Introducing: Quincy Jones’ Qwest TV

Quincy Jones and TV producer Reza Ackbaraly

Quincy Jones is many things – a 27-time Grammy award winner, TV and movie producer, actor, record company head honcho, magazine founder, and arranger and music producer of the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller. But at his core Jones is essentially a jazz musician. His passion for the music remains as fresh as the night his 14-year-old fingertips flew across the trumpet keys alongside Ray Charles during a late-night bebop session at a jiving jazz club in downtown 1940s Seattle.

Seventy years later, at the age of 84 and not content to hang up his musical boots, the music maestro has created Qwest TV – the world’s first subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platform dedicated to jazz and jazz-inspired music. And he’s determined to take the music to the masses.

“I always wanted to make sure that people in the U.S. and across the world could have access to high quality content: both jazz and jazz-inspired,” says Jones. The idea for Qwest TV had been in gestation since 2014. Jones met French TV producer Reza Ackbaraly – also music programmer for France’s prestigious jazz festival, Jazz à Vienne – who was working for European-based music channel Mezzo TV. They instantly connected over the common desire to elevate the profile of jazz and to expand its appeal to a wider audience.

True, in some quarters, jazz has suffered unfairly under the myopic misconception that it is the preserve of lofty musical elitists. Though it’s seen some sparkling moments in the spotlight, it’s then left the stage to recharge its mojo. Qwest’s mission, therefore, is “to bring exciting music from around the world back to jazz and music lovers who have yet to discover it,” says Ackbaraly. “Its influence is everywhere; in pop, in electro, in hip-hop,” he adds. “With Qwest, jazz is going to be at the source of everything we do – but we also want to highlight its influence on diverse forms of music, the connections between the different genres and how its narrative is evolving with the technological age.”

Jones concurs, and feels that such is the shape-shifting nature of the art form, jazz’s wide-ranging influences can capture anyone with a willing ear. “I always have to refer back to the breakthrough in the 50s and early 60s when Herbie did ‘Watermelon Man’ and Miles did Bitches Brew,” he says. “It really was a turning point, and I believe we are going to continue to have turning points as people discover how jazz can connect in ways that other genres haven’t been able to.”

His forecast is, quite possibly, already starting to ferment. Hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly featured the groove-tight talents of Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington – both of whom have idiom-bending albums under their belts. And an influx of nu-school jazz titans such as soul-jazz balladeer Gregory Porter, neo jazz-fusioneer Esperanza Spalding and experimental organ grinder Cory Henry are wowing a new generation of devotees.

Announced at this year’s Montreux Jazz Festival, Qwest TV will debut in October 2017. Subscribers will gain access to exclusive hand-picked content by industry professionals, such as concerts, documentaries, interviews and archival footage in HD or 4K for £6 per month. Supported by a stellar cast of artists, producers and venues, Qwest has already secured international rights to over 400 titles and plans to acquire a further 600 within its first three years.

Qwest, says Ackbaraly, will also be producing its own content. His expertise in running the New Jazz & World Music department of Mezzo TV stands the channel in good stead to produce high-tech, cutting-edge material, which will focus on new and exciting developments within the global pantheon of jazz.

With a roll-call of top-shelf talent cued-up for its launch, viewers can expect to stream unique performances from a dizzying array of retro and contemporary artists. From Billie Holiday to Esperanza Spalding, Sun Ra to Kamasi Washington, Bill Evans to Flying Lotus, and Ravi Shankar’s flying sitar solos to the traditions of Cuban Santeria, Jones and Ackbaraly’s Franco-American project is doubtless going to cruise the musical universe in a fashion that BBC 6 Music’s Gilles Peterson coined: “joining the dots.”

I ask Jones whether he can see foresee any specific styles of jazz re-emerging. “I read somewhere that most creativity is a combination of two unrelated elements that you put together and make them work. A lot of creativity is based on that, especially in music,” he says. “It’s not about a specific style of jazz re-emerging, it’s more so about the fact that everything is built upon what came before. So I would say it’s going to be an amalgamation of the different forms of jazz in general.”

Jones’ unswerving affection and respect for African, Brazilian and Cuban music is well documented. These countries’ rich musical traditions have consistently acted as a creative spur to his music. They have informed and underscored some of his most striking work. Their influence is there in the playful Brazilian waltz of ‘Soul Bossa Nova’. It’s there in the thrusting Cuban brass that flavours ‘Ai no Corrida’. It’s there in the ecstatic African-style chants adorning Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna be Startin’ Somethin’’.

“I absolutely love how it’s all intertwined. Cuban music’s roots come from Yoruba and Brazilian music’s roots come from Angola. There is so much history in these places and they never stop growing,” he says. “The voices from South Africa mixed with the polyrhythmic percussions from West Africa were what came out of slavery – and it has lasted. It has stood the test of time and has been there for us in the darkest and brightest of days.”

Browsing Qwest’s press release, it comes as no surprise, then, to see that – as well as straight-ahead jazz – the channel’s inaugural roster is positively brimming with content that passes the sonorous torch across the globe: Paco de Lucia (Spain); Oumou Sangaré (Mali); Milton Nascimento (Brazil); Manu Dibango (Cameroon) are just a snapshot of what’s to come.

Another of Qwest’s objectives reaches into the world of education. Ackbaraly says they have plans to collaborate with 250 universities worldwide, including esteemed institutions such as Berklee, NYU and Paris’ Sorbonne.

Quincy Jones and TV producer Reza Ackbaraly

Photo: Quincy Jones with French TV producer Reza Ackbaraly (via YouTube)

Visiting UCLA last year, he had been puzzled to find the music library which holds exceptional resources for jazz on CD and DVD – once teeming with students – now hardly in use. “Students now go to YouTube to do their research,” he says. “Firstly, the quality is terrible. Secondly, it’s not curated.” His concern stems not from the library’s inactivity – times and trends change – but because it has not been replaced by anything resembling an equivalent.

He says his friend Danilo Perez, a lecturer at Berklee School of Music, stands in an amphitheatre in front of 500 students showing YouTube videos of Bud Powell trying to emphasise Powell’s piano technique. “It’s crazy,” he chuckles, “you have the adverts constantly popping up everywhere which disturb the performance.”

So for Qwest, what will this entail? Their response is to offer music schools and universities an annual subscription. This will provide students with free access to their extensive, curated catalogue – an unparalleled resource as a research facility, and a high-calibre content provider for students to exploit in their presentations and performances.

Jones’ unbridled zeal for the music and his belief in its positive and unifying force is irrepressible. “I have witnessed first-hand the power of jazz – and all of its off-spring from the blues and R&B to pop, rock and hip-hop, to tear down walls and bring the world together,” he commented. “I believe that a hundred years from now, when people look back at the 20th century, they will view Bird, Miles and Dizzy as our Mozarts, Bachs, Chopins and Tchaikovskys. It’s my hope that Qwest TV will serve to carry forth and build on the great legacy that is jazz for many generations to come."

Branded by BBC Radio 3’s Kevin Le Gendre as “the Netflix of jazz”, Qwest TV is undoubtedly set to become one of the most inspirational developments in music media in decades. Jones and Ackbaraly are akin to two time-travelling jazz messengers with the keys to the archives and the future of jazz-inspired music tucked in their back pockets, and for music lovers the world over, their exciting new venture is about to unlock the technicolour vaults – “from bebop to laptop.”

– Interview by Gareth Jones

To find out more about Qwest TV, please visit their website: qwest.tv

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