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Quincy legend plays on

VETERAN musician Quincy Jones' career has spanned all the decades of the development of modern popular music. If he
hasn't played it, he's made it, packaging the stars' music so they become even more popular. And he shows no sign of stopping, as Sam Riley reports after meeting him in Shanghai.

Music legend Quincy Jones held his hand out: "This is where they stabbed my hand to a fence, when I was seven," he said, showing a scar on his knuckle. "This is where they hit me in the head with an ice pick," touching his temple. "They didn't think I would survive that."

Jones is recalling growing up in depression-era Chicago's south side, a sprawling, tough, black ghetto ruled by gangsters and where violence and bloodshed was an everyday reality.

It's a long way from the plush surrounds of Shanghai's Whampoa Club, where Jones is lounging after regaling the crowd at luxury retail complex Three on the Bund with tales of more than 63 years in the music industry.

In Shanghai earlier in the month to receive a life-time achievement award from the 12th Shanghai International Film Festival, Jones' astounding career has garnered a record 79 Grammy nominations which yielded 28 awards.

He has also composed for 33 films and was nominated for seven Oscars, finally winning an honorary Oscar in 1995 for his humanitarian work.

His career as a musician, record producer, and composer spans almost the entire development of modern music from the bebop jazz halls of the 1940s to the glitzy bling of today's hip hop artists.

It is almost impossible for listeners of Western popular music not to have heard a song that Jones had a hand in. As a producer of pop, his list of credits is as wide ranging as Lesley Gore's 1963 teen hit "It's My Party" through to the late Michael Jackson's album "Thriller," which has sold a record 104 million copies worldwide.

In 1985 he got the biggest names in the music industry together in one room to record "We are the World."

A regular visitor to China, he was an artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics, produced the theme song for the Special Olympics and has recently said he wants to turn his musical talents to the World Expo Shanghai theme song.

Despite counting Hollywood celebrities and music royalty like U2's Bono and rapper J-Z as friends, Jones said he never forgets those early days in Chicago where the brutality of gang life was seared into a young boy's memory.

"My brother and stepbrother were gangsters, it was all we had seen and all we knew," Jones said of his childhood in Chicago in the 1930s.

"Our heroes were gangsters, we saw the dead bodies, the piles of money and the machine guns."

Born in 1933, Jones' father was a carpenter for the notorious Jones Boys (not related), one of Chicago's most feared black gangsters.

"I have been around gangsters all my life, my father was a carpenter for the Jones boys and with Frank Sinatra there was always the mob around," he said.

"They owned everything, the booking agencies, the nightclubs, all the venues."

Even in later life the violence of the streets would never be far away. Jones said his daughter, Kidada, was engaged to rapper Tupac Shakur prior to his shooting murder in 1996. It was only luck that saved her from being with Shakur on the fateful night he was shot and the rap star died in his daughter's arms later in hospital, Jones said.

The 76-year-old was saved from a life of crime by a chance encounter.

He and his brother had broken into a neighborhood recreational center. Aged just 11, Jones discovered a freezer where they stored lemon meringue pies. After stuffing himself, he wandered to an adjoining room and discovered a piano.

Sitting at it changed the course of his life. "That's where I felt at peace, it felt right in every cell of my body," he said.

Jones went on to play almost every instrument in his school band and while still only 13 was playing four clubs a night with a 16-year-old called Ray Charles.

"He was 16 going on 100," said Jones of his childhood friend.

He recalls that the pair would rush off to record store listening booths to breathlessly hear the latest jazz innovations from greats such as Miles Davis.

While an accomplished trumpeter, Jones soon discovered his talent for composing arrangements. As a young freelancer he arranged music for greats such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charles.

It was the beginning of a musical career that has seen Jones record artists from almost every major genre of modern music. In the 1960s it was working with such seminal names as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr, and Dizzy Gillespie, to cite just a few. He first organized a band for Sinatra in 1958 for a concert in Monaco.

"Barely six words transpired between us and it wasn't until four years later he called," said Jones.

Within 24 hours of that phone call, Jones was in a hotel room writing the arrangement for "Fly Me To The Moon." The timeless classic would later be the first music played on the moon by astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

"When Sinatra called, you had to be ready," Jones said. "Frank was the kind of guy who had two gears in his brain, he either loved you or he wanted to run you over in a Mack truck."

