Quincy Jones has lived a big life, and he has a 412-page autobiography to prove it. Unfortunately, in this case, size neither matters nor flatters as the book’s flat, often excruciatingly banal prose fails to provide insight into the accomplished musician’s life or extraordinary accomplishments.
Jones may be a top-shelf musical arranger and producer, but he has the storytelling capability of a CliffsNotes. By omitting details, compressing important events and making the most predictable observations, Jones fails to make his own life interesting, which is rather astonishing since he’s had such an expansive one, stretching the boundaries of what was once deemed possible for African-American men, African-American musicians and American popular music as a whole.
It wasn’t an easy course for Jones to go from growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s to backing the likes of Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington in the ’40s and ’50s, becoming one of the first black vice presidents of a major record label in the ’60s, and, in 1982, producing the biggest selling album of all time by a solo artist, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Along the way, he had to eat rats fried up by his ex-slave grandmother, with whom he was left once his mother was institutionalized. He had to endure any number of torments, including being forbidden to use the refrigerator by his Cinderella-worthy stepmother. Then, once his mother was released from the hospital, he had to put up with her unexpectedly showing up at inopportune times and trying to sabotage his burgeoning career.
She once chastised him while he was onstage at Manhattan’s legendary Birdland jazz club in front of an audience that included Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. She wrote the IRS, telling them that she wanted him to get busted for tax evasion so that he would stop writing the devil’s music. And, once Jones had finally gotten a big-time gig scoring a mainstream Hollywood film, something that was virtually unheard of for black musicians, his mother penned a letter to the movie studio stating that she would do everything in her power to stop her son from composing Satan’s songs.
Nevertheless, Jones overcame these obstacles, along with the other considerable roadblocks that were put in his life’s path, perhaps most remarkably the two surgeries that he had for brain aneurysms. In each instance, he only had a one-in-100 chance of survival.
You’d think that these experiences would make for one heck of a read. But Jones too often glosses over them as opposed to taking you there with him.
The book is also slowed down by the bizarre inclusion of alternating chapters in which friends and family members write about Jones. But, with the exception of the section by one of his daughters with actress Peggy Lipton, Kidada, who was dating Tupac Shakur at the time of his death, none of these figures offer anything but the most polite and reverential observations. And even Kidada’s part only tells us what we’ve already learned by reading her father’s distanced take on his own, often troubled, life: “My dad does not deal well with pain . . . he buries it.”
Ironically, at the same time this book is on the market, there are other recently released Jones-related works, which offer richer takes on his life and work. The deluxe edition of Jackson’s “Thriller” features Jones speaking at length about the making of the album and offers far more interesting information on the process of constructing this pop classic than anything in the autobiography.
Also, the book’s accompanying 4-CD box set from Rhino includes a colorful, brilliant essay on Jones by scholar Gerald Early, which makes you wonder how much better the book would’ve been if Jones had allowed Early to write it as a biography. Early’s piece contains the following astute observation from one of Jones peers: “Quincy Jones is, both by his own description and by the nature of his music, a culminator rather than an innovator. His music contains nothing new; rather, it contains nearly everything of value that has been done before.”
Sadly, the same can’t be said of this important man’s autobiography. It contains nothing new and is executed so poorly that it’s nearly valueless.