Music and Water
At Garfield High School in the Central District, there’s an auditorium named after Quincy Jones—composer, producer, 27-time Grammy winner, class of 1948. Ishmael Butler played his first-ever gig there before graduating in ’87 and now leads Shabazz Palaces, the most vital musical project in Seattle today.
Quincy reminds me of Seattle. A lot of cats from Seattle, when I see them around the world, they have this centrifugal force. Especially Garfield people, people from the Central. In my grandparents’ generation, most people who ended up in this corner were daring people who went out on a limb, who heard about a place and went there because it had the appeal of the frontier. The product of that is visionary, imaginative, personable, familiar people who are explorers at heart.
Quincy’s very uncle-ish. He’s gonna shoot straight with you. Call bullshit on you. But it’s all from a very loving and caring and selfless point of view. He sees family as something important. There’s a musical family, a cultural family, a family of race, a family of people concerned with the same thing. Then he talks to you like that. Because he cares. About you, your well-being, what you know, what you believe, what’s true. That’s rare in this increasingly individualistic society.
He’s a creative and mathematical thinker, a composer. He knows whether to have two or three trombones versus many trumpets and saxes. What the parts are gonna be and who’s gonna play when. This is how his mind works. Who can think like that at 80 years old? You’re putting together 40, 60 years in one sentence and it makes sense? C’mon. He’s a super human.
Talking to him was a bit surreal. At first I was anxious. Like, what am I gonna say? But you don’t have to say much. —Ishmael Butler
ISH I hear you’ll be dipping off to Europe tomorrow.
QUINCY No, I just got back from Paris. I saw [Salman] Rushdie, [Nicolas] Sarkozy, [Roman] Polanski. Everybody. I used to live there.
ISH I know! We played one time at Montreux and they invited us to the house you got up there for a barbeque.
QUINCY Up to the chalet?
QUINCY We’re opening the festival on the first of July. Claude [Nobs, Montreux Jazz Festival cofounder] and I are partners now. We’re partners with the whole festival—the jazz cafés, 15,000 hours of content, all that stuff. He’s an amazing cat, man. They made him a legend at the Apollo—first European they did that to.
ISH You know, when I was in this group called Digable Planets, we played at the Grammys, and you know who played with us that day?
ISH [Trumpet player] Clark Terry.
QUINCY That’s right. Well guess what? I’m going to Arkansas Monday, I’m recording Snoop Dogg with Clark Terry.
QUINCY Yeah. Snoop is doing the hip-hop and Clark’s gonna do “Mumbles.” It’s a historic record, because it’s like 40 generations apart. Clark taught me when I was 12 and was also the one that influenced Miles Davis.
ISH I read that in Miles’ book. Where did you meet Clark Terry? In Seattle?
QUINCY Yeah, I was 13 years old and Basie kind of adopted me. I was out at the theater all the time and Clark was playing with Count Basie.
ISH Wow. He’s a little older than Miles, right?
QUINCY He’s 91! Are you kidding? I conducted Miles’ last concert in Montreux in ‘91. He was 65 then and he died the next year, the end of ‘91. It was a sad day, man.
ISH You know that’s right. When was the last time you been to Seattle?
QUINCY I come up all the time! My brother is a federal judge there.
ISH I know—a couple of my friends have been in front of him before.
QUINCY I bet they have! He did the Ridgway case, the serial killer. He’s a crazy dude, man. He told me he had a guy in front of him, and he said, “Can I have your name, sir?” He says, “Fuck no.” He said, “Excuse me, you’re in a court of law. You could be held in contempt of court. I’m gonna ask you one more time, may I have your name?” He says, “Fuck no.” He was Vietnamese: P-h-u-o-c N-g-o. His name was Phuoc Ngo. He was crazy, man. They’re talking about my brother for the Supreme Court now.
ISH Oh, really?
QUINCY Yes, sir. To replace Clarence Thomas.
ISH Do you know about Wheedle’s Groove and all those cats, the funk stuff around Earth, Wind & Fire days?
