958, were major turning points in your life. In what way?
Jones: The first one was a gas, the second a disaster. In 1957, I was asked to be the musical director of Barclay Records, a very innovative company in Paris that was run by Eddie Barclay and Nadia Boulanger. Before she went into the record business, Nadia had been the musical mentor to some of the greatest composers in the world—guys like Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky—and I can't begin to tell you the lessons she taught me, not only about music but about living. It was through her that I got to meet incredible people such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Françoise Sagan, Josephine Baker, Pablo Picasso, even Porfirio Rubirosa. That year was wonderful.
Haley: And the next was a bummer?
Jones: They say you learn more from your setbacks than you do from your successes, so I guess I should consider it a triumph. I was asked to become musical director for a Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical called Free and Easy, and we took it on the road to Europe with my band. The plan was to tour the Continent for a few months and then pick up Sammy Davis on the way home to star in the show on Broadway. But when we got to Paris, the Algerian crisis had practically paralyzed the country, and the show folded, and we got stranded in Europe for the next ten months. Every week, I had to scuffle to cover the five-thousand-dollar payroll, and I wound up hocking all my publishing companies to cover the nut. The pressure of trying to keep everybody afloat finally got so bad that one night, I seriously considered grabbing a handful of pills and just checking out. But that very night, Irving Green of Mercury Records, who was a dear friend of mine, telephoned and gave me the faith and courage I needed to hang in there, and I did, until we finally scraped together enough to get home on.
Haley: How long did it take you to get back on your feet?
Jones: It was almost seven years before I bought myself out of hock. But I went back to work from the day I got off the boat in New York. Started composing and arranging again for Dinah, who told me to keep an eye on the Reverend C. L. Franklin's young daughter, Aretha. "She's the one, I promise you," Dinah told me. And she was. I organized my own band to play with Billy Eckstine, Johnny Ray and Peggy Lee at Basin Street East, and we went to the Monterey Jazz Festival. By this time, I was beginning to get noticed. In 1961, I won Jet magazine's award for best arranger and composer—and my first Grammy nomination for arranging Let the Good Times Roll for Ray Charles. That's when I got an offer from Irving Green at Mercury to join him as an A&R man. A&R stands for Artists and Repertoire—which means you're in charge of the people you pick and what they sing. So I had to put on a suit and go in to work every day at nine, but I got to do what I love, and I learned a lot about the business side of the music industry, because Irving Green took me to school, man. I was producing people like Dizzy, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, and they were getting great records. I was also starting to make good money—but I didn't realize at first that other people who did what I did were getting a percentage of the royalties on top of their salaries, and that's where the real money was. But I found out real fast, and that's when I decided to get into pop music, because I was tired of producing jazz music that got great reviews, only nobody was buying it. So I produced a song—It's My Party—for Lesley Gore and it went up to number one on the charts. I did lots of others with her, and they were all hits. Then I started to conduct for Sinatra, and we made a record together, and we worked the Sands in Vegas.
Haley: Didn't you get married again around that time—in 1965?
Jones: That's right—to a beautiful Swedish model named Ulla. I met her on a business trip to Stockholm. She was only nineteen, so I don't know why I thought it would work out. But I was thirty-two—old enough to think I was finally ready to settle down—and I was determined to be a real husband this time. So after knowing her for three weeks, I married Ulla. Three weeks later, I knew we'd make a mistake, but I didn't want to fail at marriage a second time, and I wanted desperately to have a real home and a mother for my kids—something I'd never really known when I was growing up. So we had two children and stayed together for seven years, but finally, we both felt so trapped that each of us was blaming the other for why we weren't happy together, and it was tearing both of us to pieces—and the children, too. So one Christmas, she went home to Sweden with the kids, and she called to tell me, "I'm not coming back." Both kids came to live with me later, and we've got a fantastic relationship today, but that was one of the low points of my life, man.
Haley: Ironically, it was during those years that you moved to Los Angeles and established yourself as one of the most successful film-score composers in the industry. What made you decide to quit the record business and try movies?
Jones: It had been a dream of mine since I was fifteen, and I finally got my chance. I had scored a film for the Swedish director Arne Sucksdorff, and then Sidney Lumet asked me to write the music for The Pawnbroker, which got me an offer to score Mirage, my first picture for a major Hollywood studio. So I came out to L.A., and the people at Universal freaked out when they got a look at me, because they didn't know I was black. I don't think they'd seen many blacks around there, except maybe in the kitchen, and they tried to bail out of it. But Henry Mancini—who was a friend of mine—told them, "Hey, fellas, this is the Twentieth Century. Don't be stupid. And don't strangle the baby in the crib—he can handle it." And I did. After that, it got easier, and I really started cranking them out, maybe seven or eight a year. Thanks to Benny Carter, who wrote the music for M Squad, I got to do the music for a few TV series—including Ironside—and that led to movies like In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood and Goldie Hawn's first picture, Cactus Flower. And all of Bill Cosby's early shows—fifty-six episodes of a series starring him as a high school coach and twenty-six episodes of a variety show.
