Some people tell anecdotes that are so insane, so absolutely bonkers cuckoo crazy, that you naturally assume they must be pathological liars. And then there’s Quincy Jones, the prolific 84-year-old music producer who has more crazy life stories than a dozen liars — and he’s got the receipts to back them up. He’s currently got 22 girlfriends around the world. Frank Sinatra cooked him breakfast. He used to buy drugs from Malcolm X. He once said “Oh, my man’s got some pimp shoes on” in reference to Pope John Paul’s footwear — and the Pope heard him. Then there was the time he saw Michael Jackson’s pet snake eat his pet parrot. Pablo Picasso, Prince, Tupac, Leni Riefenstahl, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote — Jones has stories to tell about almost anyone you can think of and more besides. And you can read all about them in his latest epic interview for GQ.
But it’s not all “the history of pop culture according to Quincy Jones.” In between the star-studded memories, Jones also tells some rather harrowing tales — of his upbringing, his family, and particularly his near-brushes with death. His personal stories turn out to be the most incredible, terrifying, and gripping parts of the interview — and considering the interview also covers that time he saw Ray Charles injecting heroin into a, ah, rather uncomfortable place, you can imagine just how high the bar was set. To give you a taste, here are just his near-death experiences.
When Quincy was 14, he was in a car accident that left him so traumatized, he couldn’t learn to drive a car:
He had learned the trumpet, taught himself arranging, and played with every band he could. One of these was part of the National Guard — Jones lied and said that he was 18 so that he could join. His friends did the same. “We used to go to Fort Lewis and Fort Lawton in the summertime,” he says, “and you’d smell the racism.”
That was how, one day, the five of them found themselves driving together in a car on their way to play at a rodeo in Yakima. “A little raggedy-ass car. Two up front and three in the back. I’m in the center. Trailways bus hit us. Everybody in the car died except for me. Reached up and pulled my friend, and his head fell off. That’s fucked-up for 14. It was very traumatic.”
Were you hurt?
“Little bit. I mean, the other guys were dead. His head fell off. I mean, I almost had a heart attack. See your friend with his head off? Shit.”
A couple of years later, Jones tried driving lessons. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. Some days he was okay, but others he was all over the place. He says that his teacher eventually told him, “I don’t need another maniac out there,” and gave Jones his money back.
He hasn’t driven since.
Then there was his brain aneurysm in 1974, when he was 41 year old:
“It was scary,” he says. “Like somebody blew my brains out. The main artery to your brain explodes, you know.”
He had brain surgery, after which he was told that he had a second aneurysm ready to blow. And so, once he was strong enough, he had a second operation. Later he was told that he’d had a one-in-a-hundred chance of surviving.
By this point, Jones was already very successful — as an arranger, as a solo artist, as a composer for movies and TV — but he’d first made his name as a trumpet player. Now he was told that he had a clip on a blood vessel in his brain, and that if he blew a trumpet in the ways that a trumpet player must, the clip would come free and he would die. He could never play the trumpet again. And so he never has.
That’s how this story is usually told, anyway. But it’s not quite true. Jones was indeed given that advice, but shortly after he recovered he went on tour in Japan. And he took his trumpet with him. One day, as he blew, he felt a new pain in his head, and he was subsequently told that the clip had nearly come loose. “I couldn’t get away with it, man,” he concedes. This time he listened.
Isn’t it crazy that you even tried?
“Yeah. Yeah. Well, I missed the trumpet.”
His collection of trumpets, including Dizzy Gillespie’s, is mounted on the wall of his living room, behind the bar, and he describes the instruments with evident love.
Does any part of you still miss it?
“Very much, man. Very much. I finger all the time. But I can’t touch it.”
And finally, there was the time he forgot to attend the dinner party that became the most famous Manson family murder scene…
Barely a few hundred yards away from where we sit tonight, on a nearby hillside, is a house with a troubled history. In the late 1960s, Jones nearly bought the house, but the owner at the time said he would only rent it, so Jones bought a house from the actress Janet Leigh on Deep Canyon Drive instead. Some people he knew moved into the other house.
In early 1969, Steve McQueen called Jones and asked him to go and see a rough cut of Bullitt. Jones brought along his hairdresser, a man named Jay Sebring, and after the movie, they made plans for later that evening.
“He said, ‘I’ll meet you at Sharon’s, because I’ve got some stuff for your hair,’ ” Jones remembers. “I was losing my hair.”
But Jones didn’t go. “I forgot about it,” he says.
The next morning his friend Bill Cosby called from London.
“He said, ‘Man, did you hear about Jay?’ Because we all used to hang out together. He said, ‘Did you see that he’s dead?’ I said, ‘Impossible, man, I was with him last night.’ “
At the dinner party Jones had missed, at Sharon Tate’s house, all five guests had been brutally murdered.
What did you think when you realized how close you’d been?
“Oh my God, it was freaky. Because they hung him up, man, and cut his nuts off and everything—Jay Sebring. And they cut her belly open with the baby, you know.”
When something like that happens—nearly being at this terrible event—what does it make you think?
“Man, it’s been happening to me all my life. It’s just unbelievable, man. You feel blessed that somehow you forgot, or whatever. Jesus Christ. Ain’t never forget that. That’s the Ghetto Gump shit. Life is a trip, man. Life is a trip.”
It’s also worth noting that the interview was annotated, and at the first mention of Cosby in this section there is a note from the author that reads: “Jones composed the theme to Cosby’s ﬁrst sitcom. Sitting with me, ﬂicking through a book of photographs, Jones comes across one of the two of them together. ‘Cosby… Jesus,’ he says, and moves on without further comment.”
The entire interview is a long one, but worth every second spent reading it. If nothing else, I have to give him this: From his nocturnal schedule to his travel to all the languages he’s learning, the way he’s living his life now is pure #lifegoals.