“Holy shit, Joe McQueen is real,” thought Brad Wheeler when, years ago at an Ogden bar, he first met the saxophone player, who turns 94 this month.
“Later on, I called him up and asked him if it would be cool if we hung out, and he said, ‘What are you doing right now?’ ” KRCL’s drive-time host says. “So I got over there, and Joe said that he was trying to lay some concrete.”
“I put his ass to work,” McQueen says with a gravelly laugh.
“This floor,” Wheeler says, pointing to the ground inside a 10-foot-by-10-foot shack/practice space that sits behind McQueen’s home in Ogden, “is the story of Joe and I becoming friends.”
McQueen is more like a foundation than a floor, though. He’s like a wizened grandfather to Wheeler, and a role model to countless other people community-wide, whether at his job as a driver and caregiver to the elderly (usually a decade or more younger than McQueen) or through playing jazz standards, Wheeler says. During McQueen’s 71 years in Ogden, his career has run the gamut from gigging with jazz’s biggest names to being the first black man to perform in Utah’s white clubs.
“What I can’t imagine is why all these peoples is making all this hoopla about Joe McQueen,” says McQueen, who still has a spunk and bite to him. “I’m just another guy. I don’t do nothing no different than nobody else. The thing about it is people get the idea that I’m an old man and still doing things. I can’t think of nothing else.
“I’ve been called a legend,” he continues, “but I thought legends was dead.”
This year, McQueen will be honored at A Never Ending Salute to Joe McQueen at Peery’s Egyptian Theater, a night of music and storytelling. But the accolades started pouring forth in 2002, when former Gov. Michael Leavitt declared April 18 to be Joe McQueen Day. It’s since become an annual event.
“I’ve got the proclamation right there,” says the dismissive McQueen, pointing to an old gym locker. “I got all kind of awards, man. I got that thing full of those damn things.”
There are countless relics scattered around his weathered blue armchair—a fan-made painting (with McQueen’s left hand having six fingers), news clippings, notes, etc.—all testifying to a solid career at the center of Ogden’s jazz scene since the 1940s.
McQueen was born in Dallas and raised in Ardmore, Okla., where he began playing music in school—first on tuba, then on to saxophone—and received training from his cousin, Herschel Evans, tenor sax player in Count Basie’s band. McQueen began playing professionally at 16. Soon after, he took to the jazz circuit, touring the country. In his career, he’s played with and met the who’s who of the jazz elite, from Louis Armstrong to T-Bone Walker, Charlie Parker to Ray Charles and Lester Young to Hoagy Carmichael—and he’s outlived them all.
On tour with his band in winter 1942, McQueen stopped in Ogden, which happened to be a fateful performance, a happy accident for jazz in Ogden.
“Sumbitch [the bandleader] got paid and didn’t pay nobody; then he gambled away all our money,” McQueen says, adding that he stayed in Ogden but wasn’t “stranded” there, as others have reported. “As long as you’ve got some cash in your pocket and your lady by your side, you ain’t stranded nowhere,” he previously told IndieOgdenUtah.com. Luckily, McQueen had with him some healthy savings and his wife, Thelma. McQueen became the new bandleader and, with him at the helm, the band gigged near constantly, including their residency at Porters and Waiters Club.
“Jazz hasn’t changed that damn much since then,” McQueen says of the hard-bop and swing style of jazz he plays. He remembers and plays songs from high school (78 years ago)—“It’s not on no damn paper”—and needs only play a song once or twice to commit it to memory. “It comes from here,” he says, pointing to his head, then his heart. “I don’t know how I do it. I just thank the good Lord.”
To this day, McQueen plays with his heart more than his head. “The thing about it is, man, is when I got up there and play, I play what I feel. I don’t just try to make some notes,” says McQueen, who is more comfortable talking about playing with feeling than what it feels like to have a day named after him.
“The truth is: Joe hates awards,” Wheeler says. “Joe hates attention. He really does. But Joe does like to inspire and educate people.
“Joe McQueen Day really isn’t so much for Joe,” he continues. “It’s more for everyone else. He really touches a lot of people. How can you not be inspired by a man that’s 94 years old?”
A NEVER ENDING SALUTE TO JOE MCQUEEN
Peery’s Egyptian Theater
2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden
Tuesday, April 23, 7 p.m.