Evening the score: How Quincy Jones opened doors for Black American film composers

OPINION: In recognition of the legend's 90th birthday, theGrio examines how he forged a new frontier for Black American artists to write film scores.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

In 1933, Jim Crow was America’s faceless monarch. Former slaves were still walking the country. The radio was the primary source of daily entertainment. People watched the news in movie theaters.

Since the birth of Quincy Delight Jones, Jr. on March 14, 1933, much has changed. He ignited much of the country’s cultural and entertainment evolution that still exists 90 years later.

From a Chicago upbringing that was modest at best and dangerous at worst, Jones would go on to be the North Star for so much that American music and Black culture came to love and rely on to this day.

Producer Quincy Jones appears at the Michael Jackson Hand and Footprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on January 26, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) thegrio.com
Producer Quincy Jones appears at the Michael Jackson Hand and Footprint ceremony on Jan. 26, 2012, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Jones’ accolades are so vast that they border on the mythological. He became an icon by propping up heroes of his day, like Billy Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.

The 28-time Grammy winner defined the role of the music producer and provided the template for contemporary pop music, thanks to collaborations with Michael Jackson, George Benson, The Brothers Johnson and Donna Summer. His clairvoyant sense of progression helped him mentor future stars like James Ingram, Patti Austin, Tamia and Will Smith. As the founder of Vibe Magazine, he put Black entertainment culture on the same pedestal that heretofore was only reserved for white entertainers.

Jones’ resume as a producer and impresario is so outsized that it casts a monolithic shadow on another phase of his career that was equally as crucial to the success of Black creatives: film scoring.

John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman and Ennio Morricone may be the first names that come to mind when one thinks of film composers. However, Jones was able to work his way into that pantheon in the 1960s, distinguishing himself as the go-to Black film composer. He composed for more than 33 film and television shows over three decades, including “In the Heat of the Night,” “Roots,” “The Wiz,” and “The Color Purple.”

Jones’ presence and persistence led to opportunities for a flock of Black film composers, from Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield to Terence Blanchard and Kris Bowers.

By 1964 when Jones was 31, he had already lived enough of life for two people. He was ahead of his peers, from touring with Lionel Hampton out of high school, studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris to arranging for Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

That year, after working a few years as a vice president of A&R for Mercury Records and producing a string of pop hits for Leslie Gore, he was offered a 20-year deal worth $1 million, according to his 2022 book, “12 Notes: On Life and Creativity.” A $ 50,000-a-year salary (more than $480k a year in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation) is a dream for most. But it wasn’t enough for Jones.

He turned down a lucrative salary with unprecedented job security because he saw a void in the entertainment industry. He realized that Black composers were scoring hardly any films. At the time, Duke Ellington was one of the only notable Black composers of a movie (1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” starring Jimmy Stewart). While the music holds up like much of Ellington’s work, it was indistinguishable from any other jazz recording.

Less than 10 years before, Jones studied string arrangements in Paris under the direction of Boulanger, who instructed composers like Aaron Copeland. Jones began mastering classical music, then fused it with his knowledge of be-bop and big band jazz, which he gained from the teachings of Clark Terry, Hampton and Charles.

Jones said in his 2021 Neflix documentary, “Quincy,” that the cultural biases kept him and other Black composers from writing for films. “There was a lot of reluctance of ‘how can you write for a white star’,” Jones said. “I thought it was a dream I would have to hold onto.”

The gamble paid off. In 1964, director Sidney Lumet gave Jones his first assignment as a film scorer for his film, “The Pawnbroker.” In that film, Jones displayed his penchant for matching each scene with an appropriate emotion.

Quincy Jones poses for photos after placing his hands in wet cement during a hand and footprint ceremony honoring Jones on Nov. 27, 2018, at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

He was able to show off his seemingly bottomless melodic and thematic range over the next 30 years. His score for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” incorporated jazz, blues, bluegrass and classical elements while still providing ebbs and flows of tension and resolution.

Regarding television composing, Lalo Schifrin and Henry Mancini were the first calls. Schifrin, a prolific film composer, also crafted iconic TV themes like “Mission: Impossible.” Mancini’s theme to “The Pink Panther” became forever enduring, thanks to the animated show.

Jones took advantage of his opportunities to write TV themes, composing songs that are still a part of the musical lexicon today. His “Ironside” theme was repurposed for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films and had new life in the 21st century. His “The Street Beater” opened “Sanford and Son” and continues to be a benchmark of TV themes in the Black community. His score for the “Roots” miniseries allowed him to prop up the urgent polyrhythms and sparse melodies of West Africa.

While he had the education and experience to handle it, Jones said during “Quincy” that the process is more reflective than technical. “When composers get started on a film, I think they spend the roughest parts of it scraping away the bullsh-t. You have really to scrape away until there’s nothing left but truth because I don’t think you really can write or create anything without feeling right with the truth.”

The dawn of 1970s Blaxploitation films gave contemporary Black musicians a chance to score films. Hayes’ score for “Shaft” won him an Academy Award. Mayfield hit paydirt with several soundtracks over the decades, such as “Claudine,” “Let’s Do It Again,” “Sparkle” and his magnum opus, “Superfly.”

Had it not been for Jones, the lane would not have been clear for artists like Marvin Gaye, Willie Hutch and Norman Whitfield to create enduring soundtracks and scores for films like “Trouble Man,” “The Mack” and “Car Wash,” respectively; music that outlasted the films they accompanied.

Today, the landscape for film composers is different. More Black writers have opportunities and success scoring for film and television. Contemporary jazz musicians have followed in Jones’ footsteps, transitioning from players to scorers.

Like Jones, Blanchard became a star as a trumpet player. But the New Orleans musician is just as respected as a film composer. His music has accompanied most of Spike Lee’s films, including “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and “When the Levees Broke.”

Bowers is one of today’s most prolific Black composers for TV and film. Aside from scoring films like “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and “Respect,” he’s earned Emmy nominations for scoring Netflix’s series “When They See Us” and “Bridgerton.”

Robert Glasper parlayed his genre-bending, Grammy-winning “Black Radio” albums into a lucrative career as a media composer. He’s lent his pen to shows like “Bel-Air,” “The Best Man: The Final Chapters” and films like “The Photograph.”

Writers like Bowers, Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Matthew Head, Michael Abels and Amanda Jones all use Jones as their lighthouse as they navigate the choppy waters of Hollywood.

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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