Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Riffing About a Century of Jazz: A Conversation with Joe McQueen at 88
Born in Dallas and raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma, McQueen developed an early affinity for the saxophone (after a brief try at the tuba) under the tutelage of his cousin, Herschel Evans, a tenor saxophone player in Count Basie’s band. He started playing professionally at age 16 and soon traveled on the jazz circuit through much of the United States, eventually settling in Ogden, where he still resides—and plays—today. His musical gigs read like a who’s who of jazz, ranging from Lester Young and Charlie Parker to Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Ray Charles, among many others—musicians drawn to Ogden partly because of McQueen’s name in the close-knit world of jazz. Joe was the first African-American musician in Utah to play in segregated clubs and to use his musical gift early on for political means, advocating integration and multi-ethnic bands whenever possible. The following interview, culled from several sessions with McQueen in his rehearsal room (where Sparky, Joe’s lively Chihuahua, kept us wonderful company), tells his musical story, a story of endurance and commitment to his art, and a story peppered with anecdotes that convey, as only an eye-witness can, the excitement of Ogden’s jazz culture in the 40s and beyond.
McQueen, however, also had and continues to have another life. Paralleling his musical career, McQueen in the 70s and 80s also worked as an automotive technology instructor at Weber State University, a skill that, like his music, goes back to his formative years in the South. For the past several years, he has also been working as a driver and volunteer care-giver for the infirm and elderly often two and three decades his junior. Blowing into his saxophone and memorizing songs, he says, has helped him maintain a sound body and sound mind.
For decades, McQueen was largely known only to insiders in the Northern Utah musical scene, but these days, after what seems like a half-century of neglect, his impact on the culture of jazz and beyond has gradually become more widely acknowledged. Following a series of local and regional recognitions, former governor Michael Leavitt (now the Secretary of Health and Human Services) in 2002 declared 18 April as the official "Joe McQueen Day" for the state of Utah. McQueen has also been the subject of several recent feature articles in national newspapers and of a documentary film entitled King of O-Town. In more senses than one, McQueen is a witness to the century whose experiences read (or better, sound) like an oral report on the cultural history of 20th century America.
McQueen is generosity incarnate, giving freely of his time and knowledge without expecting anything in return. We spent hours shooting the breeze on life, music, and virtually everything under the (Utah) sun. A skilled raconteur with a voice as smooth and melodious as the sound of his saxophone, I was privy to a living legend reminiscing about a life of fullness and hardship. Thank you, Joe, and thank you to Dr. Don Keipp of the Department of Performing Arts at Weber State University for introducing Joe to me in the first place.
Copies of McQueen’s most recent CD, Joe McQueen and Friends, Ten at 86, can be sampled and obtained at https://www.joemcqueen.com.
Joe, could you retrace for us your journey from the South, Texas and Oklahoma to the American West and then back east to Utah, as it were? You were in California first and then you came back west, back east, rather.
When I left Oklahoma the time I came to Utah, I had been traveling in the South and back east with different bands. But when I came here I came from California. Before I went to California, I was in Missouri and Iowa, back in Chicago, New York, back as far as Boston and all through there, you know, playing with different groups. But then in 1945, two guys that were playing in the band I came to Ogden with were in California, and they sent for me to come join them. I wanted to more or less get out of Oklahoma, so I did. I guess I was in California for the better part of a year before we left and came to Utah. And when we got to Utah, well, I was really disappointed at first because there was two feet of snow here, and I had never seen that much snow in my whole life. Of course, I saw a lot of snow on the way here because we came from San José, California. We came up through the northern part of the state and down through Reno.
What about the story of the gambler-musician losing his money in Las Vegas that brought you to Utah?
Some of the articles people have written about us, about the guy gambling off the money in Las Vegas—well, we didn’t go anywhere near Las Vegas. I hate people writing things that are not true. We were never in Las Vegas—he lost his money right here in Ogden, downstairs in the Porters and Waiters Club. On the far side of it they had a pool hall, and over on the other side they gambled. So this guy, Terence Holden—we called him T Holden—he gambled off the money and nobody knew that he had done that. When we tried to get paid, he didn’t have the money, and we found out from the guy that we were playing for that he had paid T, and T didn’t pay anyone. So that left us in a bind because Jimmy and his wife and Ernie, the piano player—they didn’t have money like I had.
You see, when we were in California one time, I got off the bandstand, walked all out through the crowd, sat on a lady’s lap, got on the bar, went outside and came back playing my horn and all that kind of stuff, and people just went nuts over that. So the boss man said he’d come to see me that Monday, and I thought, well, if he fires me I’ll go back to Oklahoma, or something. But instead of that, he came out and told me, you don’t have to do that every night during week nights, but on the weekend when we have a good crowd, you can do that. So he was paying me twice as much money as he was paying the other guys because I did this stuff. So I had more money than they had. And besides, when we got to Reno, I had never played a slot machine before, and I saw this guy playing one until he finally got mad and walked away from it cursing. Well, another guy was sitting up there and said, "somebody should play that machine. That guy put a lot of money in it. It might hit." In those days, they were putting real silver dollars in them—the real silver, no slugs the way they do now. So I went and got me a roll of silver dollars, $20, and went over there. I think I hit two or three one time and then I hit five and what not. I messed around there and I hit that machine for $380!
