Quincy Jones has been called many things, and perhaps it’s best to think of 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.
Jones’ relationship with Hollywood began with the request from Oscar-nominated director Sidney Lumet to provide the score for his film The Pawnbroker (1965). 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 Jones composed, arranged and produced scores and soundtracks for many films.
Among the most notable of those films are several that starred Sidney Poitier, including For 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). The film’s theme song features vocals from Jones’ lifelong friend Ray Charles. In some ways Poitier’s and Jones’ working relationship anticipates the highly successful partnership between Spike Lee and jazz musician Terence Blanchard.
As the 1970s began, Jones also wrote theme songs for a number of television series, including Ironside, The Bill Cosby Show (Hikky Burr) and Sanford and Son. Jones’ most impactful work on the small screen was his composing of the score for the groundbreaking television miniseries Roots, based on the Alex Haley book of the same title. The score earned Jones the 1977 Primetime Emmy for outstanding music composition for a series.
Jones’ Hollywood career came full circle in 1978, when he was tapped as musical director for a film adaptation of The Wiz, a Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which featured an all-Black cast. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who had given Jones his first opportunity to score films more than a decade earlier. The Wiz also afforded Jones his first opportunity to work closely with Michael Jackson; a year after The Wiz was released, Jones and Jackson began the three-album collaboration that established Jackson as a global superstar.
By the time Jones became involved in the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, he was already the “boss” that many have come to know him as. He composed the film’s score and was also one of the lead producers of The Color Purple. Jones was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Song (Miss Celie’s Blues, co-written with Lionel Richie and longtime collaborator Rod Temperton) and Best Original Score. The Color Purple was nominated for 11 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. It came to a head in 1996 with the 68th Academy Awards, which was hosted by Goldberg and produced by Jones. Almost 20 years before #OscarsSoWhite, there was only one Black nominee among the 166 nominees that year. The infamous “Hollywood Blackout” of 1996, led to protests spearheaded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. As has been a hallmark of his career Jones took the heat while affirming the essence of the protest. There’s little doubt that two decades after the Hollywood Blackout and more than 50 years after The Pawnbroker, Hollywood is more hospitable to Black talent — and Quincy Jones was part of that change.
— Mark Anthony Neal is the 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