QUINCY Well, I started up there with Ray Charles. He was in Jacksonville, Florida—he could see ’til he was six, when he got chicken pox and he scratched his eyes and got infected. He went to a white hospital and they wouldn’t let him in. By the time he got to a black hospital, he was blind. He told his friend when he gets $600 he wants to get as far away as he can. And that’s definitely Seattle. I met him in ’47 in Seattle. And it went from 14, 16, our whole life together. He taught me how to read music in Braille. Amazing brother, man. He started out singing like Nat Cole and Charles Brown and playing alto like Charlie Parker, then he went to California and got hung up on smack and started singing like gospel.
ISH I’m curious about Miles, too. I read this book and he talked about his St. Louis days, but coming to New York, too. Were you coming to New York around that time, too?
QUINCY Did you read Quincy Troupe’s book?
ISH That’s the book I read.
QUINCY I’m all over that book, man. Miles—he was one of my closest friends. He and Sinatra were the same. The bark was stronger than the bite. It was nothing but love, man. Nothing but love all the way.
ISH I’m curious about the session musicians you had playing on the Michael Jackson records. Were those cats you just knew? How’d you get them all together?
QUINCY Like I do all the rest of them: Just get the guys that fit the job. Every producer is based on something else. They’re engineers or they’re songwriters or they’re singers. I was based on orchestration and composition. I was an orchestrator since I was 14 years old and I went all the way to symphony orchestras. It’s a question of knowing exactly what sound will make them sing better than they’ve ever sung in their life.
ISH Did you have tryouts or did you already know those cats?
QUINCY Of course! I knew every bad motherfucker that ever walked, man. In the world.
ISH Right on.
QUINCY ’Cause I love music, man. When we came up, we were not into money or fame at all. There was no entrepreneurship. It was just to be as good as you could be and try to help revolutionize the music. I came out on the end of that, because I came out of the big band era.
ISH What part of town was the music poppin’ in Seattle when you were coming up?
QUINCY Jefferson. The Washington Social and Education Club, the Rocking Chair, the 908 Club. We used to go down to the Elks Club, which was on Jackson in the red-light district, and we’d play down there just to jam, just to play our bebop, you know. We’d play the Seattle Tennis Club first, play pop music, then play Washington Social Club, play stoop music, then rhythm and blues, you know. We’d play everything in Seattle back then. We worked for the kitty. You know what the kitty is?
ISH What is it?
QUINCY It’s a stand with a pole on it and it’s got a wooden cat’s head, and a light in it, and they’d come up and ask you, “You know the song ‘Big Fat Butterfly’?” And if you do, they’d put 50 cents or a dollar in there. That’s what we used to work for. We didn’t get paid; we worked for the kitty. Ray Charles, everybody. Everybody worked like that back then.
ISH What band you got going now?
QUINCY My band! I got a group of young kids, from nine years old to 15, 16. Twenty-seven of the best musicians on the planet, man, trust me. From Cuba, Africa, Budapest—the baddest suckers on the planet. I have a nine-year-old girl, half Moroccan. Man, she’s been composing for symphony orchestras since she was five years old. Obama calls her Baby Mozart. But she plays bebop, she plays bossa nova, everything.
ISH So you just meet them along the way on your travels?
QUINCY No, they find me, man. These two in Budapest just found us. They’re gonna play with us on July 1. I’m talking about a little gypsy guitar player that at 10 years old plays as good as George Benson, man. I’m serious. You know I know.
ISH I know you know!
QUINCY It’s just astounding to see the quality. Because the reality is they know more about our music than we do. Outside of about 10 rappers, you ask a kid who Louis Armstrong or Basie or Duke or Coltrane or Charlie Parker is, they don’t know who the fuck you’re talking about. And that’s not gonna work, man.
QUINCY I just talked to [writer] Nelson George about an hour ago—we’re gonna do a book on how this shit really went down. When do you think rap started?
ISH Well, it’s hard to say.
QUINCY It’s not hard to say if you know!
ISH My dad would say H. Rap Brown or even Oscar Brown, Jr. That’s what he would tell me.