But by 1969, I wanted to go back in the studio and record something that was designed to be listened to as a piece of music, not as background for another medium—and the first album I produced, Walking in Space, won a Grammy. And two years later, I won another one.
Haley: Wasn't it some time after that that you got married again?
Jones: Yes. My daughter Jolie introduced me at a party to a very elegant and attractive lady named Peggy Lipton, who happened to be an actress. She had been starring in The Mod Squad for several years, and she was fed up with the business, and that was very attractive to me, after having met every ambitious young starlet in Los Angeles. Peggy was very sensitive and intelligent, and she was from a very solid family background, with these wonderful parents who had been married for something like thirty-seven years. Well, the idea of two people being together for thirty-seven years was totally alien to my experience—and that was another attraction. Maybe it would rub off on us if we got married. So we did, and we had two children, and we stayed together for twelve years, and for a long time, it was everything I hoped it would be.
Haley: Your three wives have been white. Have you taken any heat for that?
Jones: From both sides. But it was never a choice I made on account of color. You just never know who you're going to fall in love with. I love ice cream, man, and I don't care if it's French vanilla, chocolate chip, maple walnut, lemon sherbet or black cherry. When I look at a woman, race is the last thing I'm thinking about. It's the last thing I think about when I look at anybody, unless they're looking at me that way. And my kids are the same way about it. They're all of mixed blood, but they choose to think of themselves as black, and they're proud of it—not because they don't want to be white but because they relate most deeply to the rich heritage of black culture, with all the heartache and all the joy that go along with it.
Haley: You were at the top of your profession in 1974 when you suffered a massive aneurysm that almost killed you. What do you think brought it on?
Jones: I was pushing myself too hard, as usual. I'd been up three days working, and I was at my home in Brentwood, in bed with my wife, when all of a sudden, I felt this blinding pain, like somebody had blown a shotgun through my brain. It was just the worst pain I'd ever felt in my whole life, and I was screaming, and I didn't know what was happening to me. Peggy called the paramedics, but by the time they got there, I had blacked out and gone into a coma. They thought it was a heart attack, and my wife said, "He's strong as a mule, that can't be it." And she called my doctor, Elsie Georgie, who said, "I think I know what it is, but I hope it's not too late," and she took me down to the hospital for a spinal tap and, sure enough, she was right: I'd had an aneurysm. The main artery to my brain had popped and blood was pouring into my brain, which had swollen up so big they had to wait eight days before they could operate on me. Finally, they did, and I woke up and I was still alive.
That was the moment I realized for the first time that I didn't have a three-pronged cord plugged into my body that I could turn on at any time, whenever I wanted. I'd never imagined that I could fall apart like that. And coming through all that—there were actually two aneurysms and two operations a month apart—being blessed enough to come through all that alive, it really was a miracle.
Haley: You didn't go back to work for several months after the aneurysms. Had they affected your thought processes?
Jones: I was afraid to find out. So for a long time, I didn't even try to work. I was also very weak from the surgery. But finally was faced with a decision that would put my recovery and my courage to the test. I had a commitment to tour Japan with a small band and I wasn't sure I should risk it, but Elsie Georgie told me, "You're anemic, but if you baby yourself now, you'll never be OK. So go."
But the surgeon who operated on me warned me not to play the trumpet. He had put a clip on my artery to keep it closed, and he told me that I'd blow off that clip and kill myself if I tried to blow that horn. I didn't believe him, of course, and I decided to take the tour, and I started blowing the horn, and one night, I hit one of those high notes and I felt something crack inside, like my head was gonna break right open. I was scared to death, and I went to the doctor and, sure enough, I'd almost blown off the clip. Well, the doctor didn't have to warn me again. I stopped playing the trumpet and I had to leave the band.
Haley: How long did it take you to go back to work as a producer?
Jones: Not long. Surviving a second time made me realize that I didn't have anything to be afraid of—except maybe giving up on myself. So I got together with two of the guys who'd gone on the tour with me—the Johnson brothers, who had a great sound on guitar and bass—and produced a record with them. We wound up with four hits in a row, and there I was, smack dab back in the record business. It was in the middle of all this that I was at a party in L.A. and ran into this beautiful brother from San Francisco who was writing this book about the story of his family and the history of black people in America, all the way back through slavery to Africa. He called it Roots, and it was just about the most moving and powerful story I'd ever heard. Well, it so happened that at the time, I was on a journey of my own, doing research on the evolution of black music, so I felt like it was fated that you and I should meet, Alex.