That certainly gave you some cash on which to survive for a while, in the event you couldn’t get a gig. Was it partly a question of financial security, a windfall to fall back on, if you will?
That was in 1945, I think it must have been about the 5th or 6th of December because we got here on the 7th. So I said, "What am I going to do with all these silver dollars?," and they said, "You can go over there and cash them in. They’ll give you paper money for them." Until this day I wish I’d had kept all of those, man, because they’re worth a lot more money now. When we got to Ogden, I had that money, plus I had been making extra money playing, and my wife and I, we were the kind of people who liked to save a little change anyway. I wasn’t on dope or doing a whole lot of drinking, so we had a few dollars.
You notice I’ve got a diamond ring on? I’ve been wearing a diamond ring now for, I guess, seventy years. Right after my cousin told me about playing a horn, he also told me, "Get you a good diamond ring. A pretty good one. Just put back some money and get you a diamond ring. If you get in trouble sometime and you don’t have any money, that’s something you can always go hock." So I wear a diamond ring and, after T messed up and we decided to get rid of him, was ready to go hock it so we could pay our rent and buy some food. In the meantime, though, I got another job at the Pioneer Tavern, later called the Kokomo Club. We played with three pieces there for a bit, and then I got this kid out of Salt Lake City to play bass—Rosamond Offutt. So from then on, I’ve had some kind of band.
What was a jazz musician’s income at the time? Can you give us a ball park figure of what you got paid initially and how that has changed over time?
When I first came to Ogden, the pay was ten dollars, more or less—a fortune—and that was for the night. That was about what you made. And you played more time and worked more, but you got paid less. Every gig you played was just about four hours then, and you looked forward to getting ten dollars. So that’s about two and a half dollars an hour. But now, I don’t think about playing for less than a hundred bucks for three hours. I remember when we started getting fifteen bucks, and then you’d get twenty five dollars. And then when the pay got up to where you were making fifty bucks a gig, well, then it started getting to be more or less worth while. And now when you get a hundred, a hundred twenty-five, a hundred fifty bucks for three hours or something like that, it makes you feel a little better about it, especially for me, as old as I am.
Before you came out West, you were playing with different groups on the East Coast, Boston, and New York…
Well, the band I was playing with, we were out of Oklahoma. (There is not a guy who played in the band with me back in those days who is still alive. When you live to get as old as I am, you outlive just about all of your friends). We went all back east, but we didn’t go down south. I told those guys, "I’m not going down south. It’s too rough down there." And even back east, some of the places we went through—Missouri, for example—things weren’t too good for black musicians. Certain places you couldn’t stay and then certain restaurants you couldn’t eat in—it was not a pleasant thing. I played quite a bit in Oklahoma and northern Texas, and then in Kansas and even in Colorado before I went to California.
Any particular reminiscences about a black musician’s life on the road in the South?
One time when we were in Oklahoma, we’d played a job down in Amarillo, Texas, and we had a guy who called himself a booking agent. So he books us for Amarillo and says he wants us to play the next night in Seattle, Washington! I told him, "Look, man, we don’t need you no more. You don’t know what you’re doing. Do you have any idea what a distance that is? To try to drive from down in Texas, to Seattle, Washington, and be there the next night? Are you crazy?" At that time they didn’t have flights flying like they have now. So I got rid of that guy and called the other guy in Seattle that we were supposed to play for. He said, "Well, maybe you guys can make it next weekend," and I said, "That looks like a winner." We could probably do that, you know. We drove all the way across, and we stopped and played in Omaha, a place in Montana, in Portland and then Seattle. We played three gigs on the way over there, and we made it alright.
What was your mode of transportation? Did you have a car or go by (segregated) bus or train?
Well, that was the first time I bought a Cadillac. I bought a 1947 Cadillac. This guy in Oklahoma had it sitting up on blocks, because he said he had a kid and he wasn’t going to drive no more. The car didn’t have very many miles on it, but it needed a water pump and a starter. What had happened is, he had sold the starter off the car, and those ‘47 Cadillacs were kind of hard on water pumps. Anyway, he told me he’d get a water pump and a starter for me and I could pay him later—he’d trust me, you know. I’ve been working on cars since I was quite young and so put the water pump and the starter in myself. The car started right up. I drove it and we put a lot of miles on it, and from that time on I started liking Cadillac automobiles. I guess since I’ve been in Ogden I must have owned 15 or 20 of them.
But you came to Ogden on a bus, not in a Cadillac? Can you recall your experience of coming to town?
Yes, when we got back to Oklahoma, I decided to let my cousin have the car because we were going to California. And after I got here, my wife and I decided that we’d stay here. She came and joined me in California before I left from there. On our trip here, we got to Sacramento, and we were sitting in the bus station and a guy came along—he was like a Red Cap on the railroad—looked at me and said, "Aren’t you Joe McQueen from Ardmore, Oklahoma?" And I said, "Yeah, I am," and he said, "Do you remember me? I’m the guy that you took home to bury…," and as soon as he said that I remembered him. He worked at the pool hall down there and didn’t have any money or anything when his mother died. So I borrowed my uncle’s car and—because I had pretty nice clothes—I let him have a suit, shoes, and everything else, and I drove him to Wewoka, Oklahoma, to his mother’s funeral, and brought him back. Anyway, that guy saw me and remembered me. He asked me where we were heading, and I said, "We’re going to Ogden, Utah." And he said, "Well, I can’t do nothing for your band, but you and your wife, instead of having to sit up here in this bus station all night, I’ll take you down to my apartment, and you can just be comfortable for the night and get a good night’s sleep before that ride tomorrow." So, we did, and he had his girlfriend come over to fix us some food and everything. That lets you know that you don’t know what’s going to happen in this life. If you treat people good and do something for somebody, that same person might not return the favor, but somebody else will.
