Q and Me
Nicole Avant chats with her—and music’s—godfather Quincy Jones on passion, politics, perfection and passing the torch photographs by Alex Hoerner
Win 27 Grammys and one Emmy, and throw in seven Oscar nominations. Would there be anything left for you to do? Quincy Jones could have settled for being the first African-American record executive in 1964, when he was vice president at Mercury Records. He didn't. But surely, wasn't it enough to produce Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and the most successful album of all time, Thriller? No. How about teaming with Steven Spielberg to produce the Oscar-nominated Color Purple? Guess not.
Jones—activist, entrepreneur, musician, composer and producer of film and music—still has some work to do. Like spearheading a massive industry-wide push for the Obama administration to create a Secretary of the Arts cabinet post, so this country is a champion not only of freedom but of culture. With 240,000 signatures and counting in an online petition, Jones will likely get his way. His organization, Listen Up, continues to tackle the ramifications of poverty around the world, including in South Africa, where it has built more than 100 homes with Habitat for Humanity and helped educate local youth.
At 76 Jones hasn't yet passed the baton, Nicole Avant, his goddaughter, is running with it anyway. Avant, the daughter of Motown Records mogul Clarence Avant, has a career that ranges from acting to activism to serving as VP of Interior Music/Avant Garde Music Publishing. Most recently, she added a feather to her cap when she helped deliver the Golden State to Barack Obama as California Finance Cochair of his campaign. Her godfather and spiritual anchor—Jones—supported Hillary Clinton, but these two kindred souls show they have plenty in common as they speak of their shared history and passionate pursuits.
Quincy Jones: You have come into your own, but you were a gangster with my daughters when they were young.
Nicole Avant: But I thought I was the good one! [Laughs.] I have a great picture of my parents and you—dear godfather—at my mother's baby shower for me. And it's the greatest, because it's 1968, and there's such joy. My mom is just standing there with a big belly, and you and my father are behind her.
Q: You know, your mother's the same now as she was then—that joie de vivre. You've always been connected to that same vibe. How old are you, anyway?
NA: I turned 41 in March.
Q: What?! Older than me! I've got three daughters older than me.
NA: [Laughs.] Can you believe it? I was telling my dad on New Year's Eve, "Daddy! All your friends that I've known growing up are here! What do you think that means?" And I meant on a spiritual level, but he said, "Your ass is old if you're spending New Year's Eve with my friends!"
NA: I was trying to remember when you were living on Stone Canyon and had that studio on the side of the house. I must have been 12. I couldn't sleep, and I remember sneaking out to the studio, and you said it was okay for me to be there as long as I didn't make noise. I think it was the first time I ever saw you in your creative space. And I remember lying there, watching you, and you were writing, writing, writing, and then you'd throw it away. Testing, testing, testing—and you were getting angry. It was the first time I had seen you frustrated, but it was great because you wanted it. I could tell it wasn't coming out the way you had it in your heart. I don't know which Michael Jackson album you were working on, but it taught me about creativity—owning it and wanting it to be right. And now I notice in my life, as I have come into my own, everyone says, "You're such a perfectionist. You're too hard on yourself." I always go back to that memory, thinking, No, I just know the vision in my mind—how I hear it and how I want to see it. It's not about being in control; it's about owning the energy you feel and seeing it manifested in the way you want it. So many years later, and I remember that so vividly.
Q: When you're doing a record, you better get it right. To me, the studio's very sacred, so magical things—very special things—have to happen there. That's why I never want a studio
in my house—guys walking around
in their underwear at 3 in the morning. You know what I mean? That's not spiritual at all.
Q: But then it happens. I think back to 1971—I was recording Aretha somewhere, and she was playing piano, and Ray Brown's voice like God walked through the room. Amazing.
NA: Skin crawling.
Q: And that's the way I feel—if I give goose bumps, somebody else can give goose bumps, too. Stop trying to tell me about surveys and focus groups. I don't worry about no focus groups. Here's your focus group, right here...
NA: In your heart.
Q: In that studio, with that kind of focus, that's where you go—all the way in. We were smoking back then, unfortunately. Four packs apiece—160 cigarettes. They were carrying us out young, on stretchers. Never stopped. But we got it right.
Q: The last two years, I've been totally around the world. I mean, everywhere—Russia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Africa, Latin America, Cambodia, Beijing. Every country plays American music. And we don't even have a Secretary of the Arts.
NA: You are always traveling.
Q:Honey, I've been doing that for 54 years. I just travel. I'm a junkie. My foundation is building hospitals in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and we work with the favelas in Brazil. Rwanda and Durban and Soweto, South Africa—I've been down there 36 years now. Nelson Mandela said 25,000 people got killed in Soweto last year, 60 percent of them women. We did a concert for his birthday last year. When I met him privately, he said, "My brother, I will never see you in London or the United States again. You have to come to me, because I'm 90 now." He's such a sweet man. Oooh, is he sweet.
NA: You do connect to kindness, Quincy. I remember when I was young, and I was going to Russia as a high school senior. And I remember telling you I was excited because I loved Russian studies but I didn't want to go because I didn't want to be cold. If I was gonna be cold, I wanted to be in Aspen. And you said, "The world is yours. But you have to go and greet it. These Russian kids can't come here." This was 1985, so it was still the Soviet Union. Q, you said that to me with so much love: "You have to go there. You should go meet your brothers and sisters around the world. You should take advantage of the blessings that you've been given." I think of that every day.
