SALT LAKE CITY — Saxophonist Joe McQueen turns 99 years old on Wednesday, and he wants to make one thing clear to the people of Utah: As long as he’s alive, jazz music is here to stay.
“I’ve been (in Utah) going on 73 years, and there ain’t never been a period when I wasn’t playing here. I've been playing jazz all the time,” McQueen said. “I’ve been here 73 years and I’ve been playing all the time, now how … could jazz have gone away? … It didn’t go nowhere.”
While blowing into his tenor sax might be more challenging as he inches closer to a century of life experience, McQueen shows no sign of slowing down — in fact, he still plays three-hour gigs and performs regularly.
His next show comes Thursday, May 31, at Salt Lake’s Gallivan Center — a day after his 99th birthday. It’s fitting for McQueen to celebrate by sharing his love of jazz and the instrument he’s played passionately for the last 84 years.
‘You can make money playing horn’
McQueen learned early on that playing the saxophone could be a moneymaker, but to his dismay, he started out playing bass tuba for his high school band since the school in his Ardmore, Oklahoma, hometown didn’t have a saxophone.
“How many people have you seen standing up making solos with a bass tuba?” McQueen said. “With a saxophone, you play melodies that sound good, you know, and it’s just an instrument that you can do so much with. A tuba, I can’t see (that happening). And you gotta carry that thing around. … I didn’t like it right from the start.”
He did know he liked the feel and sound of the saxophone right from the start, thanks to his older cousin, Herschel Evans, a tenor saxophonist who performed for a few years with the Count Basie Orchestra. It was Evans who gave McQueen his first sax lesson as a teenager in the 1930s and told him he could make money playing the instrument.
“He had it on the bed and I picked it up messing with it, and he came in and showed me how to run a C major scale. He put the arm around my neck, put the strap on and placed my fingers on the horn … and somehow or another that stuck,” he said. “From then on, I wanted to play the horn and I have been playing it now for about 84 years.”
Inspired by that lesson, McQueen opted to quit other extracurriculars, including basketball and football, in order to focus more on music. It also helped that fellow Oklahoman and future Harlem Globetrotters player Marques Haynes came to Ardmore and delivered his school a serious defeat.
“He came down to Ardmore and they beat us so bad,” McQueen said with a laugh. “That helped me to quit playing basketball ’cause I never wanted to get beat that bad doing nothin’ again.”
With his full attention on music, under the direction of his music teacher Mr. Jackson, McQueen began performing gigs and earning money as a high school student.
“I (thought), ‘Well, that’s cool that you can make money playing horn but you can’t make money playing (sports),'" McQueen said. "So I used to take some of them football players over to the store across the street from the school and buy them burgers and things with the money I made from music.”
An unexpected home in Utah
McQueen opted to abandon the constant touring and on-the-road life familiar to musicians when he became a married man at 25. He married his wife and Oklahoma native Thelma on June 10, 1944 — four days following D-Day during World War II.
“After I got married, I decided I wasn't going on the road,” he said. “You don’t go off when you got a wife, for two or three months on the road. That don’t make sense.”
Next month will mark the couple’s 74th anniversary, and 73 of those years have passed in their Ogden home — a feat especially impressive considering they were only supposed to stay there for two weeks.
Performing a stint at one of Ogden’s 25th Street jazz clubs in 1945, McQueen said things got out of hand when he and his drummer got in a fight on the bandstand and wound up in jail for several days. Upon being released, McQueen discovered that some of the band’s earnings had been gambled away. But the musician wants to set the record straight: He wasn’t left stranded and broke as some stories have reported, and he could’ve left Ogden if he wanted to — he’d won $380 from a slot machine in Reno on his way to Utah, after all. For McQueen and his wife, the summer weather and fishing and swimming at Pineview Reservoir were reasons enough to stay.
“We wound up staying here and I’m glad we did,” he said. “I doubt I would’ve still been alive if I’d have left and gone someplace else.”
Settling in Ogden in late 1945, McQueen went on to meet and play with jazz luminaries who would pass through the northern Utah town, as it was then a major railroad stop for routes between California and Chicago.
He recalls Duke Ellington’s days performing at Ogden’s White City Ballroom and how even though there was a hotel across the street from the ballroom, Ellington and his band members would have to come to the all-black Porters and Waiters Club on Ogden’s 25th Street for a place to stay overnight.
He talked tempo changes with Charlie Parker and ended up becoming close to Count Basie, who McQueen said became especially friendly when he realized that McQueen’s cousin was his former tenor saxophonist.
“I was swingin’ with Basie all the way until he died,” McQueen said.
McQueen still remembers the last time Basie performed in the Beehive State — at the Hotel Utah (now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building).
“He was in a wheelchair then. I used to tell him a long time ago about (the dangers of) smoking, but it didn’t do any good,” McQueen said, adding that he himself used to smoke anywhere from a pack to a pack-and-a-half a day. “I quit back in ’62. You can quit if you just have enough willpower. I quit smoking, drinking and everything else. … I had a stronger will to live than I did to keep on smoking.”
A living piece of history
As McQueen blows into his tenor sax Thursday night, it might be hard to believe that a man so deeply connected to Utah’s music scene has had time for any other pursuits in life, and yet, he worked on B-17 carburetors at the Hill Air Force Base, was a mechanic for White Motors and taught automotive technology at Weber State University for a couple of years — all without ever earning a college degree. In 1975, he added a garage to the back of his house and worked on cars until he was 80 years old.
But McQueen said these other pursuits were all day jobs, leaving his nights free for music. When the saxophonist steps onto the Gallivan Center stage with his quartet Thursday night, it will serve as a symbol of a bygone era and a living testament that for the foreseeable future, jazz in Utah is alive and well.2 comments on this story
“Most everybody I start talking about, they’re already dead," McQueen said. "… It’s amazing how many people that I’ve known that are already dead and gone and I’m still here. It’s just amazing. … I try to encourage people to try to do right ’cause if you do right, well, the good Lord, that’s what he looks on. He don’t care about you doing all that wrong. He wants you to try to do right.”
If you go …
What: Joe McQueen Quartet
When: Thursday, May 31, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main
How much: Free