What goes around comes around.
Yes. We had a chance to take a bath, his girlfriend cooked us breakfast, and a taxi cab took us down to the bus station. And when we got to the bus station, the taxi cab driver said that the man told him to give me this envelope, and when I finally opened it and looked in there he had $100 in there—five $20 bills—and told me thanks for all I did for him. Then we got on to Ogden, and that’s another reason why I had some extra money.
Are you glad you ended up staying in Utah? Any regrets?
Well, one of the main reasons why I’m glad I stayed in Utah is because I’ve had cancer of the throat twice, and I was operated on at the University of Utah Hospital and never had to do any chemo or any of that stuff. Believe it or not, my voice is different now because they cut out two-thirds of my vocal chords. Ray Charles used to remember me by my voice. When my voice had changed since I had last seen him, he still knew who I was, but my voice had changed. That guy was a genius. Oh man, did I appreciate the way that guy could sing. And what he could do with tunes.
He too had a big start in Seattle. You were out there, too.
Ray Charles, to my idea, when it came to making a song really, really say something, I don’t think there’s anybody that could beat Ray Charles. On top of that, a lot of people know that Ray Charles played the piano, but he also played the organ and the saxophone. That’s why they called him a genius. He could rehearse a band and know who played a wrong note over here. He’d stop that rehearsal and say so and so and so and so.
Didn’t you have somebody in your band who became one of The Raylettes?
Yeah, a little girl who lived out here in South Ogden; Jean King was her name. My wife used to have to go with us so we could take her on gigs, because she was so young—she was only 14 years old when she sang with my band. That’s how I met Ray, through Jean. Ray came out to Lagoon, and so I’m standing there and Jean sneaked up behind me and put her hands over my eyes (laughter). "Mr. McQueen," she said, "I want you to come back here and meet Ray." So I went back there and met him, and then we talked. He said, "I’ve heard a lot about you. This young lady got a good start. She says you got her on the way." And I said, "I don’t know about that, she could really sing," and he responded, "But she had to have somebody to sing with." And so he got her with The Raylettes, and then he came back to Salt Lake City shortly thereafter. Then, 15 or 16 years later, I saw him up in Seattle, and he remembered me by my voice. That just kind of threw me, you know.
Is your wife Thelma involved in your music at all? Is she an inspiration to your playing?
She does everything thing she can. She makes sure that I have white shirts or whatever. She can get me ready to go on a gig, so she has really been, well, what they say, "behind." I don’t know how good a man I am, but behind every good man is a good woman. (Laughter.) I’ll tell you something else. Now people marvel at the fact that my wife and I have been married for so long. But married people just live longer than single people. I believe people shouldn’t call each other names. My wife’s name is Thelma, I call her Thel, for short. If I should happen to get a little peeved at her about something, instead of me calling her something else, I’ll call her Thelma. And when I call her Thelma, she knows that I’m a little bit tee’d off at her (laughter). And sometimes in my church they want people like me to explain to younger people what they should do to coexist with their mate. So I tell them there are two things that I want you to remember: forget "I" and "me," and think about "we" and "us." Then, don’t ever say something to your mate that you can’t take back, because once it comes out of here, you can’t put it back in there. My wife and I have gone on through all these almost 63 years—June the 10th will be our anniversary—and until this very day the only thing that I’ve ever called her besides Thel is Thelma (laughter). If you have some kind of confrontation, once that’s over with, don’t ever bring it up again. You’ve already hashed it once, don’t hash it over. Cold hash isn’t too good, anyway (laughter).
A moment ago you mentioned longevity. You’re really healthy both physically and mentally. I’d like for you to say a little more about the physical exertion of playing music. How has that contributed to your well-being? Is it a matter of lung capacity and memory?
I’ll say it like this: if you’re playing a musical instrument—especially an instrument that you have to blow—you’ve got to breathe deep to do that. Breathing deeply is what they want you to do for exercising, you know. And then I remember tunes from 50 or 60 years ago. I have them in my head. I don’t have to read music. I get those in there. You’re using your brain, you’ve got to remember those things. I read in an article about musicians that you find few of them that have dementia and Alzheimer’s. And I guess it’s because you have to use your brain a lot playing music. I’ve been lucky enough not to have any kind of arthritis in my hands. I think I’ve got it in my right knee because it hurts like everything, but my fingers haven’t given me any trouble. So, music has to play a big part of how my health has been. A tenor saxophone is not the easiest thing to play. You’ve got to put out quite a bit of air to make it work. Other than having that cancer twice, I haven’t had too many other problems.
Joe, let me come back to your beginnings as a musician. You mentioned earlier that Ray Charles suggested that you were helpful in getting Jean King on to her own career, and that, in turn, could also be said of your cousin Herschel Evans, who helped put you on your musical feet.
