Joe McQueen, jazz saxophonist, is Ogden, Utah’s King of Jazz. Part of a travelling jazz band, McQueen got stuck in the city in 1945 after the bandleader skipped town and took all their money. He and his wife stayed in Ogden, and he has played jazz there ever since. At 98 years old, he still actively plays jazz in the community, and next month, he will be inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. What follows are excerpts from a transcript of the lecture he gave to a graduate class at Weber State University in Fall 2015. We intend to highlight information that is less widely known and published.
On the Great Depression
I had the experience of growing up during the big depression, which we talk about a recession now, it’s nothing like that was. I see people where I live across the street from me, and I see people coming over there with boxes and baskets of food and all that stuff, you know, so there are so many places that people can go now and get food and things like this, and just about everybody you see has an automobile and all that stuff. But I remember, I’ve seen lines of people standing with a tin cup trying to get a cup of soup, and sometimes the line wouldn’t be taken care of and people would go without, and that would be the only meal they had all day long. So when people start now telling me about talking about hard times, I say take that to somebody else please, because I don’t want to hear it. Nowhere in the world it could be like it was then. Can you imagine cutting a yard that’s as big as half of this campus all day long for one dollar and a sandwich? There was no such thing as a power lawnmower. But that’s really helped me out because I’m as strong as an average forty-year-old and I’m 96. I attribute that to exercising, playing the horn, and the work that I’ve done during my life.
People don’t get a chance to do the things that I had to do to survive. And well, my mother died when I was fourteen, my father left when I was five, and I lived with my grandparents, and they were old, and I had to drop out of school at 11th grade so I could help them. So there are so many things that people now take for granted that it’s just supposed to be, but it wasn’t so back then. You know, when the big depression hit back in 1929, I was 10 years old. All my teen years was during that big depression, and it was something you wouldn’t want to try to go through. I’ve seen ladies up and down the highway with three or four kids just trying to find a place to sleep and food and everything like this. I used to go and my uncle gave me a 22 rifle, and I would go to a place out there, a place my step dad worked for a company that had forty acres of pecan trees, and those pecan trees, they had a lot of squirrels out there. And I have killed as many as forty squirrels in one day and given them to people in the neighborhood so they could have something to eat. Then there was another guy in the neighborhood that killed hogs all the time, and I’d go with him, and he gave me different parts of the hog, and those people would roll over each other trying to get some of that food to eat. And people have no idea about tough times, so I come up here to talk about music, but I have to tell you about all this stuff. It’s what happened.
And in Oklahoma where I was raised, they’d have those dust storms. And two or three times I remember when one of those dust storms were over, we’d shovel the dirt out of the house because the houses weren’t very tight back down there then, and after you shoveled as much as you could you’d take a broom and sweep. There was no such thing as a vacuum cleaner. You didn’t have those things back then, and then after we got all that out we’d take the rug and put it on the clothesline and beat it out the best we could with brooms and things. So people right now don’t have any idea about how good they have things. They have everything handy for you to live with. So be thankful. Thank the good Lord that it’s happening to you that you live in this time rather than back there.
To my idea, it was a learning experience for me, and I’m glad to be able to tell people about what happened. You can read about something but there isn’t anything, the best teacher is experience. If you experience something yourself, somebody can tell you about the same thing, but if you experience it yourself, you know more about it than anybody can tell you about it, you know. When you go through an experience like that, they had what was called dust pneumonia, and a lot of people died from that. My grandmother was a pretty smart old woman. She’d tear up bed sheets and we’d tie them around our face and things and stay inside and block as many holes as we could to keep as much dust out as we could, and not breathe as much as we could. And that was a terrible time.
And I’ve seen rabbits, people were killing them with sticks and things like this, and they’d kill those and eat them. To this day I don’t eat rabbit and I don’t eat squirrel, but I killed a lot of them for other people. Rabbits were eating up everything in sight, you know. You couldn’t have a garden back then. Rabbits would come out and clean out your garden in one night. So it was, that’s another thing that was bad. Let’s go to music.
On Discovering the Saxophone
Well, one thing why music is important to me is because I love music. It’s been a part of my life since I was fourteen years old. I had a cousin, I think he would tell you, Herschel Evans, and his mother was my dad’s sister, and he was visiting his mother and I went down to visit her, she was my aunt, and he came home and he had his horn on the bed, and I had never touched a saxophone before. But he was outside smoking, and I picked up the horn and started making some kind of noise and he came in the house and told me, asked me to tell him what I’d done.
And I said I have no idea, I said, it’s the first time I ever handled a horn.
