The Master Musicmaker
I JUST received a watercolor from Kurosawa - from his film `Ran,' '' said Quincy Jones when we met again after 10 years. I was surprised that Jones - the world-renowned composer, arranger, and producer of popular music - was so delighted with a gift of visual art.
``I think in terms of a visual picture before I even hear the music,'' he had said at this same place, Harvard University, a decade before, as he answered students' questions about his work. ``I think of primary colors and pastels and contours.''
What does red mean? he was asked. ``Too cosmic'' a question, he had replied with a laugh. ``It doesn't get that specific, but there's something right with the universe when you get it right. And everybody in the studio knows it.''
Now Jones was back for another week in Harvard's Learning From Performers program. In the meantime, among other things, he had produced the historic ``We Are the World'' recording for Ethiopian famine relief; seen an earlier production, Michael Jackson's ``Thriller,'' become the world's best-selling album (more than 40 million copies sold); coproduced a major movie, ``The Color Purple''; coproduced Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival; put together massive inaugural festivities for President Clinton; and begun planning a 10-night television history of the 20th century, no less, for 1999.
IT was just before lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club when America's Renaissance man of music mentioned Japan's grand old filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and ``Ran.'' You could tell Jones from the professors by the small gold ring in his left ear and the stylish jacket with zippered pockets.
The talk turned to ``Going to the Territory,'' a book of essays by Ralph Ellison, author of the 20th-century classic ``Invisible Man.'' Jones said he received ``one of the most flattering compliments ever'' when Ellison inscribed the book to him: ``To a fearless explorer of the territory.''
It fit with Jones's attitude toward the immense variety of his work: ``If you keep throwing yourself in different water you have to learn a new stroke in your swimming. You create the problem so you can solve the problem and keep changing and growing - hopefully.''
A little later on, as he was mingling with students, someone asked how to become successful.
``I don't think that having success on your mind should be the first thing,'' Jones said. ``You can't go from zero to successful. It's not natural. I've seen hundreds of minds blown by success. You have to train yourself and your soul and your mind to handle that.''
He told of all the years of work and preparation before the still-young Michael Jackson became a big star. He suggested how to make use of beginning opportunities, such as a job in the mail room: Learn as much as possible.
`` `Nosy' is the key word. Be silently and discreetly nosy.''
Then do what you think is good, not what you think will sell. ``I go for music that gives me goose bumps,'' Jones said, echoing what he said on his previous visit: ``If the goose bumps don't go up on this arm I don't put [the record] out.'' In a master class, he recommended that a student composer give his own music the goose-bump test: ``If you don't get any, you know I'm not going to get any.''
Again: ``If you are sitting around thinking how many albums you are going to sell, you are not going to be making music. Make something you love, make what gives you goose bumps - then let God take care of it.... It basically boils down to living. Your music is what you are as a person.... It's caring about other things in life.''
Practically speaking, ``the main thing is to get it so there's enough variety and enough repetition so it doesn't sound like 15 different songs.'' Or: ``The ear is a funny animal. If you don't get it in the first 20 seconds, you're in trouble.... You have to deal with ear candy.... Give something different the second time around.''
``There used to be an expression that the old dudes [such as Beethoven] used up all the notes. We have to scuffle now. It's your choice of melody, your choice of message. Then it's putting the clothes on. Just so long as the words hug the melody, with open notes at the right time.
Speaking of American black music, he smiled and said it has taken over the world. ``Everywhere I go, they're playing music from the South Side of Chicago.''
Chicago is where Quincy Delight Jones Jr. - the right middle name - was born. During his teenage years in Seattle, he played with pianist Ray Charles, who is also still going strong.
It was while sitting in movie theaters in Seattle that Jones knew he wanted to write film scores (of which he has done dozens). ``At 15, that's all I ever wanted to do.... It's a fantastic amalgamation of soul and science.... You have to deal with the mathematics of synchronization.... I had to lay that out first, so my soul would be free to go with the third dimension you're trying to bring to the picture.... You want to become as much a part of the fabric as possible.... Don't tell the audience what to feel. You're not telegraphing the emotion.''
SHORTLY before the Harvard visit earlier this year, I saw Quincy Jones in a video about Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he studied before touring Europe with Lionel Hampton's band and then studying composition with the renowned Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He joked that Berklee, which has long had students from all over the world, was ``a log cabin'' when he was there. The wonderful thing was that ``I was able to write an arrangement on the third floor and run down to the basement and hear it in 20 minutes.''
From Boulanger, whose other students range from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass, Jones learned: ``The more restriction you have, the more freedom you have. If you have freedom to play anything, you play nothing. Melody is king. Melody comes from God.... It's not teachable. Boulanger said melody was the main thing.''
Jones recalls the ``old days'' when the conventional popular song had four eight-bar segments, A-A-B-A. ``The attention span is shrinking and shrinking. Now four-bar units are repeated twice. Even with two bars you feel like you have a tune.''
``Sooner or later the melody is going to come through, and the melody's going to win. [Already, even in rap music, there are] more and more melodic elements, if only in the bass line.''
At a Harvard party, Jones nodded his head to the beat of finger-snapping student singers. He said he knows that the name of their group Imani means ``faith.''
I can imagine Ralph Ellison there, chiming in with something he wrote in the years when Jones studied with Boulanger: ``In the swift whirl of time, music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspire.''
``We did so-so in the 20th century,'' Jones told the young people. ``I think we're going to do better in the 21st century.... The isolated human being has to go. It has to get away from I, my, me to being we, us.''