Haley: Is it fair to say that you were fanatic about historical authenticity in scoring Roots with your African collaborators?
Jones: Letta Mbulu and Caiphus Semenya, yes. Anybody else might say I was fanatical, but to me, it was just trying to tell it like it was, trying to rediscover a heritage that was taken away from us. African music had always been regarded in the West as primitive and savage, but when you take the time to really study it, you see that it's as structured and sophisticated as European classical music, with the same basic components as you'll find in a symphony orchestra—instruments that are plucked, instruments that are beaten and instruments that are blown with reeds. And it's music from the soil—powerful, elemental. Life-force music. Composers from Bizet to Stravinsky have drawn on African influences. And in slave-ship times, it started spreading into the New World, from Brazil all the way up through Haiti to Cuba, through the West Indies, until some of the ships started landing in Virginia and New Orleans. The original African influence had been watered down and assimilated with other sounds along the way, but it was still strong enough that in 1692, the Virginia colony decided to ban the drum, because the slaves used it as a means of communication, and that was threatening to the plantation owners. But that didn't stop the slaves: They started making music with hand claps and foot stomps, anything to keep that spirit alive. The slaves weren't allowed to practice their own religions, either, but the black Christian churches became the keepers of the flame for black music in America. From Gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, rock and roll, all the way to rap, you can trace the roots straight back to Africa.
Haley: During the five years after Roots, you produced a string of hits for Chaka Khan, George Benson, Lena Horne and Donna Summer. And you began a collaboration with Michael Jackson that culminated in 1982 with the production of the biggest album of all time, Thriller. Did you know it was going to be a hit?
Jones: I knew from the first time I heard it in the studio, because the hair stood straight up on my arms. That's a sure sign, and it's never once been wrong. All the brilliance that had been building inside Michael Jackson for twenty-five years just erupted. It's like he was suddenly transformed from this gifted young man into a dangerous, predatory animal. I'd known Michael since he was twelve years old, but it was like seeing and hearing him for the first time. I was electrified, and so was everybody else involved in the project.
That energy was contagious, and we had it cranked so high one night that the speakers in the studio actually overloaded and burst into flames. First time I ever saw anything like that in forty years in the business. And that's just what the album did when it hit the charts. Biggest-selling album in the history of music hyped by the biggest-selling video of all time—a fourteen-minute film that had the impact of a hit movie. There's never been anything like it.
Haley: Jackson has a reputation for eccentricity that rivals the brilliance of his creative talents. Are both justified?
Jones: There's no question that he's brilliant—the most gifted composer and performer in popular music today. But I think it trivializes Michael to call him eccentric. He's an incredibly rich and complex human being with both the wisdom of an eighty-five-year-old sage and the magical, childlike curiosity and wonder of a Peter Pan. And the intensity of his creative energy is awesome, like a force of nature.
Haley: We've heard that you work yourself up into a kind of fever pitch when you're composing and producing.
Jones: Well, I do have a tendency to become obsessed. When I've got a creative mode going with my composing partners, Rod Temperton and Siedah Garrett—I don't want you to get the idea I do this all alone—my mind gets so fired up that I can't turn it off and go to sleep at night. I can actually hear a song in my mind, completely orchestrated from start to finish, before we even go into the studio with my sound engineer, Bruce Swedien, to record it. But I've got to wait until the last minute to be at my best. It's the fever of the recording session that gets my juices going, and I ride it straight through to the end.
Haley: That's the way you recorded We Are the World, wasn't it—in one long marathon session?
Jones: We had to. With all those superstars involved, it was like organizing D day to get them all in the same studio on the same day. We had only ten hours to do the whole thing, and we had to get it right in one session, because there wasn't going to be a second one. Lionel [Richie] and Michael and I knew all the things that could go wrong, so we planned it right down to where everybody in the chorus would be standing and where every microphone would be positioned so that we'd pick up each voice distinctly. And we didn't know what to expect with all those egos in the same room together. But they must have checked them at the door, because the mood in the studio was like a living embodiment of the idea behind the song. As one after another showed up—Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, just about all the top people in the business—the voltage in that studio kept rising and rising. For the first hour, they were signing autographs for each other. And that spirit of brotherhood communicated itself very vividly on the sound track and in the video.
Haley: What do you say to people who characterize We Are the World as corny and commercial?