Well, my dad had 12 brothers and only one sister, and that was Herschel’s mother. She was my aunt who lived in northern Texas, and I would go and visit her quite a bit. Herschel came home to visit his mother and had his horn on the bed. So I picked his horn up—I didn’t even have a strap on my neck—and kept up some noise, and Herschel came in and told me all about reeds, how they have to be wet before they’ll play right, and so forth. He started to give me a lesson about a saxophone before he ever tried to show me. Then he said, "Now I’m going to show you how to play a C major scale on here," and I watched his fingers and he started up, going C D E F G A B C. So I looked at it and he said, "Did you get that?" And I said, "I don’t know; do that again." Well, he did it again and then took the horn and put my fingers on there and said, "You start down here and do this," and so I went ahead and went on down and ran that scale. He said, "You mean to tell me that you never have played a horn before?," and I said, "This is the first time that I’ve ever got my hands on one." He shook his head and said, "Boy, you’re a natural; you go and get a horn. You stop that football and that basketball, you can’t make no money." And he is the one that started me with this diamond ring business.
Did you start out with the saxophone?
No, I didn’t start out on a saxophone. I played a bass tuba first. When I went to school, Mr. Jackson—that was my music teacher’s name—didn’t have a saxophone for me to play, but he said, "you’re a big guy, Joe. We could use a tuba player. I’ll teach you how to play the tuba, and then you can go from there and eventually you can work up to a saxophone." The reason why I quit playing the tuba was because we had one of those long marches, and back then they didn’t have these light-weight tubas they have now. This thing was a great big old brass tuba with an old brass mouthpiece. God, I hated that tuba (laughter). Because I had been playing that heavy thing, I wanted to play the clarinet. I went to my uncle, and together we went down to a hock shop where he bought me a clarinet for $10. So I started off on clarinet, and Mr. Jackson and another man by the name of Jack Massey taught me and had me running scales. I was playing clarinet alright. And then, one day, I happened to be going by that hock shop and saw this $10 saxophone in the case. It was painted black, but I got it with my uncle’s blessings.
Was it a tenor sax?
No, it was an alto sax. I played alto for years. When I write my name, my middle initial is an "L"—well, that was for Lee, Joe Lee McQueen. Lee was my uncle, Lee McGee. I’ve got to put this in there because he, to my mind, was as good a man as I ever knew. Because he helped me buy that saxophone, and because he never ever raised his voice to anyone—me, or anyone else. He always was a real easy-going, nice person, just like my grandmother. I guess God just blessed me. He blessed me in so many ways. He blessed me to have the grandmother I had, he blessed me to have the uncle I had. Even after my mother died, when I was fourteen, I didn’t suffer like a lot of kids because my aunts and my uncle and my grandmother took over and helped me.
What kind of music would you play in your High School band? Jazz and blues, mostly?
Well, we would play music somewhat like what I play these days, except back then it was mostly big band stuff. We were listening a lot to Duke Ellington, who was big back then. Let me see, who the heck was another big band?
Fletcher Henderson, perhaps?
Fletcher Henderson, yeah. As a matter of fact, Fletcher Henderson had a guy in his band who played with us in the Ardmore High School band, but then went into the service. When he came out, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s band until Fletcher Henderson died. His name was José Martin. He was living in Tulsa, where my wife’s older brother lived. Then there was Tiny Bradshaw, and Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and a lot of bands like this. We were playing quite a bit of blues stuff, too, back then.
Herschel is sometimes called one of the "tough Texas tenors" because of what some describe as his rather harsh and brash sound. He was playing in the Count Basie Orchestra, together with The Prez, Lester Young, who is known for . . .
Yeah, he was playing there before the Prez got there.
Both these players had a very distinct style, did they not? I mean, Lester’s was smooth….
Well, I’ll tell you something about Herschel. Herschel didn’t have a harsh, rough style. Herschel played real good. There is a tune —"Blue and Sentimental"—that he played, which was a very beautiful tune (Joe hums the tune). No, he didn’t have a brash tone, but he and Lester played differently. Everybody played differently from Lester because he came out with something that was more or less different from anybody else at that time, you know.
Do you know whether Count Basie had arrangements for both of them? To allow Lester playing his style and Herschel his?
Well, yeah, I think he did; I’m not too sure about that, but I think he did. In the reed section of most of these bands, you’ve got a lead alto, you’ve got a second tenor, you’ve got a third alto, you’ve got a fourth tenor, and then you’ve got a fifth baritone. Usually there are five saxophones. And I think Herschel was playing second tenor or second seat at first, and then after Lester came in and Herschel was kind of sick, he moved over to fourth tenor, over to fourth, second seat. Then, after Herschel left, I don’t know who replaced him in Basie’s band—Bud Johnson or somebody else.
As you were growing up, what kind of music were you listening to at home or at church?
I was listening to the same kind of music that I play today (and that we were playing in our High School band). I was listening to Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and all those kinds of things.
On records? On the radio?
First, we could hear them only rarely. But then it got to the point where every once in a while you could hear them on the radio, and we made sure we got the chance to hear that. We had a radio with pretty good reception. And then I had some records that I had listened to, of some of the other older guys who played. Saxophone was an instrument that I just liked from the time when I first started, and I picked up things that way.
Was Coleman Hawkins one of your youthful idols, then?
Yeah, all those guys were. That’s what I listened to, that’s what I liked. In church I just listened to church hymns. I never played in church until, I guess, two or three years ago, right down here in Second Baptist Church.
