In the vast annals of the history of recorded sound, has there been anyone whose command of nearly every facet of music matches that of Quincy Jones?

It’s practically common knowledge that Q―a few artists ply their trade via mononyms; only Quincy is universally known by a single letter―produced the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s 1982 Thriller. He also presided over the production of “We Are the World,” 1985’s groundbreaking, star-studded single that, alongside related efforts, raised more than $60m for humanitarian aid. But those endeavors don’t begin to tell the story of this endlessly creative force, who turned 90 last year.

Here’s a short list of Q’s roles: big band and jazz trumpet virtuoso, (multiple) Grammy-winning composer, record producer, recording artist, film producer, arranger, conductor, TV producer, record executive, magazine founder, social activist, philanthropist and multimedia entrepreneur.

Need further proof of Jones’ polymath skills? In his storied capacity as arranger, Q’s oeuvre extends to seemingly every musical genre under the sun; he’s assayed pop, soul, hip-hop, jazz, classical, African and Brazilian music, molding these disparate forms into dazzling amalgams on records, of course, but also in live performance, film and television.

As a producer, he’s coaxed brilliant performances from not only MJ but the likes of Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. He’s wrangled rooms full of superstars and showed young strivers how to bring their “A” game.

Remember the funky, blues harmonica-drenched theme to Sanford and Son? What about the urgent, synth-driven theme to Ironside or “Hikky Burr,” the relentlessly groovy opening to The Bill Cosby Show? All were composed and arranged by Q. His scores (more about which below) called upon his multi-genre mastery to move the sound of film forward.

The man’s impeccable chops and versatility have raised the level of every room he’s entered, and, not coincidentally, he’s won every accolade imaginable. He’s also a fearless truth-teller whose words can occasionally scorch. But his gravitas, even to those on the receiving end of his fiercest broadsides,is undeniable. He earned his bona- fides in the course of an astounding personal and professional odyssey—suffused with triumph and fraught with challenges —that is also the story of modern musical culture.

Born in Chicago in 1933, Quincy Delight Jones Jr. grew up in Seattle. His best friend from adolescence onward was another musical maverick, Ray Charles. Besides a mutual love of jazz, the pair shared a more destructive pursuit; according to Q, it was Brother Ray who introduced the young bebop trumpeter to heroin, whose use was rampant among jazz musicians during the ’40s and ’50s. Quincy’s consumption ended after he fell down five flights of stairs after returning home one night. He says of Charles in the Hollywood Reporter: “He got me hooked for five months at 15… We’d all go down to Jackson Street to the Elks Club. That’s where all the bebop jam sessions were. Nobody got paid. We didn’t give a damn… When they finished playing they’d go over in the corner and… I got me a little hit… If I hadn’t [quit heroin after that fateful fall], I would’ve been a junkie forever. Thank God we did it there and got it over with.”

The jazz life continued to beckon, however, and Jones left Seattle University after a single semester for Boston’s renowned Berklee School of Music. While there, he accepted an offer to tour Europe and the Soviet Union with famed jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Q soon learned that institutional racism was not the exclusive domain of the Jim Crow South, later reflecting, “It gave you some sense of perspective on past, present and future. It took the myopic conflict between just black and white in the United States and put it on another level, because you saw the turmoil between the Armenians and the Turks, and the Cypriots and the Greeks, and the Swedes and the Danes, and the Koreans and the Japanese. Everybody had these hassles, and you saw it was a basic part of human nature, these conflicts. It opened my soul; it opened my mind.”

The remainder of the 1950s saw Jones becoming musical director for bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie, touring the Middle East and South America courtesy of the U.S. Information Agency, signing a recording contract with ABC/Paramount, moving to Paris to study with composers Oliver Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger
and assuming the role of music director for Barclay, a French subsidiary of Mercury Records.

In 1959 he arranged and produced what is widely considered one of Charles’ towering achievements, The Genius of Ray Charles, for Atlantic Records. Jones’ sumptuous string and brass charts are a masterful combination of beauty and power, as exemplified by the lush orchestration of the ballads “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” and “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the swinging opening track, “Let the Good Times Roll.