Jones: I say it takes a strange kind of mind to find fault with a project that raised fifty million dollars to feed the hungry. Thanks to Harry Belafonte, who planted the seed for the whole project, and to Ken Kragen, who got it off the ground, We Are the World raised the public consciousness about world hunger, and that helped push the Government into coming up with millions more. Bob Geldof's Live Aid show paved the way, but We Are the World helped trigger a whole series of fund-raising events, like Hands Across America and Farm Aid and Comic Relief, that woke the kids up from their I-me-mine Yuppie mentality and got them involved in caring about what happens to somebody else for a change. Anybody who wants to throw stones at that can get up off his ass and go do something better. There's still plenty of starving Africans.
Haley: After such megahits as Thriller and We Are the World, do you feel any pressure to hit a home run with every record?
Jones: You can't do that, because the business we're in as human beings is the efforts business. God is the only one in the results business. All we can do is the best we can. If you start thinking about sales while you're making music, man, you'll short-circuit your brain and the music won't have a chance of being any good.
Haley: You made a big reach when you took on the role of coproducer for The Color Purple. How did you come to head up that project?
Jones: When Peter Guber brought me Alice Walker's book to read, it was such a powerful experience for me that I could see it unfolding like a movie right inside my mind, and I knew that I had to bring that vision to reality. So I asked Steven Spielberg to direct it, because he's one of the finest film makers we've ever seen, and The Color Purple deserved the best there is. I knew there would be a certain blackness that would be missing, and I took a lot of flak from some people for picking a white director, but I think the results more than justified my faith in him.
But it was probably the most difficult and taxing project I've ever worked on. It should have taken about a year to produce the movie, but Steven's other commitments made it necessary to get the whole thing done in five months, and then I had to hole up with my crew to write an hour and fifty-four minutes of music for it in just six weeks. Well, somehow I got it all done, and the picture won eleven Oscar nominations that year. But the whole experience took a terrible toll on me. And there were a lot of other pressures going on in my personal life at the same time.
Haley: Such as?
Jones: For a long time, Peggy and I had been drifting apart. With so much of her life going into my career and my family, I guess she kind of lost track of herself somewhere along the way, and I'm sure I could have been much more sensitive and attentive to her needs. But by the time I was ready to, it was too late.
Haley: All this undoubtedly contributed to your collapse in 1986 with what the newspaper accounts called "adrenal syndrome." What were the symptoms?
Jones: Memory lapses, lack of concentration, irritability, sleeplessness, everything. And finally, I just caved in. Adrenal syndrome is what the doctor called it, but I think that was just kind of a fancy name for nervous breakdown. I asked him what to do, and he told me to pull the plug and get away, go straight back to nature. So Marlon Brando offered me his place in Tahiti, and I took him up on it. Alice Walker gave me some spiritual books—Rays of the Dawn and The Essene Gospel of Peace—to take along with me. I thought these introspective books would help me dig inside myself to see what was really going on. I wanted to have a long talk with myself and get it right this time, maybe even build a platform that I could grow on for the rest of my life.
Haley: Did you find what you were looking for in Tahiti?
Jones: I think I did. But I got a lot of help, and I needed all I could get, because I was in such bad shape, I was as helpless as a baby. It was just me and thirteen Tahitians on that island. They devoted themselves to making me better, and they knew just how to do it. They fed me what they ate themselves. They would pick a papaya right off the tree and cut it up and then serve it on a coconut shell, dressed just like a chef would do it. We'd eat it with our hands, and then drink the milk from the coconut. And we'd share raw fish right out of the ocean. And that's all I ate, or felt like eating, for the thirty-one days I was there.
All the beauty of Tahiti was right outside my door, but I would have stayed in my room all the time if they hadn't come and taken me outside. One of the cooks would take me on long walks with him and tell me about the spirits of the ancient Tahitians. He told me, "Don't you worry, everything's gonna be all right, because I've connected you to the coconut radio, and they all know you're here." And this very talented writer and sculptor who called himself Huihini Bobby came by and took me down to this natural pool that was filled with these huge moray eels—some of them big enough to take your head off—and we sat there and watched while this guy went in the water with them and fed them right out of his hand. Another time, Bobby helped his friend's wife deliver her baby right there at home, and they were such close, loving friends that she gave him the placenta and the umbilical cord as a gift for birthing the baby, and he planted them underneath his window.
What I'm trying to tell you is that this was a magical place. These people were connected to the natural world around them, and the world inside them, in a way I had never known was possible and can't explain even now, but I know that just being there with them began to heal me. Not physically but spiritually. Because whatever was wrong with me had just struck me down and left me for dead. I felt utterly drained, vacant, empty, like my soul had left my body. I stopped looking in the mirror, because it was like looking at somebody I didn't know—a zombie—and I was afraid to look at anybody else without my sunglasses on, because I didn't want them to see that I wasn't there.