QUINCY Oh man, please! Are you kidding? I worked with Oscar Brown in the ’60s, man. It was around 30 years before. You got a minute? Lemme read something to you.
I was walking through the jungle
With my d--- in my hand.
I was the baddest motherfucker
In the jungle land.
I looked up in the tree
What did I see?
A little black mama
Trying to piss on me.
I picked up a rock,
Hit her in the c---,
Knocked that bitch
A half a block.
Now, when do you think they did that?
ISH I don’t know, man.
QUINCY That’s rap, ain’t it?
ISH Yeah, it is.
QUINCY 1929! [Laughs] The Dozens, man. The gangs used to use that to start fights, but it was stone hip-hop, stone rap. I was involved in rap in 1937. I was six or seven years old, out in the streets with the gangs. [Ed note: The Dozens is a game of insults historically played in African-American communities. Jones is reciting a famous “Dirty Dozen.”] It came from Africa, man—the play shouters in South Africa and the griots in West Africa. The breakdancing all came from capoeira in Brazil, some martial arts. The problem is people don’t know history. We’re trying to get a definitive curriculum so they know what the fuck really happened, man. Because they don’t know! That’s not good. We’re the only country in the world that does not have a minister of culture. We went into all these situations like Columbine because kids do not know who they are. If you don’t have a culture, you can’t know who you are.
ISH That’s true.
QUINCY If you know where you come from it’s easy to get where you’re going.
ISH So you’re gonna do a book on the history of music?
QUINCY Yeah, everything. All of it. How it got started, how it picked up. How we wouldn’t have jazz if it weren’t for the French and slavery and Congo Square and Paris. Just to lay it down like it is, like it was.
ISH Right on. One record that was big for me was that soundtrack you did for Sidney Lumet. I remember listening to that and a lot of other rappers were listening to that, too.
QUINCY The Pawnbroker?
QUINCY Sidney Lumet gave me my first five movies. They didn’t have black composers back then. We had to break the ground open for that. Sidney [Poitier] was the acting thing and he passed the composing thing to me, you know. Because you couldn’t get in. It was a challenge, man. But I love challenges. Say it’s impossible, man, and you got my attention.
ISH What do you think of the new rap music? You listen to a lot of it?
QUINCY The stuff that’s good, yeah. To me there’s nothing but good and bad music, and no genre. I mean, I understand every genre out there. It’s either they know what they’re doing or they don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t have to call no names, but I know who doesn’t know what they’re doing. I know who wouldn’t know a B-flat if it had a red suit on! You know? That’s the problem, because the rappers are just like the jazz dudes. Very creative, but they have to deal with music people that don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They don’t have a clue. So they do the samples. You know, we used to get [requests for] 30 samples a week. Tupac’s “How Do You Want It” is a sample of mine. All of them. Kanye, Ludacris’ stuff, Wu-Tang Clan. All had samples of our stuff. That’s all good, man, but what are you gonna sample 20 years from now?
QUINCY We gotta start creating music, too. I remember Bone Thugs-N-Harmony started to take the rhymes and make melodies out of them. That’s a natural progression, you know. That should happen more. And it will. It’s like “Moody’s Mood for Love.” It’s been around since 1949. Moody did that in Stockholm in 1949—he played a jazz solo over the chords to “I’m in the Mood for Love” and played his own—“There I go, there I go, there I go”—which Eddie Jefferson wrote. That was the first vocalese song. And that’s when you take a jazz solo and write lyrics to it. Kids are still singing that on American Idol.
ISH Oh yeah.
QUINCY It’s an interesting evolution. But we, more than anybody, have to know what the hell really happened. And we don’t know. Because the school system doesn’t teach it, because they don’t know. Our classical music is jazz and blues and everybody in the world knows it. That’s why we’re working on a definitive curriculum. We’re on top of it, man.
ISH That’s good news.
QUINCY Music is a powerful animal. You cannot see it, you can’t touch it and you can’t smell it. But, man, it can sure touch you and turn your soul upside down. I believe music and water will be the last things to leave this planet.