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SXSW Keynote Speaker: Quincy Jones Talks Music, Inspiration and Succeeding as Black Artist

In a packed auditorium at the Austin Convention Center in downtown Austin, Texas, legendary music producer Quincy Jones gave the "keynote" speech on Thursday afternoon at the South by Southwest Music Festival. From the get-go, Jones struck a personal and political tone--a flyer sat on every seat inside the auditorium, promoting Jones's push for a "Secretary of the Arts" in President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

"There is now a Secretary of the Arts Petition circulating to bring attention to the new White House so that the arts can be made a priority and not just a fringe element," read the flyer, with Jones's picture predominantly displayed.

Jones then spoke about music, artistic inspiration, and succeeding as a black artist during a time of widespread segregation and racism in the United States.

Over the years, Jones has worked with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Count Basie, and numerous others. Jones has also scored over 30 films and produced The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the TV show starring a young Will Smith. After a pre-speech video that highlighted his career, Jones walked onto the stage, a grand piano waiting for him, to a standing ovation.

"Austin is one of the country's artistic mecca's," said Jones, wearing sunglasses, white slacks, a brown plaid shirt, and a dark brown scarf. "Seriously."

Jones, who recently turned 76 years old and wears a small, golden earring in his left ear, started the speech with a quick run through of his wild adolescence.

"My path to the music industry was an improbable one," said Jones, noting he grew up in Chicago in a neighborhood surrounded by old-style gangsters who carried Tommy guns. "Truth is," he said. "We wanted to be gangsters." But, Jones said, "Music would nourish my mind and soul, and it would save my life."

In fact, by the age of 23, after making a solid reputation as a music producer, Dizzy Gillespie, the legendary trumpeter, asked Jones to organize a big band for a worldwide tour sponsored by the United States government. Jones's life had obviously taken a different turn from his gangster years.

Jones said his abiliity to spot top talent was instinctual. "Most great singers you recognize within the first 10 or 15 seconds," he said. Michael Jackson particularly impressed him. "It was loud and clear," the producer said. Jones also said of Sinatra: "Frank had no gray in him. He either loved you and respected you, or he'd run you over with a Mack truck."

In a tip for other musicians, Jones said "we are conduits" for a "higher power." "Never forget that," the producer said. "Music comes through us. It's not about us."

Later, Jones gave more advice, saying people either believe they deserve success in the music industry or they think they are "fooling everybody." But the producer again said to take the emphasis off the self. "You're a terminal for a higher power," he said. "You have to keep thinking like that."

Jones also spoke to the fact that during his early career in the 1950s and into the 1960s, when he quickly enjoyed a high level of success, he still faced racism. But Jones said he dealt with it by not letting other people's opinion of him affect his own self-worth. Today, Jones worried that Americans are "becoming isolationists," saying that people don't often travel out of the country.

40 years later, Jones is still flying around the world, celebrating his birthday, meeting with friends, and writing music. "I have the mind and heart of a 22-year-old," Jones said with a smile. The audience, clearly in his corner, clapped loudly.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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