Any blues you listened to?
I played blues then and I play blues now. You play a lot of things, and a lot of tunes is blues. Blues are usually 12 bars, you know. You play a 12-bar blues, and that’s all there is, but then, God almighty, the improvisation—you can do so many things with those. Like Charlie Parker, he could take a tune and invert it so many ways. He could turn it every kind of way but the blues (laughter). Then there was B. B. King, who was playing around here, but I didn’t meet him. I don’t want to sound funny about this, but I wasn’t really too hot on just the blues, and B. B. King was strictly a blues man, you know. I guess I’m just a weird guy. If it’s music I don’t really care for, I don’t want to listen to it. It’s just like right now. If they bring in one of the greatest rock’n roll bands in the country, I wouldn’t go listen to it.
Well, we’ve all got our musical preferences. What was it like meeting Charlie Parker?
Well, I play a tune—"Now’s the Time" (Joe hums the tune)—that’s on one of my CDs and that I played with Parker when I met him. People often say he typically had his horn in a paper bag, but that isn’t true. He had it in a bag, but one of those saxophone bags, not a paper bag. I met him right down on Wall Avenue in a place called The Royal Hotel (today it is The Page). In the basement, they used to have The American Legion where I was playing at the time. And Charlie Parker got off the train and asked, was there anybody playing. And so one of the Red Caps said, "Yes, there’s a guy playing right over there in that building in the basement." So he walked across the street (it was right across the street from the train station), came downstairs, and the guy at the door wanted to charge him to come in (laughter). He didn’t know who he was, and the funny thing about it is, Charlie Parker was from Kansas City and this guy didn’t know anything about Parker because he didn’t know that much about music. So, somebody came to get me as soon as I got through playing the tune and said, "There is a guy down there at the door who wants to see you, Joe." So I went to the door, and as soon as I saw Parker I knew who he was because I had seen pictures of him, you know. Man, my eyes got big! Then, Parker said, "Hey, man, c’mon. Your partner here wants to charge me." And I said, "No man, come on in here" (laughter). Then Parker said, "Man, I heard you playing. Sounds good. Is it alright if I sit in with you?" And I said, "Oh, man. I couldn’t…." I didn’t know how to act. To think about Parker being here (laughter). He told me he had just written this little odd thing, and then asked, "Do you pick up things pretty easy, or do you want me to write it out for you?" And I said, "No. I think I can get it." And he said, "It will be blues, you see," and he handed me the chord changes of "Now’s the Time." I played that tune with him, and he said, "That’s pretty nice."
I don’t know where I had the chords that he wrote out for me that evening. I had a book with all my tunes in it, from a trio to an eight piece band, and somebody in Salt Lake City stole it. A book this thick, and somebody stole it. I was playing there one night and I had that piece in there that Charlie Parker had written for me. I wish I had that still; it would be really worth something now—in his own hand writing, you know, where he wrote out the music to "Now’s the Time."
Writing out the chords for you really demonstrates that Parker had knowledge of music theory.
Oh, yeah, he was really good at that. I’ve got a video called Bird which they made of him, and it shows that when Parker thought about "Now’s the Time," he was playing with the tune and went to Dizzy Gillespie’s house early one morning so he could write it down. (Joe sings the tune.) He had that little thing come into his head and was playing it, and Dizzy’s wife was telling him to cut out that noise that time of night, you know (laughter). That time, there was somebody who wrote it down, because he didn’t want to forget it. But when he came down there, boy, he’d start out playing a tune and he could do just so much with a tune. He had chord changes. If he was playing any kind of chord, he could just take that chord and run and make flatted 5ths and all that kind of stuff. Well, he and Dizzy Gillespie started Bebop, you know, and people thought that he was playing wrong, that he was missing stuff, but it wasn’t that he was missing stuff, he was just playing so people couldn’t understand it. Nobody ever thought that anybody could play like that. There’s people right now that don’t believe that somebody went to the moon.
Ellington once said that playing Bebop is like speaking with the vowels missing.
(Laughter.) Yeah. Boy, could they play.
Did you also notice Parker’s drug addiction at all?
Oh, yes. He wasn’t in there five minutes when he was trying to find some drugs. He was a pitiful person, getting involved in that accident; it’s what got him started on his addiction. If you’ve ever been on pain medication, you know what kind of good feeling they can provide, which is very very dangerous and could develop into a dependency. That’s what happened to Parker, and he never could kick it. He was really strung out, strung out bad.
Did the drugs he took also increase the speed, the frenzy of the music? I mean, Bebop can be extremely fast.
He could play that horn and know the music so good when he didn’t have it, but he sounded even better when he was on something. He could make that horn talk, boy! That’s why so many young musicians back in that time got off on that stuff because they thought they could play better, like Parker, by using that dope. Red Rodney was a white kid playing with him, and he wanted to take drugs, and Parker got on his case and told him to leave it alone, because that ain’t where it is. That ain’t going to help you play better. Dizzy Gillespie, he wouldn’t use that stuff, and there were quite a few musicians that wouldn’t.
Did you meet Dizzy also? Did you play with him?
Oh yeah, I met Gillespie. I met most of the big-time musicians back then. If I didn’t meet them here in Utah, I’d meet them someplace else. All those guys were just coming along learning how to play when I had already been playing for some time. They were all younger guys, you know. As far as playing with him, we jammed a couple of times, but we never played in a group together.
