“Quincy’s a guy whose success actually overshadows his talent.”
That perceptive insight appears in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (2001), attributed to composer, arranger, and alto saxophonist Benny Carter. Now 88, Jones has earned his iconic pop-culture status as an uber-producer and entertainment mogul. He has shaped megahits like Thriller and Bad for Michael Jackson, composed dozens of film and TV scores, bagged 28 Grammy Awards, written defining arrangements for Sinatra, and built a multimedia empire.
Before he did any of these things, however, Jones made his bones as an arranger-for-hire in the 1950s. He wrote hundreds of charts for Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, and countless others. While this isn’t forgotten history, too few people recognize just how exceptional Jones was at his craft during his twenties and how artfully distinct his stamp was on roughly 80 recordings (LPs and singles) made between 1951 and 1959.
Even otherwise knowledgeable jazz aficionados often seem unwilling to fully give it up to Q. This reflects a bias against his gilded pop music career and an overreaction to his use of ghost writers in the ’60s, particularly Billy Byers, when Jones was building his career as a Mercury Records executive and morphing into a brand name. The defense is straightforward: Everybody used ghost writers when deadlines demanded it. The brilliance of Jones’ documented catalog is unimpeachable, and at the peak of his jazz career in the ’50s, he was grinding out every bar himself.
What makes a Jones arrangement special? It’s a long list: graceful melodies, sophisticated harmony, seductive textures, sly humor, elegant voice leading, savvy pacing, irrepressible swing, a deep feeling for the blues, and the confidence not to overwrite. One more key quality: A Jones arrangement is as full of effortless charm as Audrey Hepburn in a wide-brimmed hat.
Jones always presents the song, ensemble, soloist, or vocalist in their best light. “I can make a band play like a singer sings,” he told Vulture in 2018. Listen to his alluring octet charts behind Dinah Washington in 1955 on For Those in Love (EmArcy). Jones’ kittenish introduction to “I Get a Kick Out of You” leads with flirty triplets that become the idée fixe of the arrangement. Guitar and four horns—trumpet, tenor sax, trombone, and baritone sax—announce the song in close, four-party harmony with the melody doubled by guitar on top and baritone on the bottom. Jones toys with the weight and texture of the ensemble in the subsequent call-and-response with Washington. (Thanks to composer/arranger David Berger for helping me break down the voicings.)
“Blue Gardenia” opens with dramatic fanfare gestures worthy of a Hollywood premiere, but within seconds the mood shifts from searchlights to a single spotlight on a torch singer in a cozy bar. The horns waft in and out behind Washington like a smoky haze. This is mature scene-setting for a writer of any age, but extraordinary for one who turned 22 the day before the recording.
A budding trumpeter and composer/arranger in Seattle, Jones was writing music by age 13. His friend Ray Charles taught him arranging fundamentals, and he later studied briefly at the Schillinger House (the precursor to Berklee) in Boston. Mostly he learned by deep listening and trial and error. His first recorded arrangements were at age 18 with Lionel Hampton in 1951.
Jones assimilated myriad influences: Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, and Dizzy Gillespie; the Birth of the Cool Gil Evans; the Basie continuum; Sy Oliver’s charts for Lunceford and others; the Ellington of the ’40s. Like Dameron and Evans, Jones knew how to make a small band sound larger by putting basslines and countermelodies in motion and enriching harmony with colorful alterations and zesty dissonances.
You can hear these ideas on Introducing Jimmy Cleveland and His All Stars (EmArcy), recorded in 1955 with the often-overlooked trombonist. The octet mirrors the instrumentation of the Washington date but sounds bigger. The bustling chart on “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!” takes wing on Jones’ linear invention. Crisscrossing counterpoint assembles into punchy chords that dig into the beat. It sounds like Jones’ hot take on West Coast cool.
Recorded in 1958-59, Basie One More Time: Music from the Pen of Quincy Jones (Roulette) is one of Jones’ grandest achievements. Every chart is an original with a charismatic, clarified narrative arc—from the sultry ballad “For Lena and Lennie” to the scampering blues “Rat Race” to the pure romance of “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” (rendered here as “The Midnite Sun Never Sets”).
Introduced by Gillespie in 1956 but revised for Basie, “Jessica’s Day” remains quintessential Quincy. Talk about charming! It’s a coquettish soft-shoe with a 32-bar melody ornamented by twirls and a signature Jones sonority—flute, muted trumpet, and muted trombone—on top of the saxes. Note the clever pickup to the second eight bars by a flute-and-bass duet in contrary motion. Expressive gradations of dynamics and sweet-tart orchestration build drama that culminates in a 16-bar shout chorus for full ensemble as hip and swinging as any in the Basie canon. This is the work of a master.
Sonny Stitt: Sonny Stitt Plays Arrangements from the Pen of Quincy Jones (Roost, 1956)—Stitt’s alto soars atop Jones’ inventive little-big-band charts—dig “Love Walked In”— featuring a multigenerational cast with a majestic Jo Jones on drums.
Ray Charles: The Great Ray Charles (Atlantic, 1957)—Soulful simplicity defines Jones’ septet arrangements on this instrumental LP by his childhood mentor, especially “Doodlin’.”
Sarah Vaughan: Vaughan and Violins (Mercury, 1959)—Jones lived in Paris when he arranged these orchestral ballads for Sassy. The eloquent harmonic movement and gossamer sonorities reflect his love for Ravel.
Quincy Jones: Quintessence Originally Published