National Humanities Medal
Whether it's swing, jazz and the blues, or rap and hip-hop, Quincy Jones has brought a distinctly American sound to every corner of the globe. "The hybrid music that has come from African Americans has become the music of every young person on the planet," he says. "It's the Esperanto of youth all over the world."
For fifty years, Jones has arranged music, performed as a jazz trumpeter, and written film scores. He has produced records, films, and television programs, and founded magazines. But above all, he is a champion for African American artists and a voice for humanitarian causes.
Born in Chicago in 1933, Jones discovered music when he moved to Bremerton, Washington. At the age of twelve, he began playing in a band with Ray Charles, who was his neighbor and just a few years older. During World War II, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington toured Seattle, and Jones routinely sneaked into theaters by pretending to be a member of the band. "In the 1940s, there were no black people in Bremerton, Washington," he explains. "It was very hard to find your identity. When I saw all the musicians come through town with their dignity and pride, I said, 'That's what I want to be like.' Love for music pulled me under like quicksand and saved me from getting into a lot of trouble."
Jones studied music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston until Lionel Hampton invited him to join his band as a trumpeter, arranger, and pianist. By the mid 50s, Jones was arranging and recording for a number of artists, including Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Jones was appointed vice-president at Mercury Records in 1961, the first African American executive of a major record company.
With his film score for Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, Jones broke into another field that had been closed to African Americans. He went on to write thirty-three motion picture scores and co-produce the film version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Although film distributors told him that black stories didn't sell, Jones was determined. "It became an obsession with us," he says. "Everything starts with a story or a song. Nothing else is important. Once you have a great story, you look for the elements you need to make a piece of art. I knew that The Color Purple was a great story."
The recipient of twenty-six Grammy Awards and an Emmy, Jones is perhaps best known for producing Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and "We Are the World," which he produced and conducted. Jones says that he continues to be fascinated by the universal appeal of African American music. "The pain of African Americans--who lost their homes, families, freedom, everything--has to go someplace. The pain went to the bottom of their souls and came out as music. The blues is pain translated to joy."
Jones combines his advocacy for American music with working for social causes. In the 1970s, he was a founding member of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH. In 1999, he produced the NetAid concerts in New York, London, and Geneva to launch a worldwide effort to fight poverty through Netaid.org. Through his own foundation, Listen Up, Jones has taken youth from South Central Los Angeles to South Africa to build houses.
As a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, Jones has lobbied to keep music programs in the public schools--particularly the study of popular music. "Jazz is America's classical music," he says. "Someday we will recognize this."