So he said, well, I’m going to show you to run a C Major scale and see what you can do about it. So he did it a couple of times, and then he gave me the horn, but he said wait a minute, you’ve got to have a strap.
Anyway, he showed me how to run a C Major scale and I did it, and he said to me, Joe don’t lie to me. Don’t tell me you never had . . . and I said, I’m not! This is the first time I’ve ever had my hand on a horn. So he said to me, Well, I’ll tell you what, you’re a natural. You quit that football and basketball and play music, and you can do that when you get to be an old man. How true he was! He had no idea, and I didn’t either. Because he died when he was only thirty years old. And so I’ve been playing since I was fourteen, and I started working in the band when I was sixteen, so music has been part of my life all my life.
There was only one time in 1969 I had throat cancer, and I was off playing the horn for about a year, but then I think it was about 1970, because I had the operation in ‘69 in July. And two young men that live not too far from here, the Mayliss brothers, and another guy that is still here, introduced me to them and told them about me playing the horn, and they started insisting on me trying to play.
I said, well I haven’t played my horn in a long time. And he said, let’s go try. So I got my horn out and at first, I tell you what, if you don’t play those things for awhile, these aren’t very good, you don’t have no strength in your lips to get a decent sound. So that’s why you have to practice, practice, practice. So I got my horn and messed around and said, see, what did I tell you? And they said yeah, but we know you can play. So they just kept on talking to me until I finally started back practicing on the horn, and they had to engage me, so I did. I played those two engagements with them.
And that started me back to playing, back in 1970. And during the same time I was right up there on Weber State campus teaching auto mechanics. And uh, I’ve been playing the horn all the time since that time and before that time. And I’m 96 and still doing it.
On Playing Music
Well, I’ll tell you something else like I said at my church. I don’t read music. Musicians ask, how do you play those things if you don’t read music? I can hear. I can hear good. My guitar player, I think you met him, I had a CD playing in my van, and he said, we need to play that. And I said yeah, okay.
And he said, well, when we going to rehearse?
And I said, why don’t you take it and listen to it? I’ve already got it.
He said, What do you mean?
And I say, I just heard it.
When did you hear it?
I say, I heard it just then.
He said, What? You telling me?
I said well, if you want to get to taping it, come down.
And he said, I can’t do that.
Incidentally, this guy named his little boy after me. And so that’s what I say. The good Lord blessed you in so many different ways. I always had a problem reading music. Until this day I can’t read music and I don’t try. But I can play dang near anything I can hear. And the thing about it is with me is when I play what I hear, I play what I feel. And that’s what people who talk about, about me playing music. Most the stuff that I play, you can take that to the bank. It’s all coming from here.
In high school I was faking just like I do now. The teacher had me trying to play a bass tuba, and I was going by what I could hear. We were playing marches. And I would blow what I thought it should sound like. The music teacher came up one day and said, Joe.
And I said, yes sir.
And he said, you weren’t playing that march quite right.
And I said well, maybe I wasn’t, but I was playing what I thought I heard.
And he said, well, why don’t you read the music?
And I said, because I can’t read it. I tried it and I can’t read it. And I tried reading music a thousand times. I’ve been up there, and I don’t have, there’s something about reading music to me, is I don’t have enough time to really apply myself to read it because as soon as I get to trying to read the music, if I hear two or three notes of that thing and know what the tune is, I’ll go ahead and play it by ear. And I don’t know, just all my life it’s been that way.
I go down, my pastor asks me sometimes to go down and play in the church, and I go play some of those hymns, and I can hear them when they sing and I take my horn and play them. And that’s all, the good Lord just gave me that talent.
I can play tunes right now that I played in high school. Yeah. Like I’m saying, and here’s the reason. These guys tell me about me teaching, and I say I’m not teaching. But they say, you teach all the time. You tell us how to do it and play this, that, and the other. We didn’t get that in school. We tried to learn like that but we can’t do it. That’s why we’re trying to learn with you. But the good Lord just gave me something. I can hear something, and it just pops into my head, and I’ve been playing the horn long enough, that I can just go in and play it, and it’s something I never called.
Don, Don was my drummer for 25 years, and Don was always talking about, you sure played something great tonight, and this and that. And I said well if you heard it then I’m glad you heard it because you might not hear it again. You know, I play whatever I feel in a given time. Some little tune, like one on this CD, I play the same tune, you probably wouldn’t hear me play it like it’s on that CD. I play something different ever doggone time. And just because, like I said, I don’t read the music. When people play music, there were some guys in the band down there that could read anything, but if you took that music out from in front of them you might as well take the horn away from them. They couldn’t play without the music. Oh my God, I say, how happy I am I don’t need it. Really.
