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Scenes of Genius: Quincy Jones’ Hollywood


By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Monday, April 13, 2020.



Quincy Jones has been called many things, and perhaps it’s best to think of Mr Jones as Black Culture’s institutional memory; fitting for a career that has spanned almost 70 years. While many are aware of Jones’ musical accomplishments, including his iconic work with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and of course Michael Jackson, it is perhaps easy to overlook Jones’ contribution to film and television.


Mr Jones’s relationship with Hollywood began with the request from Oscar nominated director Sidney Lumet to provide the score for his film The Pawnbroker (1965).  Mr Jones’ work with Lumet coincided with his promotion to the role of Vice-President at Mercury Records, and marked the beginning of a prolific period in which Mr Jones composed, arranged and produced film scores and soundtracks for many films.  


Among the most notable of those films are several that starred Sidney Poitier including For the Love of Ivy (1968), which co-starred Abbey Lincoln, The Lost Man (1969), They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970),  Brother John (1971), and most famously In the Heat of the Night (1967), which was awarded the Oscar for Best Film and earned an Oscar for Best Actor for Rod Steiger.  The film’s theme song featured vocals from Mr Jones’ lifelong friend Ray Charles. In some ways Mr Poitier and Mr Jones’ working relationship anticipates the highly successful partnership between Spike Lee and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, who are both nominated for 2019 Academy Awards.


As the 1970s began, Mr Jones also wrote themes for television series including Ironside, The Bill Cosby Show (“Hikky Burr”) and the “Sanford & Son Theme”.  Mr Jones’ most impactful work on the small screen was his composing of the score for the groundbreaking television mini-series Roots, based on the Alex Haley book of the same title. The score earned Jones a Primetime Emmy for Best Music Composition for a Series.  The soundtrack to Roots allowed Mr Jones the chance to more fully explore some of the West African musical themes that were heard on earlier albums such as Gula Matari


Mr Jones’ Hollywood career came full circle in 1978, when he was tapped as musical director for  a film adaptation of The Wiz, which was a Tony Award winning stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, that featured an all-Black cast. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who had given Mr Jones his first opportunity to score films 17-years earlier. The Wiz also afforded him his first opportunity to work closely with Michael Jackson; a year after  The Wiz was released, Mr Jones and Mr Jackson began the three-album collaboration that established Mr Jackson as a global superstar.


Mr Jones was functioning more as the “boss” that many have come to know him as when he became involved in the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple.  While he was, of course, charged with composing the film’s score, Mr Jones was also one of the lead producers of The Color Purple. He was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Song (“Miss Celie’s Blues” written with Lionel Richie and longtime collaborator Rod Temperton) and Best Original Score.  The Color Purple was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and quite famously, did not win a single award. The only major award winner from the film was Whoopi Goldberg, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama).


The fact that The Color Purple was overlooked by the Academy, was perhaps a rallying point for Black Hollywood, that came to a head in 1996 with 68th Academy Awards, which was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and produced by Quincy Jones. Almost twenty years before #OscarsSoWhite, there was only one Black nominee among the 166 nominees that year.  The infamous “Hollywood Blackout” of 1996, led to protest led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, in which Mr Jones was forced to be one of the public targets of.  As has been a hallmark of his career Mr Jones took the heat while affirming the essence of the protest.   


There’s little doubt that two decades after the Hollywood Blackout and almost sixty years after The Pawnbroker, Hollywood is more hospitable to Black talent -- and Quincy Jones was part of that change.


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Mark Anthony Neal is James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University and the author of several books including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities.  Follow him on Twitter: @NewBlackMan


Scenes of Genius: Quincy Jones’ Hollywood

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