This excerpt from Q on Producing, by Quincy Jones with Bill Gibson, touches on Quincy’s ideas of what the core skills of a record producer are.
My daddy used to say to my brother, Lloyd, and me, “Once a task is just begun, never leave it ’til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” Every day he said that. That has stuck with me through everything I’ve done.
Preparation and luck
There’s nothing in the world worse than having an opportunity that you’re not prepared for. Good luck usually follows the collision of opportunity and preparation – it’s a result of that collision. You’ve got to be prepared. So, make your mistakes now and make them quickly. If you’ve made the mistakes, you know what to expect the next time. That’s how you become valuable.
One day, when I was working in Paris for Eddie Barclay’s record company, Barclay Disques, Eddie’s secretary walked in the room and said, “Grace Kelly’s office called today and said Mr. Sinatra would like you to bring 55 musicians to the Sporting Club in Monaco for a charity fundraiser.” He wanted me to bring my house band, which included Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, and Stephan Grappelli along with the Blue Stars, who later became the Double-Six (Mimi Perrin, Christiann LeGrand, and Wards Swingle). Obviously, I said, “Hell yes!”
We played with Frank that night. I think maybe six or eight words were exchanged between Frank and me the whole night. I’d never seen anything like him before – he was like something from another planet. It was so magical. That was 1958, and I didn’t hear from him until 1962; he called me from Kauai, where he was directing None But the Brave. He says, “Q!” – nobody had ever called me that before – “I just heard the record that you arranged for Basie. I’ve always wanted to do Bart Howard’s ‘In Other Words’ [‘Fly Me to the Moon’] the way you arranged it, instead of like the original 3/4 version. Would you consider working with Basie and me and our band?” I couldn’t have said yes fast enough! Especially since I had come up with that arrangement in my hotel room, without a piano, when I couldn’t get the notes on the page fast enough.
It all just came together. After Basie practically adopted me when I was 13 years old and we became so very close, who would ever have guessed that I’d be writing hits for him later and working with Frank Sinatra and all that? You can’t control it, you know, you can’t pick it, that’s for sure. It’s not in your hands. You’re judged on the last thing you do, and you need to just keep on doing your thing, developing your skill, and then let what happens happen. I was just fortunate that I was able to work with, I think, the greatest artists from the last 60 years of American his- tory. All of them: Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Basie, Duke, Ella, Michael, and everybody else, all the way up to the rappers today!
It would have never happened if I wasn’t ready – if I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t have lasted 20 minutes with Frank. Trust me! Frank would either love you or he’d run over you with a Mack truck. There was no in between. And if you ask Frank Sinatra to jump without a net, you’d better have your stuff together!
Core skills of a musician
On one of my first compositions/arrangements, entitled “The Four Winds,” which got me in the door with both Hampton and Basie, I printed an asterisk with a little note on the Bs throughout the chart that said, “Attention! Play all of these a half-step lower because they sound funny if you play them natural.” The guys in the band said, “You just put a flat on the third line at the beginning and then you don’t have to write all that stuff all day.” But you know, I was 13 years old – I didn’t know what I was doing. Passion for something is just not enough. You need to put your time in on the core skills – there’s no way around it.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he talks about knowing something instinctively about a person or a situation. He calls them slices of insight. He followed that book up with Outliers, in which he makes the important point that the secret to making those instinctive determinations resides in 10,000 hours of study – 10,000 hours of practice. So, your insight is guided by your experience. I believe it! I don’t care what you do, whether you’re a doctor or a carpenter or a musician, if you don’t have the science together (practice), your soul (passion) just doesn’t have a clue how to get where it wants to go!
If you want to be great, put your time in on the fundamentals. Learn the basics of music and build on that. Learn how to read music. Learn about harmony, counterpoint, leitmotifs, constructing a melody, and definitely orchestration. If it has to do with music, learn it! Learn everything about the kind of music you’re into and about every other kind of music. Master your craft. Put your time in!
Some of the rappers are coming to me for help. They’re already making money at music, but they’re not totally satisfied artistically. I tell them the same things: Learn the fundamentals! Great musicians put a lot of energy into what they do. They put their 10,000 hours in, and more, practicing scales and developing their skills.
They learn about music and songwriting and arranging. They study the thing they want to be great at. Then, all of a sudden their soul is released to express itself. Music engages the left and right brain simultaneously without fail. It’s an absolute, right along with mathematics. Music affects the emotions and the intellect; always, it pulls at each side. That’s why music has a healing effect. Music can positively affect people with Down’s syndrome, autism, dyslexia, and more, because it stimulates both right and left sides of the brain, simultaneously.