Help from Ray Brown
You know what I can do that most of these other guys can’t do? I can play in almost any key. Keys don’t matter to me. Sometimes I tell them guys, we will be playing the tune in one key, and Joe will be starting out in another key. You know, so that’s another thing I say, the good Lord just blessed me with a talent that most people don’t have, and I thank God every day for the talent he gave me.
The reason I can do that, I don’t know if you have heard of Ray Brown, he was one of the greatest bass players in this country, he dead now. But I had two cousins down in California and they cooked a lot of food and had a piano and everything, and musicians walked down there because they could go down there and rehearse and all that stuff. Well Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson and Ed Thigpen were down there, so I went down there and they told them about me playing the horn and they wanted me to come, let’s play something. And I said, I can’t play with you guys. And he said oh man, come on over and play some blues. So we played blues, and I said, well, I can play blues in this key and that key, but I don’t, you know.
And Ray Brown took me off to the side and he said, let me show you something. He had a piece of manuscript, and he said now, you start off right here on this note and you be playing it in B flat and move right on down and play it in this key and this key.
And I said, I don’t read the music.
And he said, well, you know what that starting note is, that’s it.
And I said, that won’t work with me.
And he said, yes it will. So you try it. He said, then you’ll find sometime that there’s one tune that I play all the time, it’s called C Jam Blues. You would think it would start on C but it starts on A.
There’s a difference but I know, I can hear where that thing starts. I can get the starting note on just about any tune and go on and play it.
Duke Ellington and Jimmy Rainey
One of the greatest drummers we had, he couldn’t read music, but he could play. There’s a lot of people who couldn’t read music, but they could play. They played by ear.
I had a drummer who Duke Ellington wanted to know how I ever got in touch with him. And I said, we were raised together, and his name was Joe Dehorney but Ma Rainey named him Jimmy Rainey. And I have pictures where he’s on there. I’d say Jimmy was 5’7”, 5’8”. I think he weighed 140 pounds at the most, soaking wet. But he was hard as nails and that guy could keep a tempo like you could not believe. And we used to play fast tempos, and he would do it and chew that gum. That tempo’s not going to drop and if you think it’s going to drop, you crazy! He played carnivals for a lot of time, and they played all that fast stuff for carnivals, and he was a good tap dancer. Duke, we had a session one time on 25th Street and Duke Ellington was there, and we was playing one of them up tempos, and Duke was sitting up there waiting on the tempo to drop. Pretty soon he turned around and looked at me and said, where did you get that drummer from?
I say, well, I’ve been playing with him since we were kids.
And he said, I can’t believe that guy, man! That tempo’s still up there and he hasn’t dropped it a bit.
And I said, nah, he won’t drop it. I said, you sit here and listen to him.
And there were a lot of guys getting big money from drumming. But Jimmy Rainey was kind of like me. Jimmy couldn’t read a note as big as this bottle, but he sure played drums and his timing was excellent, you know.
Who He Played With
Well, some of the best ones I can name is Charlie Parker, he was one of the greatest alto saxophones. And Dizzie Gillespie, one of the greatest trumpet players. Count Basie, he wasn’t one of the greatest piano players, but he had one of the best swinging big bands. Of all those big bands going, if you heard Basie’s band you know right away it was Basie. Herschel played with Basie, and Lester Young. I’ve got a reed in my horn case that Lester Young gave me. Plastic reed I can’t use it, but he gave it to me, and a lot of guys, like I said, the guys that I really enjoyed playing with, we never played a job with them, we just jammed with them, and that was Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen.
That was the best trio that I think I’ve ever heard. And that Oscar Peterson, he was amazing! How big he was, great big hands and things, but on that piano, he was so fast, God Almighty he played good. And Ray Brown, he had beat, and then Ed Thigpen was another Jimmy Rainey. He was a heck of a drummer. They were pretty good. But I played with a lot of bands that I enjoyed playing with. A lot of musicians. There were some musicians that I played with that some other people probably never heard of. There was a little old guy, died out in Arizona, Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five, he played a kind of, I don’t know what kind of style it was that he played, but it was really a swinging style of music. He played alto saxophone and sang a lot.
Breaking Down Segregation
I was going to play anywhere. You weren’t going to tell me I couldn’t play. You don’t tell me. That’s the one thing that’s bad.
I was right here, you people might not know this. But I’m one of the guys who broke down that stuff here in Utah, where everybody couldn’t go where I played. If they didn’t let everyone come in where I played, I wouldn’t play there. And I’ll attribute all that to Annabelle Weekly, who was one of my best friends, and she was in the car with me when I had the wreck down there, and she died and I didn’t. That’s why I say you never know what’s going to happen. And when I told her that I was playing in a place, and I had two friends who came out there, and this guy told me they had to get out, told me to tell them. And I said I’m not telling them anything. I said, if you want them to get out, you tell them.