Would they sweep you up? Did you feel yourself reaching new heights jamming with them?
The one thing I did know was that I didn’t have the ability to play all that stuff they were playing. So I played what I knew I could play. Most musicians when they jammed with them, they couldn’t play what those guys were playing. Other musicians just hadn’t gotten around toward their style of playing. It took a while before other musicians could finally figure out what the hell those guys were doing then, because they had figured out a way to change the structure of the chords and things like this, to make the music sound so much different. And then, Dizzy and Parker both could play so darn fast that most guys couldn’t play with them.
When you met Louis Armstrong, I think you told him that you didn’t care for his music. Then there were Parker and Gillespie, and their Bebop of course is, in part, a reaction to the more mellow and melodious sounds of people like Armstrong. As somebody who grew up in the ‘20s and ‘30s, how did you respond to high-speed Bebop that became so fashionable and avant-garde in the late 1940s and the 1950s?
I loved it. I loved it, but I couldn’t play it. Eventually, I got to the place where I would try to incorporate a little more and a little more of their style into my own playing. But as far as my ever being able to play Bebop, I never did, like so many other musicians. I didn’t even try because I knew. One thing you had to have was a really great knowledge of music—period—because they had these chord changes and things. They would write out the stuff that they were playing, and they could play it. Now there’s a guy right up there, John Coltrane (Joe points to a poster) who could play all those chord changes. But Louis Armstrong couldn’t. The reason I didn’t like what Louis Armstrong played—though I did like a lot of what he did play—was because of his Dixieland style. There was a clarinet player, a trombone player, and a trumpet player, and all of them going their own way. They are all playing a tune, but this guy over here is playing his solo, this guy over there is playing his solo, and the third guy is playing another solo, and they’re all different. I just didn’t like that. If I’m playing my horn, I’m playing a solo; I don’t want some guy over here to start playing another solo. That’s why I use a bass, drums, and piano. They back me up. What they play is background for what I’m doing.
I’m sorry that I ever told Louis that I didn’t like his Dixieland style, because he was a hell of a great musician. And there were so many people who he was just a great guy to. I was just a young, stupid-ass guy who didn’t know any better. I didn’t have any business telling anybody at that time. Louis said, "Well, that’s too bad"—he called everybody pops—"That’s too bad, pops, but you play good, man." Of course I know he didn’t like what I said, and now I can’t blame him.
Another musician we’ve mentioned before, who, I think, in many ways was an inspiration to you was Lester Young.
Oh, yeah, Lester. I first met Lester in Salt Lake City after they got through playing "Jazz at the Philharmonic." They came to where I was playing and had broken my reed that evening. Well, Lester called me over and said, "Hey man, try this," and gave me a new plastic reed. Well, I tried it, but couldn’t play too good with it. Somewhere or another, I still got that thing. Another time we were in San Francisco, and I got a chance to play with Lester. As I was saying, you get in to where those jam sessions are, if you got enough guts to do it. Some of those guys are some of the best musicians in the world, so a lot of people would be afraid to get up there and play. But it didn’t matter to me how great a guy was—I knew he was better than me—I’d go in and play what I can play, you know. That’s like a lot of young musicians that used to be around here. If they came and wanted to sit in, I would let them sit in. Larry Smith was a good friend of mine and the head of the music department at Utah State University. He didn’t want to sit in with us because we played too fast for him. Well, we did play a lot of tunes real fast, and I’m glad I don’t play like that anymore because nobody could dance to it. We used to have some young people get out on the dance floor, but you don’t want to dance a whole evening at break-neck speed.
Did you at one point also say that you were trying to capture Lester’s sound?
Yeah, I played a tune the night he gave me that reed and told me, "Man, you do a good job, but that’s my thing and you better get something for yourself." He actually told me that. So after that night, I never tried to play like Lester anymore. But I used to play some tunes that Lester played and had them down note for note. But there was another saxophonist called Paul Quinichette, who sounded just like Lester Young. You could hardly tell the difference. Paul Quinichette copied Lester so good that he sounded like Lester. If you heard Paul Quinichette, you’d think it was Lester.
You also met Hoagy Carmichael in Idaho Falls?
Yeah, Hoagy Carmichael’s son was in an accident up there, and so he would come down to the place where we played at the time. I didn’t really realize that "Stardust" had an ending loop before you got into the starting part, so I just played "Stardust," and he asked me one time, "Joe, why don’t you play the first part of it?" I said, "What first part?" because I had never seen the music. And he said, "Well, ‘Stardust’ has it." Then he played it for me in d flat, I think, and said, "Well, how’d you like to learn how to play that?" (Joe sings the tune) I said, "Well, I just heard it and can play it," and then I played it. He said, "Man, I can’t believe that. You got some kind of ear. I sure like the way you play it." But even today, I still don’t play that ending loop. Later that evening, he played "Georgia on my Mind" and some of the other standards. He was down there every night where we played. I really enjoyed old Hoagy. He was a good guy—really, really nice. He liked to have fun. He liked to drink that scotch, too (laughter). That’s what I drank when I was drinking. I liked that scotch.
Going back to your roots, Joe, life for an African American musician touring the South must not always have been easy? Do you recall any specific incidences where you experienced racism and discrimination?
