Monday, November 05, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: Quincy

A while back, I went to hear the great Harold Mabern at Smoke. As is sometimes the case, he was in the mood to talk, but this night his subject was Quincy Jones. Mabern was particularly delighted Jones had just been awarded a fresh honor (perhaps this was around the time of the Kennedy Center Honors, but it also cold have been a dozen awards since then). While going through a list of Jones’ accomplishments, Mabern stressed “and he did all his arrangements in ink! Do you know what that means?” I happened to say sotto voce: “no mistakes,” but it wasn’t sotto voce enough. Mabern’s jazz ears picked it up and he loved it. “That’s right, no mistakes,” he said with glee.

The whole point of this anecdote is to demonstrate how much fun it is to go to a Harold Mabern gig, because you never know what might happen. The corollary is if a musician of Mabern’s caliber thinks so highly of Jones, you’d damn well better show some respect too. If Mabern isn’t enough to convince you, we could have problems you and I, but perhaps Rashida Jones’ loving documentary profile of her father will do the trick. Co-directed by Alan Hicks, who helmed Keep On Keepin’ On, a chronicle of the final years of Jones’ longtime friend and band-mate Clark Terry, Jones’ simply-titled Quincy (trailer here),  screens as part of the “short list” section during this year’s DOC NYC.

In addition to Terry, Jones played with, arranged for, and/or produced just about all of the jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Count Basie. Jones had a particular knack for arranging for Basie and his big band, which caught the ear of Frank Sinatra. Arguably, Jones’ charts for Sinatra’s sessions with the Basie band really established the mature Sinatra sound that immediately comes to mind. Jones also gives Sinatra credit for essentially single-handedly reversing the backwards discriminatory policies of the major Vegas hotels.

You might be thinking, wasn’t there an earlier doc on Jones? Yes, there was and it was pretty good: Ellen Weissbrod’s Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones. Both films do a solid job covering Jones’s classical studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, his film scores (In the Heat of the Night, The Pawnbroker, and The Deadly Affair still sound fantastic), his work producing Michael Jackson into the “King of Pop,” his growing interest in hip-hop, and his deeply problematic relationship with his mother.

Of course, there have been eighteen years since Weissbrod’s film, during which time Jones produced Fresh Prince and Mad TV. He also reached a whole new audience when his “Soul Bossa Nova” became the Austin Powers theme. Yet, filmmakers Jones & Hicks gloss over these years, largely presenting them as a blur of awards and concerts, punctuated by two of his more recent health scares. The film climaxes with the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Jones produced. Obviously, that was a big event, but they could have slipped in one of his appearances at the Jazz Foundation’s A Great Night in Harlem benefits, like the night in 2004 when Clark Terry presented him with an award for his philanthropic work.

Obviously, Rashida Jones had access most documentarians would kill for. She covers plenty of the “valleys,” including his mother’s mental health issues and his several divorces. However, it leaves Weissbrod in an awkward spot, since her film covered most of this material two decades earlier. It also lacks the drama of Hicks previous documentary, in which the ailing Terry tries to hold on long enough to see his final protégé, young, blind Justin Kauflin establish a toe-hold in the music business. Kauflin is also seen performing briefly in Quincy as an official “Quincy Jones Artist,” so we can at least rest easy on that score. It is a good film with good stuff in it, but the final twenty minutes could have been tightened up considerably. Recommended for fans of Jones and the dozens of legends he worked with, Quincy screens this Thursday (11/8) and Saturday during DOC NYC and currently streams on Netflix.