Q&A With Quincy Jones: Life Lessons From the Master

Quincy Jones is a player, composer, conductor, producer, mogul and mentor. Working with everyone from Dinah Washington, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones has made musical history.

Quincy Jones
Quincy Jones

He recently sat down with CNBC for a series of interviews. Here, he discusses life lessons, his successes and things he might have done differently.

Did it take chutzpah to break into the business?

"Chutzpah was not in my vocabulary. I was the most subtle person in the world. I used to just hang around the corner. And after a while, they’d invite you in. I think because we always had that orphan look, because we didn’t have a mother."

One of the first jazz greats you met was Count Basie. You've called him a father figure. What did you learn from him?

"Basie used to tell me, ‘There’s hills and valleys in our business. You find out who you are when you get in the valleys.’ Once, he had me and my band substitute for his band. It was the Black Elks Club in New Haven. And only about 700 people showed up. They were expecting 1,800. We were playing modern jazz and they couldn’t dance to it. After, the guy’s paying me off. And I look up and Basie’s there. He said, ‘Give him half his money back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? I got to pay the band’ Basie said., ‘He put your name on the marquee. People didn’t show up. That’s not his fault. That’s your fault. Give him half his money back.’ And I did."

What lessons did you learn from your own father?

"My father always said, ‘Once a task is begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.’ And that stuck with me and my brother like a knife. That whatever you do, excellence is a habit. Setting bowling pins, picking stawberries, babysitting, shining pimp shoes. Whatever it was. Empty the cup every time and it’ll come back twice as full."

How did you manage to stay away from drugs?

"I didn’t. [Hanging] with Ray Charles, that’s impossible. He had me by the neck for about five months. [Then] I fell down five flights of stairs and that was it."

Not everything you've done has been a hit. How do you deal with failure?

"You make your mistakes to learn how to get to the good stuff. The thing is just you never can stop trying. That’s the difference between steps of victory and steps of defeat. You retreat after steps of defeat. And you’re cautious and careful. You gotta learn how to get back up real quick. You cannot get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F. And keep trying, man."

You've said it's better to be underestimated than overestimated.

"It’s a great power, man. People get out of your way. If you overestimate, they’re waiting for you around every corner with weapons. But if they underestimate you, nothing’s gonna happen, so we don’t have to worry about it."

How would you describe your style of producing?

"I believe the collective thing is stronger than telling everybody every note they play.
You have to build a foundation that accommodates what their personality’s about.
And on top of that foundation, you jam. Because you know it can only get so bad because you’ve got a bulletproof foundation."

You've been a world traveler since you played with Lionel Hampton's band in the early '50s. Any tips about traveling?

"Ben Webster, the great jazz saxophone player told me, ‘Youngblood, wherever you go in the world, eat the food the people eat, listen to the music they listen to and learn 30 to 40 words in every language.’ You learn so much from other cultures. You really do."

What's your advice to young musicans and performers?

"I tell ‘em, take one track from each of the ten singers that you feel most passionate about and put ‘em on one CD or whatever. And play it over and over again. Listen to it. And then learn how to copy every one of them. You’re not gonna sound like them. But you’re gonna have the great experience of walkin’ in shoes of somebody who’s been walkin’ in those shoes a very long time."

CNBC Titans: Quincy Jones, premieres Thursday, July 21 at 9 p.m. with reairs at 10 p.m., 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. ET.