Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones will discuss composing for film at the TCM Classic Film Festival. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times / March 20, 2014)

Quincy Jones knew even at a young age that he wanted to compose film scores.

"I used to go to movies for 11 cents," Jones said at his mansion nestled in the Bel-Air hills. "I used to play hooky in Seattle every day. I could tell if a movie was scored at 20th Century Fox with Alfred Newman or at Paramount with Victor Young. I could just feel it."

Jones, who studied with composers Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris in 1957, would become one of the top film composers in Hollywood by the 1960s. In 1968 he became the first African American to earn two Oscar nominations in the same year — one for his score for Richard Brooks' classic "In Cold Blood," and one for composing the song "The Eyes of Love" from "Banning." Jones also wrote the score for the 1968 best picture winner, "In the Heat of the Night," and composed the film's songs with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, including the title tune sung by Ray Charles.

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The TCM Classic Film Festival will pay tribute to Jones' work as a film composer this week. On Friday he will sit down with Leonard Maltin for a conversation at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and later that evening he'll be on hand for the screening of the 1969 caper flick "The Italian Job," which features one of his most haunting songs, "On Days Like These," which he wrote with lyricist Don Black.

Jones returns Saturday evening for the 50th anniversary screening of Sidney Lumet's searing 1964 drama, "The Pawnbroker," which was the first U.S. film Jones scored.

"He is such a huge part of our culture, not just film culture," said TCM's senior vice president of programming, Charlie Tabesh. "I think it is going to be really special to have him, not just for those two films, but for his extended conversation."

Accomplished

Jones, 81, is a renaissance man. As a teenage trumpet prodigy, he toured with Lionel Hampton's band before becoming a composer, record producer, film and TV producer, arranger, conductor, the first black executive in a white-owned record company, magazine founder and humanitarian.

He produced and arranged "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" with Michael Jackson as well as the historic "We Are the World" recording. He was the subject of the well-received documentary "Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones." He even produced the Academy Awards.

Jones has been nominated for seven Oscars, three of them for Steven Spielberg's 1985 "The Color Purple" alone — for score, for song and as a producer. And in 1995 he received the academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

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Duke Ellington was the first African American composer to get screen credit on an American film, with Otto Preminger's 1959 "Anatomy of a Murder," and Ellington earned an Oscar nomination for scoring the 1961 film "Paris Blues." But it was Jones who played the bigger role in bringing diversity to Hollywood, film music historian Jon Burlingame said.

"When Preminger hired Duke to do 'Anatomy of a Murder,' he was one of the nation's most famous jazz band leaders," Burlingame said. "But Quincy genuinely broke the color barrier in Hollywood. He was the guy who made it possible for other African American composers to score movies."

Jones' years of work as an arranger were great training, Burlingame said. "You learn to paint with colors musically when you are an arranger like that."

Burlingame believes that Jones' music for "In the Heat of the Night" was the first blues-based dramatic score for American film. "The same year, he does 'In Cold Blood,' which is a powerful piece of work," he said. "Though both are jazz-infused by a certain degree, they are both very dramatic and go beyond the jazz influences that you might expect from someone who played with Lionel Hampton's band."

Jazz speaker

Interviewing Jones is an experience. He's a night owl, so interviews are scheduled for late afternoon.

He's all charm and good humor as he saunters into the room, decorated with the posters of his film work. He takes a seat on the sofa next to his visitor and speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style, akin to a horn player's improvisational jazz. He might talk about a movie (his composing debut came in the 1961 Swedish film "The Boy in the Tree"), then riff on his love of languages ("I am studying Mandarin"), then drop fun facts (Frank Sinatra was the first to call him "Q").

It was good friend Lena Horne who introduced Jones to Lumet. Horne's daughter was married to Lumet, and at Horne's recommendation, the filmmaker contacted Jones about "The Pawnbroker."