OGDEN, Utah, Feb. 15, 2016 (Gephardt Daily) — Joe McQueen gathered his quartet on stage and fixed his gaze on the 175 or so people seated before him in the Grand Lobby of Ogden’s historic Union Station.
He inhaled, and raised his alto sax to his lips.
Then McQueen filled every corner of the cavernous, 92-year-old hall with a burst of melodic jazz licks, powered by his 96-year-old lungs.
His listeners leaned forward in their folding chairs. Toes tapped against the tile floor. Chins bobbed in time to the music. A young mother trying to sooth her infant bounced the baby to the beat, and the room seemed to shrink as everyone leaning against the walls tilted inward.
That night, McQueen was holding court at the monthly Jazz at the Station, but it was a scene he has created tens of thousands of times before. McQueen, a working jazz saxophonist for more than 80 years, has spent 70 of them entertaining crowds in Ogden and along the Wasatch Front.
Why does he do it?
“‘Cause I like it and I get paid to do it,” he said, with a deep, gravelly laugh. “That’s two reasons. First place I like it, second place, I get paid.”
He’s been playing since an older cousin advised a teen McQueen to take up the sax because he could continue to work even when he was an old man.
“He had no idea how true he was,” McQueen said. “But he didn’t know that and I didn’t. Nobody knew it because at that time I was 14 years old.”
McQueen, born in Texas and raised in Oklahoma, had lost his mother a few months earlier. He was looking for ways to earn money and help support his grandmother.
McQueen was visiting his aunt when her son, Herschel Evans, who played with Count Basie’s band, stopped by and left his saxophone on a bed.
McQueen picked it up and tried to play.
“So he came in the house and I threw the horn on the bed and ran out,” McQueen said, smiling at the memory. “And he said, ‘Come on back, Joe, come on back. Tell me what was you doing,’ I say, ‘I don’t know,’ I says, ‘I don’t know, I just picked that horn up and I don’t know nothing about it.'”
Evans taught McQueen how to run a C major scale, then handed him the horn.
“So I did what he showed me how to do, and he said, ‘Joe, didn’t you tell me just now you never had, it’s the first time I ever had my hands on one of those horns?’ He said, “Well, I don’t believe it. The average person can’t even make a sound when they first try to play a horn.'”
McQueen had natural talent, and could make a living playing the saxophone, his cousin said. And McQueen decided to do just that.
McQueen was 26 and had been playing professional gigs for a dozen years when he landed in Ogden with his bride, Thelma, 22. He and a fellow musician got in a fight and ended up in jail, learning upon release that their band leader had absconded with their pay from playing Ogden.
But O-Town was a jumping town back then, with passengers from 80 or more trains stopping daily at Union Station. So McQueen decided to stay awhile.
“I came here in 1945 to stay two weeks and I’ve been here 70 years,” McQueen said.
Besides playing with his own bands, McQueen has had a chance to perform with Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Hoagie Carmichael, Lester Young and Paul Gonzalves, most of them without leaving the area.
McQueen also picked up other jobs, working for a decade as a redcap at Ogden Station, and teaching automotive skills for years at Weber State University.
Music as power
But it was his music that allowed McQueen to make social changes in his adopted city.
“Back when I first came here I think it was damn near like the deep South,” McQueen said, of the racial segregation he found upon arrival.
McQueen was allowed to play for black audiences or white, not mixed. In most cases, he chose to play for his own African American community, and he always drew a good crowd. He played downstairs at the Porter and Waiters Club, a place created so black people could have a place to eat out.
Before long, white fans were coming to hear McQueen play.
“When that happened the police came immediately to break it up,” he recalled. “But some of them white kids got up in the cops’ face, saying, ‘I am free, white, and 21, and you can’t tell me what to do…. So them cops stood up there with their mouths open.”
With his increasing popularity, owners of white clubs in Salt Lake City started asking McQueen to play.
“And I said, ‘Why should I play for you?'” McQueen said, smiling at the memory. “‘I can play down here and everybody can come, and I can make more money than I can down there.”
The chance to book McQueen eventually convinced club owners to open their doors to all races, and to book McQueen and his band at full pay.
“I’m going to tell you what, money will do a lot of things,” McQueen said. “Money is the root of all evil. That’s what they tell you all the time. Those guys saw what was going on down there because I saw two of three of them come to the club, so they decided, ‘If they can do it down there I can do it, too.'”
McQueen was also the first area musician to form a racially integrated band, he said.
“So that’s what started it, and that’s what really broke down that segregation in Utah,” McQueen said. “A lot of people don’t know that.”
Back at Union Station, McQueen treated his audience to the old standards. His favorite music is that composed by saxophonists, who understand the instrument on the deepest level, as he does.
And most of his concerts also feature a playful original composition known as “The Thing.”
McQueen gave each of his bandmates a chance to shine in solos. McQueen lists fellow quartet members ─ Don Keipp on drums, Brad Wright on guitar and Ryan Conger on organ ─ as among the best musicians he has worked with.
“When I look back on all the things that happened in Ogden since I got here, there has been so many changes,” he said.
McQueen has been honored many times, not only for his jazz stylings, but for his role in Utah history.
Sometimes he is embarrassed by the endless attention, which he says he cannot understand.
“That’s the thing what gets me,” he said. “I don’t do a damn thing but play a horn. That’s all.”