LMU-hosted conversations with documentarian Ken Burns and music producer Quincy Jones show the two have much in common
By Michael Aushenker
On the surface it may not seem that Caucasian documentarian Ken Burns and African-American music producer Quincy Jones have much in common
Dig deeper and one learns that both hardworking Midwestern-raised men rose above tough childhoods to build prolific artistic careers that, one way or another, tackle race relations in America.
Jones came from the ghettos of Chicago only to grow up to produce the globe’s biggest-selling album to date, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which changed the face of pop music and MTV in the 1980s.
Burns’ most monumental achievements — long-form documentaries “The Civil War,” “Baseball”; the recent “Central Park Five”; two-part biographies on boxer Jack Johnson and President Thomas Jefferson and an upcoming one on Jackie Robinson — all hinge upon one dominant theme: how whites have treated blacks in America.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway interviewed Burns on March 18 and Jones on April 8 at the Loyola Marymount University School of Film & Television in Westchester for its students-only “Hollywood Masters” conversations.
If one were asked to name a filmmaker who has directed Tom Hanks five times and employed Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg might be the first guess to come to mind. But in fact it’s Burns, whose documentaries have also featured voiceover by Morgan Freeman, Julie Harris, Sam Waterston, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach and George Takei.
Originally from Delaware, Burns had a love of photography passed down to him from his anthropologist father, who moved his family to Michigan in pursuit of a university position. Burns was not yet a teenager when he lost his mother to breast cancer. His father, who didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, kept a strict curfew on Burns and brother Ric (today also a documentarian), which he broke when a good movie came on TV, keeping his boys up until 2 a.m. on a school night. Burns first beheld the power of cinema shortly after his mother’s death at age 11 when his father made them watch “Odd Man Out” with James Mason. That’s when “my father cried,” said Burns. “He really cried.”
Two more movies introduced to him by his father —“Rio Bravo” and “Vertigo”— showed Burns how cinema could become “an emotional safe harbor.” Yet it was “Dr. Zhivago,” which Burns introduced to Dad, that engaged Burns in history. In fact, his final college course was in Russian history.
But it’s been American history with which Burns, 61, has made his name, often with stories hinging on race; most spectacularly his 1990 examination of America’s deadliest, most divisive conflict, “The Civil War.”
“What are you talking about? We’ve got a black president, we’re post-racial…ha!” Burns said before discussing his “Central Park 5,” in which a group of African-American men were falsely incarcerated for a 1989 gang rape. “I wish this was such a unique take, but it happens every day. … ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ was written by a guy who owned 100 people.”
When a student inferred that perhaps making documentaries for television instead of for movie theaters was a compromise, Burns replied that, on the contrary, he’s guaranteed sponsorship through television without executive meddling and eternal development.
“I’ve made the films I wanted to make. Each one’s a director’s cut,” he said.
Furthermore, his audience would be miniscule at festivals and in limited theatrical release versus through television.
“Some 35 million people watched ‘The Roosevelts.’ I’m happy to make that bargain.”
In 1990, an estimated 40 million watched “The Civil War,” making the miniseries PBS’s most-watched program of all time.
Like Burns, Quincy Delight Jones, Jr. endured a troubled upbringing. As Jones told Galloway, if it wasn’t for a piano sitting inside of an office he was burglarizing, he may have become a career criminal.
“It was accidental,” said 82-year-old Jones — who received Oscar nominations for scoring “In Cold Blood,” “The Pawnbroker” and “The Color Purple” and who devised the catchy “Sanford and Son” theme—of discovering music after he and his brother were shipped to Washington state to escape hardscrabble South Chicago, “the roughest place I’ve ever been to and I’ve been to every place in the world.”
Back in the 1930s, when Al Capone terrorized Chicago’s underworld, Jones witnessed many “dead bodies, Tommy guns and cigar stogies,” even surviving an ice pick to the head at age 7.
Jones had been heading down a life of crime when he broke into a Washington State armory office and became instantly mesmerized with a piano. “Every cell in my body said, ‘This is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life,’” said Jones, who enrolled in music courses and soon sat in with “every band that came through Seattle.” His mentors: Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.
Miles Davis, whom Jones called ‘the worst gambler on the planet,” “adopted” him at 13 and took him to play with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. At this point in conversation, Jones flashed a pinky ring, willed to him by Ol’ Blue Eye, bearing Sinatra’s family crest from Sicily.
More than once while talking to Galloway, Jones marveled at the numerous evolutions he had witnessed across his expansive career, whether it was Will Smith, the quick study on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” becoming an international box office force, or Oprah Winfrey going from working for scale on “The Color Purple” to entertainment heavyweight. (“Oprah made $35,000. She’s worth $3 billion now.”)
The producer of 1989’s multigenerational album “Back on the Block,” Jones boasted a profound pride in the African-American legacy of music. “Bebop, doo-wop and hip-hop — it’s a miracle,” he said.
Jones had just completed Donna Summers’ self-titled disco album in 1982 when “Thriller” came calling. Of course, Jones had produced Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Diana Ross and Christopher Cross — or, as Jones referred to them, “one-third of ‘We Are the World’ [which he produced].”
Amazingly, Jones and Jackson recorded 800 songs for “Thriller,” an album narrowed down to nine. During those sessions, they created Steven Spielberg’s Grammy-winning “E.T. The Extra-
Terrestrial” album in less than a month.
What all forms of entertainment boil down to is “a great story,” Jones said. “A bad song — the three greatest singers in the world could not save it.”
Both Burns and Jones remain active. Burns has in development films about the Vietnam War, country music, Jackie Robinson (“taking off the shit on the statue of Jackie”), Ernest Hemingway and (as he revealed to The Argonaut by accident) stand-up comedy.
Meanwhile, Jones continues to push “Keep On, Keepin’ On,” the 2014 documentary he produced about late bebop trumpeter Clark Terry, his and Davis’ old mentor, who, at 89, bonded with a 23-year-old blind jazz prodigy.
As “Hollywood Masters”’ third season drew to a close, Jones offered the students some advice: “If you could see it, you could be it” (his personal motto) and “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”