Q&A: Booker T. Jones On His First Visit To New York, Scoring Films, And What Working With Kanye West Might Be Like

Booker T. Jones is in a cab from the airport heading into Brooklyn, where he'll perform a free show tonight under the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn festival. In tandem with his band, Booker T. & The M.G.s, the multi-instrumentalist laid down the grooves behind some of the '60s most revered soul artists, including working as the Stax label's in-house band during the era of Otis Redding and Albert King. Before he was dropped off at a Smith Street hotel, we checked in with him about his early days hitting the New York night scene with Quincy Jones, being sampled, and working with ?uestlove.

Can you remember the very first time you came to New York?

Yeah, it was when I came here for an interview for, oh my god, a woman's magazine like Good Housekeeping or something like that, like a conservative woman's magazine. I stayed right there on Central Park, 56th and Central Park. It was pretty overwhelming. I just came in for that one interview and for a Memphis boy it was pretty overwhelming.

What sort of questions were you asked in the interview?

That was what was amazing! She had no idea where I came from or what it was like to be an African-American playing blues and soul in Memphis. The questions were just... they were so unrelated that I can't even remember them. We were two fish out of water, believe me. It was for Ladies' Home Journal, something like that.

How did the article come out?

You know, it wasn't a magazine that I would have ever seen except at a grocery store! I think they did try to send me the article, but that was 50 years ago.

What were your first impressions of New York then?

New York was pretty sophisticated. We were living on the west side there and I bought a cashmere overcoat—I spent all my money on a cashmere overcoat 'cause it was pretty cold here. They had so many dance halls, which they didn't have in Memphis. I came back the next time with Quincy Jones and had a better introduction to the city with him because he took me around to some clubs and showed me the Thad Jones band on my second trip around.

Where did Quincy Jones take you?

I think he took me to the Village Vanguard or one of the top jazz clubs. It was a venue the Thad Jones band was playing at, and some place that Quincy would have either played himself or gone to. He was a sophisticated guy. I mean, he was a celebrity and I was a little kid from Memphis, and he had money and clothes and flash and a suite at a very high class hotel and a beautiful wife. It was like a country bumpkin with a New York ambassador! He was producing, he was a big wig here, producing Ray Charles and he had sessions with big bands and was a top of the ladder arranger. So I was riding around with him in limousines. It was a good time!

Did Quincy Jones give you any good advice on your own career?

He was a mentor for me, especially when I got to California. When I got my first movie score, Quincy bought me instruction books and told me how to synch the beats-per-minute to the frames-per-second and gave me invaluable information. He was very generous to me in terms of money and information. I got a job that I didn't really know how to do, scoring the film Uptight in 1968.

What was the hardest thing about scoring the film?

The hardest thing was they dumped off all these reels of film—I was staying at my sister's house—and they dropped off a Movieola machine. It wasn't like now where you can go into a computer and use code. There was two pedals, so I had to push each reel with each foot; one operated the reel with the music and one was the reel with the film. And I had to be sure when I got to the recording studio that the film was in tempo with the music, so I had to figure out how many beats-per-minute so that things would synch and play at the right place!

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