Then, one night, this sweet, beautiful girl named Vaea—she was a painter—looked into my eyes and said, "Your kundalini is gone." I didn't know what she was talking about, so she explained that according to Eastern philosophy, your kundalini is the core of your sexual energy, the core of your whole being. And mine was gone. But she said there was an ancient cure, and two of her friends came to my bungalow with this paste that comes from the bark of a tree, and they made me lie down and they snatched off my clothes and put the salve all over my back. Then they laid leaves on top of it, wrapped me all up in gauze and sat me in this big tub on a wooden block. Beside the tub, they had this huge pot full of herbs that had been cooking in water for about three hours, and they put this big towel over my head so that it hung off me like a tent, and they began pouring this steaming-hot stuff over me right through the towel, just like a homemade sauna.
Well, I started to inhale, and I'm telling you, I never felt anything like that in my life. That vapor went cleansing and healing its way right through my body into my very soul, and by the time I came out of there, I felt like a brand-new person—like I'd been reborn. I was still fragile, and for a long time, I couldn't handle noise or traffic or crowds or even television, but I knew I was whole again. And that for the rest of my life, I would be heading down another path.
Haley: In what direction?
Jones: Toward the center. When I was young, I lived on the run, trying to make sure I wasn't missing anything. But I kept running into myself coming from the opposite direction—and he didn't know where he was going, either. It took me a long time to learn that the only thing I was missing was a good night's sleep. That I couldn't keep living my life as if I were running out of time. Because no matter how much you manage to get done, you're not ever going to finish everything you set out to do.
Since I got back from Tahiti, I've learned that the only way to keep my flame bright is abandoning myself completely to every moment I'm alive. I don't know whether I'll be here for another thirty years or another thirty minutes, so I want to just inhale my life—smell the roses and the butter and the seashore and everything else on the planet that I dearly love. I want to share that love with my six beautiful children—Jolie, Rachel, Martina, Quincy the Third, Rashida and Kidada—and with my friends and the people who listen to my music, because what I'm trying to express in my work is how I feel about life.
Haley: Your latest hit record, Back on the Block, has been praised by critics for its "ecumenical spirit." What inspired you to bring together all the styles and periods of black popular music in America and orchestrate them into a single album?
Jones: They belong together, man. It's our musical legacy, like I was saying earlier, like a mighty river flowing all the way from the cradle of civilization in Africa down through the centuries to the black church in America, which has been the mother ship of black culture, musically and spiritually, ever since we came off the slave ships. I want the kids to know where they came from, to be proud of what we've contributed to American music and American culture. I'm talking about heart and soul, man. What else is there?
Haley: Rap is one of the sounds on your new album. Do you think it's a fad or an important new kind of music?
Jones: It's no fad, man. And it's not just a new kind of music. It's a whole new subculture that's been invented by the disenfranchised. When you have no place in society, you say, "Fuck it, we'll start our town." Everything from graffiti to break dancing to popping and locking, hip-hop and now rap—the voice that vocalizes hip-hop—they're all symbols of a new culture that comes directly from the street.
Rap is also a new kind of communication. The point is, what are you trying to communicate? The hard-ass groups say they're just telling it like it is, but any brother or sister can go out in the street in the ghetto and see how it is. But once somebody has put all that about what's happening to your ass into poetic terms, he's got to get some positive information going. We got the diagnosis, so where is the prescription? It's easy to say blow the cops away with an AK-47 and it's all about bitches and money and getting high, but that's just talkin' shit. It might be a popular stance for kids to take, but it's irresponsible and it's disrespectful to the men and women of the community for anybody to think that's the way to be, because it sucks, and it's destructive. We've got to find ways to give people hope, help them put a value on their own life.
Rap at its best does just that. It may be profane and abrasive, but I think it's a very powerful and positive force. And it's the freshest thing that's happened musically in thirty years. It's already popular in Holland and Sweden and Italy and Germany, even Tokyo, and I think it's just getting started. Black music has always been the prologue to social change. It was true in the Fifties with modern jazz and rock and roll, and I think rap is a sign of the kind of changes that are sweeping the world today. It's a forum to mobilize the people of the street in a new direction—toward pride and freedom and the elevation of the spirit—and that's happening everywhere.
Haley: How do you feel about the rest of the Top Forty music today?