It's one of the many tales that comes tumbling out of Jones during his Three on the Bund talk. The audience is an example of the wide fan base he has attracted.

A smattering of hands shoot up when he asks who has heard an obscure Sinatra live recording he made during the 1960s. A flip flop-wearing hip hop fan comes to the front of the stage to sing an R&B tribute to Jones when he gets a chance to ask a question.

Some have come to hear how to "make it" from a man who has launched the careers of both Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, among many more. Winfrey was a news reader in Chicago when Jones, who was a producer for Steven Spielberg's "The Colour Purple," cast her in the film that went on to be nominated for 11 Oscars.

"God was on my side that day, it was divinity," said Jones about the moment when he spotted Winfrey reading the news on his hotel television screen.

Jones' media and entertainment company, QDE, produced the television series "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" that starred young rapper Will Smith. It was 1993 and the controversy over violence and shootings involving rappers had engulfed America.

"No one wanted to put a rapper in a television show," explained Jones.

A young woman stands up to ask how he has overcome setbacks in his career. "Pray to make some mistakes because as you go along the way it somehow morphs into experience," he answered.

Jones' life is certainly not a continual procession of musical triumphs. As a child his mother was institutionalised with schizophrenia. It was left to his father and a distant stepmother to raise him.

At the height of his success with Jackson in 1986, he would suffer his own breakdown and retreated to Marlon Brando's Tahitian island to recover.

As a young musician he tried to direct his own big band in Europe, virtually bankrupting himself. Owing US$100,000, a staggering amount in 1959, it took Jones seven years to pay off the debt and he says it was the closest he came to suicide.

"It was the first time I realized there was music and then there was the music business," he explained.He quickly grasped the business side of the industry, being promoted to vice president of Mercury Records at just 28 years of age.

His most popular recordings with Michael Jackson almost didn't happen. Jackson's record company was adamant that Jones' sound was too jazzy for their established young star.

"The record company said Michael couldn't get any bigger. We fixed that," said Jones. It was only after the intervention of Jackson's management that Jones was able to launch the singer into superstardom with "Off The Wall," which sold 20 million copies. He then produced "Thriller," the biggest selling record of all time, and followed that with "Bad" which also sold 32 million copies.

Despite climbing to the top of the music industry, Jones is remarkably down to earth. There is no minder sitting in on the interview, he mingles with the public asking questions, getting a hug, posing for a picture and signing autographs.

Worried that the collection of music superstars he got together to record "We are the World" would not be able to work together, he famously put up a note on the studio door. It simply read: "Leave your ego at the door."

When reflecting on what it takes to last in the music industry he said the stayers are the ones who "handle their creativity with humility and their success with grace."

Jones was a trailblazer in an industry where black musicians previously may have been successful recording artists but had never penetrated the upper ranks of the industry's decision makers.

Artists like Sean P.Diddy Combs, Usher and J-Z, who mix business interests with music, seek his advice. Miles Davis best described Jones' charm and capacity to get things done, saying: "Some paperboys can go into any yard with any dogs and won't get bit. He just has it."

He professes to have an endless curiosity about people and learning about their different cultures. A self-described "travel addict" who has spent the past 54 years criss-crossing the globe, Jones said he liked to sit in a busy airport and try to pick which country people come from by their appearance.

Despite fast approaching 80, he is roguishly enthusiastic about life, saying he still loves women and a drink and wants to live until 110.

Jones cheated death in August 1974 when he suffered a massive brain aneurysm. After slipping into a coma, he endured two neurological surgical procedures and could never play the trumpet again.

Beautiful women are one constant in his life. He has been married three times and has seven children. In the 1990s he also lived for six years with German actress Nastassja Kinski and had a daughter with her.

But the boy who grew up in the harsh streets of Chicago is never far from the surface for Jones. He moves from talking about studying classical music in Paris in 1957 with Nadia Boulanger where he met such cultural luminaries as Pablo Picasso to demonstrating how to make a slingshot with the inner tube of a car tyre.

"You would pull it back and it would go off like a 9 millimeter. Pow, pow! It could kill a man, or take his eye out," he said.

When someone at the talk describes him as a legend, he quickly interjects.

"I don't like being described as a legend, it sounds so old. I feel like I am still just a kid."


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