Well, once we were in a little restaurant in Texas and went around to the backdoor, because I knew damn well I wasn’t going to go in the front door and try and get something to eat. But even at the backdoor they wouldn’t want to serve me. As I was leaving from there, one of these Texas rangers—he wasn’t white, he was something else, but he was a Texas ranger—said to me, "What’s happening, boy?" And I told him what had happened. Then he did what I wouldn’t do—he went in the front door and made those people give me some food. And when I wanted to pay, he said, "No, you don’t pay nothing. Go on." I bet they were plenty mad at him, but that was the one incident where I said, "Well, that’s it, man." To this very day, I don’t know who he was, but he was a Texas ranger.
Traveling on the road back down through the South was no fun. You couldn’t find decent places to stay, you couldn’t get food, unless you found a black restaurant or a roofing house where people stayed in people’s homes because there weren’t any motels where you could stay. I really got to the point where I didn’t want to do it. That’s the reason why I traveled back east, because I wouldn’t go down deep south. The furthest south that I’ve been in my life is still until this day Shreveport, Louisiana.
Did you encounter discrimination in the West also, as you moved out here?
Racism was everywhere, and right here in Ogden when I first came. We experienced it all across the United States, but it wasn’t near as bad in California as it was here. Ogden was pretty bad. We couldn’t go into restaurants and eat; we couldn’t stay in hotels, and when you went to a movie they had you go upstairs or someplace.
Wasn’t there a moment with the Union secretary?
Well, the guy’s name was Shorty Ross; he was the Union secretary. He came down into an all black club I was playing in and had the nerve to tell us that we couldn’t play in this club. They didn’t have any musicians in the Union here, and they weren’t going to have any. The club owner gave him a bad time and told him to get outta there. Then I had a chance to play in some white clubs and Shorty came around again, until I called the Union patroller, who told me to get in touch with the sheriff. I showed the sheriff all our credentials, including my own Union card. You had to have transfers and Union cards when you were going to different places. So the patroller got a hold of the sheriff, and the sheriff told me to go ahead and play wherever I wanted (I started playing across the street at the Pioneer Tavern then), and I did.
Then I played out in Roy one time with some friends. We were all dressed up nice, but were told we couldn’t stay in there. I told them I wouldn’t be back the next Sunday, and I didn’t. I never went back. And then I let it be known that if my people couldn’t come in where I was playing, I could always play down at the Porters and Waiters Club, where everybody could go. But the club owner wanted the money, because I had crowds wherever I was playing, and so he opened the doors to black people as well. Then, other clubs saw what was happening and let black people in because I wasn’t going to play if they didn’t break that shit down. A lot of people don’t have any idea that I did that, but I did.
Did you meet other musicians at those clubs? Is that where you had your jam sessions?
Yes, I had a key to the Porters and Waiters Club. That’s why a lot of those guys coming to Utah from different places called me at two o’clock in the morning and said, "Man, we just got off a gig. I know it’s late and everything, but we’d like to have someplace to go." Upstairs at that hour, they still had the bar open, and then we’d go down and start a jam session, and in an hour’s time the club would be damn near full. It didn’t matter what time you started a jam session, you could always have a crowd. People stayed up all night anyways. These places down on 25th Street used to be open twenty-four hours a day, just like their own Vegas. My name got known through musicians. Musicians from New York City coming to Salt Lake City—they’d be talking to another band that had been out here and were told, "If you get out there and you wanna have some fun, go to the Porters and Waiters Club. Go and get a hold of Joe McQueen." These guys would call me and we’d have a ball. It wouldn’t make any difference to me what time the session started. I’d get up in the middle of the night and go do it. I was young and liked to play. Back when I was young, I didn’t mind playing any time. That’s how I learned a whole lot, too; learned a lot of tunes and things because some guys would come with some tunes I hadn’t played before and some I hadn’t even heard before. Sometimes they’d write out the chord changes for me. Boy, I learned so many tunes from jam sessions with guys coming through. Jack McVea, who wrote the tune "Open the Door, Richard," he would come through quite a bit with his group, and they would always want to go and jam after they got through with their gig. I got to be real good friends with those guys and learned from them.
Music is no doubt your passion, Joe. Would it also be fair to say that, in part, music for you is also a way to make a political statement?
Oh God, yes. Here’s the thing about it: after I became known around here, I would go to a lot of places—often with some white guys but not always—and nobody would try to discriminate against me. And for the past twenty to twenty five years, the only band I ever had has all been white because there aren’t any black musicians around here to play with me. But when I was asked to leave the club in Roy, I had a white bass player (Smiley Nelson) and a white drummer (Jack Gift) playing with me. And I had a black singer (Millie Quarter) and a black piano player (Ernie Moore). At the time, Smiley and Jack both wanted to quit right then and there, but I said, "No, we don’t do that. We’ll get through playing and finish the job, and then we’ll get our money and I’m gonna tell the people what’s gonna happen." And that’s what I did. I got on the mic and told them not to look for us anymore, ever.
Another jazz musician for whom music was a political vehicle was Duke Ellington. When did the Duke come to Utah? Was it in the 50s?
Yeah, it was in the ‘50’s. I don’t remember exactly what year. We were having a session down at Porter and Waiters. His whole band had been playing in Salt Lake, and then they’d come up to Ogden and we’d have jam sessions ‘till three, four, or five o’clock in the morning down there. You know, Ellington also played up here in Ogden at what used to be called the White City Ballroom, and they had big bands like his and others play up there. The Duke might even have been playing up there at the time he came down to the Porters and Waiters, but I’m not sure.