Jones: Well, we've had great seasons, and we've had drought seasons, and—apart from rap—I think we're in a drought season now. There are significant exceptions in the case of a few individual performers, of course, but I'm not stimulated by much of what's happening right now. Most of it sounds homogenized. The problem is that technology is driving a lot of the music that's being recorded now. I'm not knocking technology, mind you. It has opened up all kinds of new horizons in pop music since 1953, when I was involved in the very first recording session with a new instrument invented by a young guy named Leo Fender. It was the electric bass, which, along with the electric guitar, has become the motor of rock and roll in the years since then. And I remember one day in 1964, when I went to visit this eccentric inventor named Paul Beaver at his house in L.A., and he was sitting at this keyboard with all kinds of wires coming out of it, and he said, "Here, try this." It sounded like a piano on acid, man. It made sounds I'd never heard before, just totally blew me away, and I asked him what the hell it was. "I call it a synthesizer," he told me. Between then and now, it's had the same effect on music that the jet plane has had on air travel. And in my own work, it's been like enlarging the alphabet from twenty-six letters to thirteen hundred.
The trouble is that electronics has the music industry completely wired by now, to the point where musicians—and certainly musicianship—are starting to be considered obsolete.
Take the drum machine. Drum machines don't have any human faults and frailties—they never miss the beat—and they're so sophisticated that I swear you couldn't tell one from the real thing with your eyes closed. It's very seductive to just let the machine do it; you don't have to learn how to play. There's just one problem: The drum machine is totally predictable, totally incapable of originality. And technology has been developed, or is being developed, that will make it possible to do the same thing with most of the other instruments. And that scares me, man. Eventually, we're going to have to reconcile the relationship between humanity and technology—and not just in the world of music—because if we remove people from the process, if we replace musicians with technicians, if we can't tell anymore whether it's real or it's Memorex, we're going to lose the whole reason for making music in the first place, which is to celebrate life.
Haley: Is that what you're going to keep doing with your music? Celebrating life?
Jones: As long as I've got breath in my body. But not just with my music. I'm always going to love making albums, for myself and the people I love, and I've been thinking about going on a tour. I'd like to direct for Bobby De Niro. And I'm also working on the book for a Broadway show—a musical about dealing with your dreams.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I'm in partnership now with a guy named Bob Pittman, who dreamed up the whole idea of MTV and got it launched. It cost about twenty million dollars to start it up, and four years later, when they sold it to Viacom, it was worth five hundred eighty million. They wanted Bob to stay with it, but he said no, he wanted to try something new, and here we are, working together.
A dear friend of mine, Steve Ross, the co-C.E.O. of Time Warner, who's been like the godfather of this whole venture, has helped us form a new company, Quincy Jones Entertainment. We'll be developing new musical talent, making records, producing TV shows and movies. We've already got a half-hour sitcom and a home-video show under consideration at the networks, and we're planning to film the life of the poet Alexander Pushkin—who was of Ethiopian descent—in a coproduction with the Russians. We've also bought a TV station, and we've got plans to buy ten or twenty more. I mean, this man Pittman is out for action. On Friday, he asks me what I think about a politically oriented one-hour television talk show for Jesse Jackson, and on Monday, we're meeting with Jesse about it, and we've got a deal.
Haley: What do you think about a TV show for Jesse?
Jones: It's a very marketable idea and it's a showcase for an important voice who deserves a forum for his views. I've been a close friend and supporter of Jesse's ever since he started Operation PUSH back in the Seventies. Over the years, I think he has really grown in stature and maturity, and even though we can still disagree with each other sometimes, I don't think there's any doubt that he's a force for keeping hope alive. And let's face it, we just don't have anybody else at this point in our history. He spans the whole spectrum, from the streets all the way to the corridors of power all over the world. There just isn't anybody else who stands up for us and speaks for us like Jesse Jackson does.
Haley: At this point in his evolution, what do you think Jesse stands for?
Jones: The same things he has always stood for. When Jesse started Operation PUSH, he and his brain trust came up with a slogan, a kind of logo, that still sums up the challenge black people face in getting themselves together. He said the components that make up a human being can be expressed in the letters M-A-M-A-P-C-V, almost like a chemical formula. M is for motor skills. A is for affective, which is our feelings. The next M is for morality, and the next A is for aesthetic. P is for perception, C for cognition, which is related to education, and V is for volition. And he said that many of our kids in the ghetto have all those components in abundance except two, like having vitamin deficiencies. One big problem we face as a people comes from deficiencies in morality and cognition, both of which come from deficiencies in the family unit. And those are the two areas he has addressed since the start of Operation PUSH: building up the family unit and building self-esteem, through education and by creating economic opportunities that give people a chance in life.
