Cinematic Soul: The Soundtracks of Quincy Jones
Premiering in 1972, Sanford and Son was an every Friday night at eight o'clock event in my Harlem household. "What channel does it come on again?" my grandmother would ask every week and every week I'd turn the television to channel four and patiently wait for the cool-ass intro music to kick in. While most program themes had lyrics, it was only fitting that a funky show like Sanford had a juke-joint instrumental to introduce this bugged junk man and his son.
Yet, being a nine year old music buff who bought countless 45s from Freddy's Record Shack on Broadway and read religiously the Soul Brothers Top 20 in Jet magazine, I began noticing Quincy Jones' name on several television shows including Ironside and the Bill Cosby Show, which featured the wild out track "Hikky-Burr." Although I had no idea who he was, I knew that he was the man.
To this day, the musical legacy of seventy-seven year old Quincy Delight Jones Jr. looms large over the landscape of popular culture. While our grandparents might remember him as the cool cat who once swung with Sinatra and Count Basie (released in 1964, It Might as Well Be Swing is a champagne music classic), most eighties babies will forever associate him with the post-disco blare of Michael Jackson’s mega-monster Thriller in 1982.
Yet, that collaboration might never have happened if the two had not originally worked together on the soundtrack for The Wiz, the wretched 1978 remake of The Wizard of Oz. Directed by the king of New York City cinema Sidney Lumet, who once described the film as urban fantasy (a genre his considerable talents were ill suited for after the brilliant social realism of Serpico, Network and Dog Day Afternoon) the picture, was a visual failure.
Though the much-maligned movie was almost made without Quincy’s help, who explained bluntly in his 2001 autobiography Q, “I just wasn’t feeling the songs,” he still stepped up to the plate. “I did it because Sidney Lumet, who had given me my first U.S. film-scoring break on The Pawnbroker, plus five more films, asked me to do it. I felt like I owed him more than one; I owed him a lot.”
Like a post-bop Martin Luther King with a conductor’s baton and complex arrangements, Quincy Jones was a pioneer who helped pave the way for other Negro musicians in that so-called Tinseltown. “Film has never been a Black friendly industry,” says director Nelson George, whose first feature Life Support was produced for HBO. “But, Quincy fought and charmed his way through to become Hollywood royalty.”
Though he would go on to create other great scores like In Cold Blood (his first Academy Award nomination) and In the Heat of the Night, it was The Pawnbroker that made it all possible.” Although Duke Ellington had contributed the soaring soundtrack to Otto Preminger's 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder, helping to define the jazz-influenced film music in same way as Henry Mancini and Elmer Bernstein, it took still took Quincy to take the art form to the next level.
Beginning his professional career as a be-bop trumpet player in 1947, Quincy had worked with Ray Charles, got scammed by Charlie Parker and opened for Nat King Cole in Europe. Later, as vice-president of A&R at Mercury Records, he signed Lesley (“It’s My Party”) Gore. However, once given the chance he never looked back. As critic Philip Brophy wrote in a 1997 Wire magazine article, Jones became “a key-yet ignored-figure in wrenching the film score from its Wagnerian cave and slamming it down in the midst of cross-town traffic.”
The Pawnbroker was recorded in 1964 at A&R Studios in Manhattan over the period of two days. Quincy’s old roommate, friend, engineer and studio owner Phil Ramone (who later produced classic sides for Billy Joel and Paul Simon) remembers those sessions well. “Quincy stayed up days and nights for weeks writing those songs,” says Ramone via telephone.“Things were just magical. Man, that studio was so small we used to call in our basement in the sky. Q’s superstar buddies would come in to play two solos and be out. We had guys piled up in the hallway, while others would be in Jim and Andy’s, the bar downstairs; I had an intercom hooked-up, and I would call down whenever I needed somebody.”
Two years earlier, Jones and Ramone recorded the whimsical “Soul Bossa Nova” in the same studio. Popularly known today as the “Theme to Austin Powers,” which featured a Roland Kirk flute solo, it was obvious that everybody loved working with Q. Lalo Schifrin, who would later compose the famed Mission Impossible theme, played piano on that session.
“It was like a juke joint up 112 West 48th, but it was home to him,” Phil Ramone remembers. “Nobody ever said no to Quincy; if he called, you were there.” With a Who’s Who of cool cats that Pawnbroker director Sidney Lumet likened to “Esquire’s All-Star Jazz Band,” the line-up included Dizzy Gillespie, Elvin Jones on drums, John Faddis on trumpet, George Duvivier on bass and countless others.