Not long after the album’s release, Jones embarked on yet another European tour, this time leading an 18-piece ensemble called The Jones Boys, which featured bassist Eddie Jones and trumpeter Reunald Jones (neither of whom was related to Quincy). After a critically acclaimed but financially disastrous string of shows, Q came to a sobering, but ultimately liberating, conclusion: “We had the best jazz band on the planet, and yet we were… starving. That’s when I discovered that there was music, and there was the music business. If I were to survive, I would have to learn the difference between the two.”

Thanks to the support of Mercury Records boss Irving Green, Jones became vice president of the company―his position was the highest ever attained by a Black person at a major label. Continuing his career as a recording artist for Mercury, Q released an album in 1962, Big Band Bossa Nova, that fused brassy, jazzy horn arrangements with the Brazilian genre that was then sweeping the world. (The album’s signature tune, “Soul Bossa Nova,” would become the theme song for 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the success of which returned the wildly swinging track to prominence.)

Q’s pop breakthrough came in 1963 with his production of teen sensation Lesley Gore’s hits “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn To Cry” and the enduring proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me.” All were million-sellers. A year later he was enlisted by Sinatra to arrange an album backed by the great Count Basie, 1964’s It Might As Well Be Swing, which yielded the definitive version of the standard “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Sinatra would employ Jones many times over the years as arranger and producer; the projects to which Q lent his talents included another collaboration with the Count Basie Band, 1966’s classic Sinatra at the Sands. During this period he also produced recordings by such jazz luminaires as Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine and Art Farmer.

Also in 1964, Jones was invited by director Sidney Lumet to write the score for The Pawnbroker. Thus began a four-decades-long foray into film composition; the list of his scores spans In Cold Blood (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), The Getaway (1972), 1978’s The Wiz (for which he both composed and adapted music, having been a producer of the stage production), 1986’s Oscar-nominated blockbuster The Color Purple (which he also co-produced) and many others.

Q’s musical star continued to rise, and he released a series of successful solo albums with hit songs like “Walking in Space” (1969), “Smackwater Jack” (1971) and “Body Heat” (1974).

He was also increasingly busy as a producer. The 1970s and ’80s saw him behind the boards with, among others, Aretha, Donna Summer, George Benson, Patti Austin, The Brothers Johnson, Rufus With Chaka Khan, The Winans, Lena Horne and James Ingram, several of whose releases came out on Q’s own label, Qwest, which he launched in 1980.

Despite this staggering litany of accomplishments, Quincy Jones will probably—and perhaps unfairly—be best remembered for the game-changing albums he produced for Michael Jackson, 1979’s Off the Wall and, of course, Thriller.

Unhappy with the musical direction his solo career was taking, Jackson had settled on Q as his producer only after Jones promised the singer creative control. Off the Wall’s innovative mix of disco, R&B, pop, and funk resulted in Jackson’s first solo blockbuster, with 20 million albums sold worldwide. Quincy later extolled Jackson’s vocal prowess during the sessions, insisting, “[Michael had] some of the same qualities as the great jazz singers I’d worked with: Ella, Sinatra, Aretha, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington. Each of them had that purity, that strong signature sound and that open wound that pushed them to greatness.”

For the follow-up album, Jackson insisted that every song be approached as if it were a hit single, as opposed to an album featuring a few hit songs accompanied by many more “album tracks.” It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that the relationship between Jones and Jackson was strained during the making of the record, but the result, Thriller, sold 70 million copies worldwide and remains the biggest-selling album in history. Evergreen hits abound: “Billie Jean” (on which Jackson tested Jones’ patience by insisting on extending the intro because it made MJ want to dance), “Wanna Be Starting Something,” “Beat It(featuring a blistering Eddie Van Halen guitar solo), “Human Nature” and the relentless title track, which yielded an epic (13-minute, 42-second) yet phenomenally popular music video thanks to continuous airplay on the nascent MTV.

All of the above barely scratches the surface of Quincy Jones’s decades-long contributions to music. It’s hard to imagine another figure with Jones’ unerring Midas touch—or one whose influence embraces so much of the music that shaped the last half-century.

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