Haley: There's a widely held perception that the cause of equality has actually deteriorated over the past twenty years, that the gulf between races has widened. Do you think that's true?
Jones: You'd have to be deaf, dumb, blind or just plain stupid to deny that we have a world of problems left to overcome. But we've got to take the long view. Two centuries of racism aren't going to be erased in twenty years, or probably even fifty. So we've got to keep on keepin' on. But I think we've got plenty of reason to feel good about what we've managed to accomplish so far. Because we've taken enormous strides. I think people get a misleading impression of what's really going on, because negativity is what makes news. They don't hear about all the folks who are getting along fine together. They don't see the everyday progress that's going on all over the country, North and South. I speak at a lot of universities, and I see all these brothers and sisters out there getting it together and doing their thing, competing in the market place, building careers, living in nice homes, raising kids who go to good schools—building their own proud version of the American dream.
Haley: That's all true, but we also seem to be experiencing a resurgence of racial violence—cross burnings, letter bombs, personal assaults. Why now?
Jones: It baffles me and it saddens me, because I see young people involved in it, and it's the younger generation we have to look to for hope. But some of these neo-Nazi skinheads are worse than their forebears. In the past, you could chalk up such incidents to ingrained attitudes passed down from one generation to the next. But I thought we were starting to move beyond the Neanderthal period in race relations. I don't understand how it's possible to hate yourself so much that you have to hate somebody else just to feel better. I don't understand how these sick, poisonous hatreds can be surfacing again after all we've gone through and triumphed over. But the roots of prejudice run deep, and I guess we're going to have to keep pulling them up with every generation until we've stamped it out forever.
Haley: The drug problem is another battleground for society today. Do you agree with President Bush that it's the most urgent crisis we're facing as a nation?
Jones: Well, I'm glad he finally decided to get on the right side of the issue. But I'm not sure he fully understands what he's trying to deal with. Because we're not just talking about a threat to America. We're talking about an epidemic that has the potential to bring civilization to its knees and, frankly, I don't know how we're going to make it through, 'cause we're going to lose a whole generation of kids to drugs and drug dealing. How are you gonna save them when they're dangling eighteen hundred dollars a day in front of thirteen-year-olds to sell dope? You can't tempt them with the promise of a college degree when they see brothers with master's degrees carrying bags at the airport or pushing fries at the Burger King. And I'm not just talking about black kids, because it's not just a ghetto problem anymore. Just like heroin. Smack was a crime until it got to Westchester, and then it became a social problem. Harlem preachers were screaming for help when the foot cops still could have stopped it in the street, but nobody gave a damn till the white kids started mainlining out in the suburbs. Well, it's everybody's problem now, and we'd better do something about it before it's too late.
Haley: No matter what we do, isn't there always going to be a demand for drugs?
Jones: I guess there's always been some kind of libation you could take to get away from reality, and I guess there always will be, because that seems to be a part of human nature. And reality seems to be getting more complicated all the time. But so are the drugs. We've got designer drugs now that are stronger than cocaine or heroin. They'll take you further, faster, cheaper than anything we've ever seen before. For seven or eight dollars, you can buzz your brain in seventeen seconds. The trouble is that whatever problems you took the stuff to get away from are still gonna be there when you come down, and you'll have a brand-new problem to deal with on top of the ones you've already got—finding the money to get another hit, and another one, until you've run out of shit or bread. Then you've got to steal or deal to keep going until somebody blows you away or you do it to yourself.
Haley: Is there any way out?
Jones: I feel strongly that we've got to legalize drugs. The only way we're going to get through this plague alive is to take away the profit motive. Eliminate the crime and you eliminate the criminals. Then you'll be left with the problem of addiction, but I think most of the people who'd even think about getting high are already doing it. That's not saying more people won't start once it's legal, but I think you'll also see a big drop-off as a lot of people lose interest, because it's not clandestine enough for them anymore.
But the Government doesn't want to make drugs legal. For a long time, Nancy Reagan tried to tell kids "Just say no, "but of course, anybody who was really into drugs just laughed at her, and the rest were too hip to listen to that kinda shit. So now Bush has decided to declare war on drugs, and that's not gonna make a damn bit of difference, either, because you kill one grower or one dealer, and ten more spring up to take his place.
Haley: Legalization won't help those who are already strung out on drugs or who might try it if they were legalized. What's the hope for them?
Jones: On an individual basis, the cure is to go straight back to the basics. If you're drinking and using and you can't stop, you've got to undergo a spiritual rehabilitation. You've got to realize you can't do it alone and surrender yourself to a higher power, like they say in A.A. Then you've got to clean yourself out: You've got to sit down and talk about the people who've wronged you, and the people you've wronged, and forgive them and forgive yourself, and start making amends. And start helping other people straighten out their lives. And decide how you want to spend your own. There's a lot of steps on the road back, and they're heavy steps, but I've seen it work for hundreds of people I know, because whatever the program, it's about the basic ethics of living, about the essence of what it means to be alive.