“The main titles use of vibes, celeste harpsichord and harp tantalizingly cast semi-jazz clusters against a monophonic semi-blues line played by thickened strings,” critic Philip Brophy observes. “It’s like hearing Ellington and George Gershwin simultaneously. It’s black and it’s jazz and all the space between.”
Despite the fact that Lumet had first approached John Cage and Gil Evans, he was more than pleased with Quincy’s efforts, which Jazz Improv magazine described as “a lush, string-laden mood pieces, interspersed with frantic jazz vamps.” In addition, Lumet was also impressed that Q. had studied under famed French composer and music educator Nadia Boulanger—who had also taught Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Burt Bacharach.
“She used to tell me back in France—and it took me years to accept it—that you only have real freedom when you set boundaries and parameters,” Quincy wrote in his bio. “When you have total freedom, you automatically create chaos. As a jazz artist, this was hard to swallow until I had to score films on a deadline.”
Author Todd Boyd, who penned The Notorious Phd's Guide to the Super Fly '70s: A Connoisseur's Journey Through the Fabulous Flix, Hip Sounds, and Cool Vibes That Defined a Decade (Harlem Moon, 2007), also cites The Pawnbroker soundtrack as a personal favorite. “People sleep on that movie. To me, Quincy’s music went straight into the psyche of the main character played by Rod Steiger, who is a Holocaust victim who owns a pawnshop in Harlem. You can hear the depth of his paranoia in Quincy’s music. We can also hear that in the score he did a few years later for In the Heat of the Night.”
Forty years after its release, new jack film composer Scott Bomar still feels the influence of Quincy’s 1967 score for the Sidney Poitier feature directed by Norman Jewison. “That soundtrack heavily influenced the work I did on (director Craig Brewer’s neo-exploitation gem) Black Snake Moan,” says Bomar, who also scored Hustle & Flow for the same director. In 2003 Bomar was musical director for a segment of Martin Scorsese's PBS series The Blues.
“Jones’ mixture of jazz, blues, country and pop was amazing. Quincy not only did the score, he did all the songs you hear on the radio and jukebox; all the music sounds like it comes from that particular world. Quincy also used vocals in a very original way; without a doubt, the Ray Charles sung title track is one of my favorite songs.” In addition to Charles, the Afroed maestro also collaborated with singers Donny Hathaway (Come Back Charleston Blue), Shirley Horn (For Love Of Ivy), Sarah Vaughan (Cactus Flower Theme), Johnny Mathis (Mirage) and Diana Ross (The Wiz).-town traffic.
Still, like Los Angeles based crime writer Gary Phillips and composer David Holmes (Out of Sight), many of Quincy’s fans prefer the Playboy chill of his caper movie scores. Mastermixing the sonic swagger of synthesizers with more traditional instrumentation, the eletro-fusion heard on the groovy The Italian Job (1969), The Anderson Tapes (1971), $ (1971) and The Hot Rock (1972) process a neo-noir delirium that still resonates with movie lovers and hip-hop crate diggers. The track “Snow Creatures” from $ has been sampled by Gang Starr (“Alongwaytogo”) and Common “Tricks Up My Sleeve,” while The Hot Rock theme was lifted by both Jurassic 5 (“Improvise”) and Eminem (“Like Toy Soldiers”). “I like to listening to The Anderson Tapes or The Lost Man (1969) soundtrack when I just driving around,” explains Gary Phillips, whose crime novels include Bangers (2003) and DC Comics/Vertigo graphic novel Cowboys. “There is a great sense of pacing and rhythm in that music that just gets my creative juices flowing. For the crime and mystery stuff that I write, that music just takes me there. Quincy not only reflected the feel of those movies, but those soundtracks also captured the time period perfectly.”
While Quincy Jones has not done a full-length film score since teaming with Steven Spielberg on the majestic 1985 The Color Purple soundtrack (for which he received his eighth Academy Award nomination), his movie music is still as magical as it is distinctive.
“If you are putting together a compilation of great film music from the second half of the 20th century music, there is a good chance you will be using something Jones composed,” says writer/filmmaker David Walker, former publisher of defunct zine BadAzz Mofo. “More than anything else, Quincy Jones brought a sense of soul to film scores.”
Writer's Note: The Anderson Tapes is perhaps one of the best heist films ever made and Jones' soundtrack is the groovy foundation of many scores to come; if you don't believe me, just ask David Holmes.
a different version of this story was first published in Stop Smiling, Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found