At one of those times, he was talking about the drummer Jimmy Rainey, and how long he could hold a beat and keep that beat sustained. Duke said he was an amazing guy. You know, if a drummer has to hold an up-beat for an extended period of time, his arm will eventually get tired and his leg banging, and the tempo will drop. But not Jimmy Rainey. When he’d get that tempo up there, he could keep it. I haven’t seen anybody ever that could get tempos up and keep tempos going as long as Jimmy Rainey could.
What about Ellington’s legendary tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves? Didn’t you see him as well?
Yes, he was here with Ellington but stayed for three or four days after Ellington’s band left. He was in love with a gal from around here and stayed on. He played longer choruses than anybody I ever heard. He just played and played and played. He played for enormous lengths of time. He’d play ten, twelve, fifteen choruses and run everybody else off. We had some pretty good sessions while he was here.
Didn’t you tell me once that you saw him play in Ogden, and then you had to drop somebody off in Salt Lake, and when you came back . . .
. . . he was playing still. Oh yeah, that was Paul Gonsalves. I couldn’t believe it when they told me he was on the horn all this time. I played when I left, and when I came back, he was still playing. I couldn’t believe it. I said, "Is he playing again?," and they said, "No he’s still playing." I thought, "Oh my gracious!"
As a young player, Quincy Jones came through Northern Utah as well. Where did he play?
Well, Quincy Jones was in a big band that came up here. They were playing in Ogden downstairs at the Royal Hotel. At that time they had the American Legion down in the basement, which was a small place. This guy, Fletcher Cottrell, tried to get this big band to play in that small place. That Sunday, I talked to Bill King of Rainbow Gardens and how we could get this band into their upstairs ballroom and start announcing it on the radio. And, boy, people started coming. Pretty soon we had a real good crowd out there. And that’s how those guys really managed to get paid because Cottrell couldn’t afford them, given the little space he had. I would see some of those musicians a lot of times after that, and they would call me a lifesaver (laughter). They had Paul Quinichette, J.J. Johnson, the trombonist, and I don’t know how many different guys; I remember it was an eighteen piece band, a great big band.
I remember you saying that both Nat King Cole and Count Basie were both really heavy smokers—which is partly an effect of living and working in the jazz and night club scene?
Yeah, Nat used to come to Salt Lake City a lot, and he’d call me and I’d go over there where he was. We’d get together and have fun and a jam session or two. He was a lot of fun, Nat King Cole was. Both he and Count Basie smoked too much. I didn’t like the way they smoked, but I smoked myself, but not as much as they. In one of the films I have, you can see Count Basie just smoking, smoking, smoking, you know. That’s what killed Nat King Cole. He had throat cancer from smoking so much. And that probably what helped kill Basie. Boy, he smoked like a train too. And smoking didn’t help their voice either. They might say that, but I don’t think it did.
Once you got married, you didn’t go on the road a lot, but as a young and unmarried musician you traveled the circuit. Who else do you remember playing with, back then? I know you met Billy Taylor, who was in Ogden not too long ago. Any female jazz musicians you remember? They were few and far between in those days.
Yeah, I knew Billy Taylor pretty good. I met him, I believe, in Kansas City. You see, I met a lot of people before I came to Utah, in places like Texas, Kansas City, and Chicago, among others. You might have heard of Andy Kirk’s band. Well, he had Mary Lou Williams as a piano player. Mary Lou was playing with a little group in Loughton, Oklahoma, at the time, and I got a chance to play with Mary Lou Williams. Later, she did some recordings on her own. She was a very good pianist. I met Cab Calloway, who had a sister, Blanche Calloway, who is dead now, too. I got a chance to meet Billie Holiday, way back, about 1938, something like that. I was just a youngster myself. I was about eighteen, nineteen years old when I met her. Then there were Lee Allen and Sonny Stitts, some of the greatest tenor saxophone players, I think, that I ever met. I knew both of those guys. I already mentioned Jean King, who played with me early on and later joined The Raylettes, and then there was Wynona Lackey, who played with us in our High School band. She was the only girl in our band, a trumpet player, and did some good background music. She was young, a junior, but Mr. Jackson, our band teacher, was her teacher as well, and her mother was a home economics teacher and kept an eye on things.
You didn’t meet the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey, did you? She died in 1939, I believe, when you were still a teenager.
No, I didn’t meet Ma Rainey, but I met Jimmy Rainey. He played with her in those carnivals and was always telling me about Ma Rainey and things. He loved her. She’s the one that named him Jimmy, you know. He was a heck of a tap dancer, and he could play those drums. She looked out after him, because he was nothing but a fourteen, fifteen year old kid on those carnivals. He just knew how to talk that carney talk. She took Jimmy under her wing. His name wasn’t Jimmy Rainey; his name was Joe Dehorney. I remember that from when we were going to school together down in Oklahoma, but she called him Jimmy Rainey. He didn’t change his name, but that’s the name he used all the time. He wasn’t a very big guy, maybe five-eight, five-seven, with small feet, but, God, that guy could dance. Arms and legs like steel. That’s what got me excited, that he could do all that tap dancing.