Haley: You said earlier that those are the themes you're trying to deal with in your work. Isn't it enough just to provide great entertainment?
Jones: Not for me. If you want to be a whole musician, I think you have to be a whole human being. That's why you've got to be concerned with what's going on in the world around you—not only in your work but outside your profession—and do whatever you can do to help fight the deadly enemies: racism, ignorance, disease, homelessness and hunger. If you've been fortunate in life, you're not really straight until you've done everything you can to see that everybody else gets at least as good a shot as you did. That's why I feel such a strong obligation to contribute to worthwhile causes, whether it's cancer or sickle-cell anemia or the Africans or the United Negro College Fund or Operation PUSH or the A.C.L.U. or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund or the environment or Save the Whales. But it gets to the point where they're all important and they're all urgent, so one time, I just saved all the requests I was receiving and put them in a big basket, and at the end of a week, I added up what it would cost me to make all the contributions they asked me for, and it came to about seven hundred thousand dollars just for that one week. So I have to pick and choose the ones that mean the most to me—and if the rest of them think I'm cheap or I don't care, there's nothing I can do about it, because there's just no way I can deal with all of it.
It's the same with all the requests I get from people asking me to chair a fund raiser or set up a show or host a tribute or sit on the dais with Mayor Bradley to welcome some African diplomat or conduct the Berlin Symphony or meet a preacher who's got some new program for stopping drugs in the streets. I've got to be even more selective about that kind of obligation, because what those people want from me is my time. That's more valuable than all the money in the world. It's the most precious commodity we have, and it's irreplaceable. I realize that most especially when I think about my children. I was an absentee father for a lot of years when they needed me to be there for them. I'm doing my best now to make up for all the love we missed out on together.
Haley: If you could clone yourself into three people, what would you assign each of them to do?
Jones: A few years ago, I'd have jumped at the chance. I'd have had one man who dealt exclusively with creative things: He'd come up with all the ideas for new projects. The second man would carry out those concepts: He'd be the executive producer. The third man's job would be to have a ball twenty-four hours a day. I'd send him around to do all the things I don't have enough time for—going places I've never been, having a great meal, swimming in a tropical pool, seeing a nice lady, making the people I care about feel good. But I guess I'll have to do the best I can with only one of me to go around.
Haley: You seem to be doing a better job of it now than when you were trying to be three people.
Jones: Yeah, I feel like I'm behind the wheel in my life now. I'm running it. It's not running me. I'm letting go and grooving with the current, wherever it takes me. I had big dreams when I was a little boy looking out a window in Bremerton. I went after all of them, and most of them have come true. But the way I went at it, like there was no tomorrow, almost guaranteed that I wouldn't be around to enjoy it. But now that I've stopped pushing, all the doors in my life have been opening by themselves. And I'm walking through those doors to new adventures, places I've never been, things I've never done.
I don't know what I'm going to be doing six months from now, and that's just the way I like it. I just love jumping out and not knowing where I'm going to land but knowing I'm going to land on my feet. And even if I don't sometimes, I know it's gonna be all right, because I've had some killer bumps in my life, and I've learned something from all of them that makes life even sweeter for me.
Haley: Of course, you're secure enough financially to be able to take such chances.
Jones: Sure I am, and that makes it a lot easier. But nobody can afford to be afraid of taking chances in life. If you're afraid to go chasing after your dreams, they're going to shrivel up, and so will you. You've got to create in your mind an invisible net underneath you, and jump. If you expect pain, that's just what you're going to get.
Haley: And sometimes even when you don't expect it.
Jones: Of course. No matter what you do, you're going to go through some suffering. That goes with the territory. But you don't have to let suffering become your experience of life, and you don't have to pass it along to other people just because it hurts. Learn from it. And grow from it. And teach your pain to sing. I always think about Ray Charles when I think about the joy and the pain in life. He and I used to talk about how closely related they are. How he learned that the heavier the pain is, the higher the joy. And nobody knows that better than Ray Charles. All I can say is, after living through the pain and sorrow in my own life, if that's the price I've had to pay for all the joy I've known, it's been worth every minute of it, man.
(The above interview by Alex Haley is presented under the Creative Commons License. It first appeared in the July 1, 1990 issue of Playboy. © 1990 Playboy Enterprises International, Inc. © 1993 by Ballantine Books. All Rights Reserved.)