Core skills of a record producer
The producer has to be able to take charge of virtually every phase of the creative process. He or she must be able to find and recognize a good song, get the right instrumentalists and background singers, and find the right engineer and studio. You have to be the conductor of everything from the bottom to the top of the project. And, you have to be able to help the artist realize their musical vision and personality while you do everything else. You have to learn about marketing, covers, liner notes, and you have to know enough about all of the instruments to be able to communicate effectively with the players. On top of everything, you need to be a psychiatrist in the studio so you know when to tell the artist to take a break or to keep pushing through. You have to push them, but you can never let them fall. If you have studied and know what you’re doing, you can be confident that you can handle whatever comes up.
As a music producer you have got to be extremely proficient with music. If you expect to have the kind of confidence you’ll need as a producer in the studio, you must be proficient in your core musical skills in addition to being able to handle all of the organizational and relational demands placed on the producer.
Whether it was Michael or Frank or Ray Charles, I had no insecurities – I was ready because I had worked so hard. When Frank would say, “That’s just a little too dense up front in the first eight, Q,” in five minutes I’d fix it. That’s what I was born for, man. I’d go to flugelhorns so the high end would mellow out and get out of the way of the vocal or go straight to one of my favorite sounds: four flugelhorns, three alto horns, double bass, four French horns, four trombones, and a tuba. I’d have them all play soft, with no vibrato. That’s sexy, man. It’s the warmest sound on the planet. It’s like painting, man, and you have to be able to respond on a dime.
The people in China wouldn’t like a painting of a bowl of fruit, even if Rembrandt or van Gogh painted it. I find that fascinating. I noticed that the longer I looked at many of their paintings, the more things I’d see. For example, what seemed at first to be an organized pattern of small oblong shapes, could turn into a rabbit, or a little girl’s face, or any number of things. Everything was intertwining to form one piece of art, but it was built from connected individual pieces.
I knew there had to be some science involved, so I asked Nate Giorgio, an artist that I deeply admire. He told me that it’s called monoprint and that it is indeed produced using a scientific process. The Chinese think art should come from the abstraction of the artist’s mind, which I love because that’s the same way I think about musical voicing and color.
Charcoal, watercolors, and oil
I used to do cartoons and sketches – I was really a junkie and I was actually into art before music. Producing music always reminds me of painting. I would always start with charcoal sketches, then I’d add watercolors, and finally oil. The charcoal sketch defines the basic shapes and proportion in broad terms – that’s the way I like to start a production. The trick is to not get locked in right away – that mind-set draws from the jazz mentality. Go with what you feel, but then give everyone else the same canvas. Benefit from the creativity that they bring to the palette. Find the structure on the canvas by defining dynamics, colors, density, and so on.
Sometimes people have a hard time getting started. Steer clear of “paralysis from analysis.” Just get started. A lot of times, you just need to stop thinking about it and get started with a contour or a shape or something like that. Start with an image in your soul, and let it out. As the sketch takes shape, we can lay on the watercolors. Charcoal and watercolors can always be changed, but as the structure becomes more established, when the background lines and other basic components are nailed down, it’s time to commit and put it in oil. When you get to the oils, that means you’ve got the background nailed, you’ve got the melody nailed, you’ve got countermelodies in place, and you’re able to commit. Once it’s in oil, it’s final – you’re closing in on it because you know where you’re going. It’s just a psychological trick, but it works.
If you take your music from charcoal to watercolors to oil, you leave room for creativity. One of my favorite sayings is “Let’s always leave some space for God to walk through the room.” I believe in that. The studio is a sacred place, which is why I never wanted a studio in my home.
You’re looking for something very special to happen in that studio, very mystical and special – something spiritual. That special thing has to happen for the music to be really powerful – for it to have a powerful effect on the listener.
I can’t think about what the listener is going to say or about focus groups and all that nonsense. I don’t want to hear about what 40 people who are not even involved in music think. Can you really tell me you’re going to go against what you feel in your soul and make changes based on that? I don’t think so. Go with what you feel in your gut. Listen to the whispers from God. I just go by the goose bumps I get when I hear the music. If the music moves me, it’ll move somebody else, too. If it doesn’t move you but you think it might move someone else, that just doesn’t work. On every project I’ve produced, from the biggest-selling to the least, I just started out saying, “Let’s do the best we can.” Nobody knows what’s gonna happen, ever. All we can do is use everything at our disposal, all of our resources, to make the best music possible – music that touches our soul and our mind.
Buy Q on Producing: The Soul and Science of Mastering Music and Work by Quincy Jones (with Bill Gibson). This excerpt is reprinted with permission of Hal Leonard Books.