Q: And don't drag your own culture with you.
NA: That was your main thing. You go and be completely open and experience it all—the good and the bad.
"I'm gonna put 100 percent of myself into this because there are people I don't know who put 100 percent in for me before I was born."
HAIL TO THE CHIEF
Q: What I love about our new president is he doesn't get carried away with joy when the positive happens or depressed when something bad happens. That's a centered leader.
NA: He's centered and focused and direct. The one thing I learned the most, the main lesson that President Obama taught me was how to respond versus reacting to everything.
Q:That's who he is.
NA: It was a pleasure to be there and work with him. And Michelle, too—she's centered, graceful, sophisticated. But you know what it is also? They're both kind. There's a difference, in my opinion, between being nice and being kind. Nice you can turn on and off. But kindness, I think, is genuine. Kindness is of your soul.
Q:That is who the Obamas are.
NA: On election night, you should have seen me in Chicago. It was 60-something degrees, which is unheard of. I was in just a little dress on Hutchinson Field. Oprah was standing near me, and it was so warm and fantastic. I suddenly looked up, and on the big screen, it said, "CNN predicts: Barack Obama." And all I kept saying was: "Oh, my God!" I went over to congratulate President Obama right after, and I got emotional with Michelle. I said, "Oh, my gosh, you're my First Lady. You're my friend, but you're my First Lady."
Q:I know—God, I can't believe this
NA: It was so wonderful. I looked at President Obama, and he said, "Well, you never doubted. You were never the doubter." I said, "I know, but still!" In that moment, I actually referred to him as Barack my friend, since I was so filled with joy. And then to look at all my cochairs and all my finance people and everybody—they were all hysterical. You know, it's funny, I worked on the campaign for so long, now I feel like he's been president for two years. We've barely even started yet!
DAWNING OF A NEW DAY
NA: As you know, I went to Washington for our great moment [the inauguration]. Q, it was incredible. Did you ever think this day would come?
Q: Never. It's astounding. The young people are responsible for that.
NA: But you guys gave us a gift. What your generation and before gave us was the sense—almost like you passed the baton. We screwed up a few times, but you made us responsible. My grandmother and her grandmother never saw the fruition of all their prayers, of all their hard work, of all their pain. I remember my grandmother's friend told me when they used to walk home, they never wanted to look up because they didn't want to know if they would see a friend or family member hanging from a tree.
So when people think one brick was thrown in one church, they're wrong. This was daily terrorism. But it doesn't mean you stop praying; it doesn't mean you stop hoping, just because you don't see it to fruition. And now—all the beating and all the blood were not in vain. The right people stepped up this time—and it's good for all children. When I would get frustrated on the campaign and think, This is crazy, and I don't like this world, I'd say, "Okay I'm doing this for my dad; I'm doing this for Q. I'm gonna put 100 percent of myself into this because there are people I don't know—people I will never know—who put 100 percent in for me before I was born."
Q: There was a young brother singing on Oprah's show once—15 and getting mouthy about a few things, because it's easy to forget, and she said, "Let me tell you: Do you know how many black people got beaten, bled and died so you can be where you are right now? The crown is already bought. All you have to do is reach down and pick it up."
NA: It's the truth.
Q: It goes all the way back. I go back 60 years—I saw the '50s, the '60s, how bad it was. All the blood that was laid on that road so Jay-Z and P. Diddy and all these guys could make a record.
NA: Without you, they wouldn't have gotten there.
LEAP OF FAITH
NA: You know, I just remembered, I was here at your house—what was it, your 74th birthday? It must have been. That was when I started working for the campaign. Remember when you had that crew here filming you, and I was getting out of the car with my dry cleaning, and Penny Pritzker, Obama's national finance chairwoman, called and said, "Hi, Nicole, I'm in the process of selecting some cochairs for the state of California for Senator Obama's finance committee." I said, "Oh, that's so fantastic. I can think of a few people." And she said, "No, I want you to be one of the cochairs." I'm thinking, S--t, I don't even know how to do a spreadsheet. And she said, "I asked Charlie Rifkin also," and I thought, If Charlie says yes, I'm gonna do it. Because Charlie Rifkin, to me, is like the last gentleman alive—just a class act. And I knew that not only would we work together, but I would learn with him, and we would learn from each other.
Q: I love that you're always talking about learning.
NA: I always want to learn.
Q: That's the squeeze.
NA: So, I remember coming in and being so nervous, and at the same time, I took it as a sign, because everything that happens here, with you, is always magical. There's always something spiritual. I said to you, "You know, I'm gonna do it." And you said, "It's an opportunity. It's a good opportunity. Just be open." I was so happy that I made the decision in this house. And Kidada, out of all my godsisters, looked at me, and with her passion, she said, "You're born for this. You're perfect for this!" But then I thought, I don't know where this money's gonna come from; I don't know how I'm gonna do this. It was all men around me—I was the only finance chairwoman. I remember going to my first meeting and thinking of you, Q, because you gave me those spiritual books when I was younger—like Creative Visualization. I remember understanding the power of the word through that book and just really taking control of my energy. And I remember leaving here with this feeling of confidence.
Q: Yes I can.
NA: Yes I can!