So he told them get out, and I told the people in the audience, I have an announcement to make when we get through playing. So I guess everyone was going to stay and see what I had to say. And we got to, and I had two guys playing with me, a drummer and a bass player, and the bass player’s wife and children were there and the drummer had some people there too. And they were two white kids. And they said man, let’s quit playing. And I said no, we’re going to play the job out. We’re going to get through playing. If we play the job and he doesn’t want to pay us, I’ll get the police and make him pay us. But anyway, he paid us, but I told the people, my announcement is that we won’t be back here ever again. I won’t be back here again ever. We will be playing somewhere but we won’t be here.
So I went and told Annabelle. I still have the key to the Porters and Waiters Club that she gave me, and she said, you go down and open up downstairs anytime you want. You just let me know in the daytime so I can prepare food. She had a restaurant upstairs. I started out with one night, and I wound up playing every night in the week, because every night was like this, jam-packed. And I had never heard this term in my life before I went down there, one of those young white kids told the cops to come down there and break things up. They didn’t want all this mixing of the races and things down there, so they was going to break it up. And this one kid got up and say, I’m free, white, and 21, and you can’t tell me where to go and what to do. Here come another one, and another and another and another, the girls, and they was all up at the door in them cops’ face and they didn’t know what to do. They just stood and looked.
They went up and told Annabelle, and she said, what you want me to do? People come down here all the time and everything like this. So they saw they couldn’t break it up, and from there, that’s what started breaking down that color barrier right here in Ogden. It was in 1963.
So then, some of those guys I’d been playing for, the going rate was $10 a night. You played four hours for $10. But Annabelle told me Joe, you can have all the money on the door. You’ll have to get somebody down there, down the stairs to take tickets and someone up the stairs to sell tickets. And I said, I’ll have guys on the bar down there. She had a license for liquor and selling food upstairs and drinks downstairs, so she gave me all the money on the door. And God, I was making more money on the door. At fifty cents a head, that place would hold about 250 people. And then I raised the price up to seventy-five cents and then to a dollar and it was still that way every time I opened up. And when others wanted me to play at their place, I’d say, are you going to pay me the kind of money I make down here? Are you going to let everybody come in your place?
And they said, we’ll let everybody come in our place, but paying you that kind of money . . .
And I said, why would I want to play for you when I can stay down here and make this kind of money?
They finally found out if they was going to get Joe McQueen they was going to pay some money to get him. And that still goes. I do not play for nothing.
On Serving People
Try to see if you can figure out somebody to help anytime you can. If you can help someone, help them. You might see someone you don’t think, don’t look down on people because they don’t have what you have. They might not be as clean as you are, they might not be, but they’re still human beings. And it wouldn’t hurt you to help them if you see they’re needing some help. And I don’t care who it is with me, I try to help them in a minute, still, to this day. And my wife used to tell me on the highway, you’re going to get enough of those people down the highway, you don’t know if they might . . . and I said, well, you think like you want, because I’m going to stop. And uh, I have stopped on the highway a lot of times and helped people because I know a lot about cars.
I worked on cars until I was eighty years old. I had my own garage. When I got eighty I could get down but it was hard getting up. So that’s when I put it down. But I’m going to tell you this story about helping someone. I was on my way down, my aunt was ill, and I was going down to see about her, and I stayed overnight in Lyman, Colorado. When I got up in the morning it was so cold you couldn’t believe how cold it was, and they said it was around ten below, and when I left out of Lyman about fifty miles over and was still in Kansas, there was a guy on the highway and I could just see him shaking. He had the hood up on the car. It was a ‘47 Cadillac. I remember exactly what kind of car it was. And he had the hood up but he didn’t know what the heck was wrong. And so I was in my truck at that time and I pulled up and backed my truck up and said hey, go and get in my truck so you can get warm. I left the motor running. And he had his wife and two kids, and they was all covered up with blankets.
And as soon as I looked under the hood I saw what was wrong. On those automobiles, they have vacuum lines that do a lot of things under the hood of the car. And on those ‘47 Cadillacs it was, we called them tomato cans but they were vacuum cans, and it was about eight inches long and about four inches around. On each end there was a lever on it that plugged the lines. One of those levers had come off and the door underneath the dash that let the heat in wasn’t opening because that vacuum wasn’t in, and as soon as he went and got in my truck and got his wife in there, I put that hose on there and got in the car right away. The heat came. And I went to the back of my truck because I always carried tools and tape and I taped those things up and I sat in his car a little while because in just that short period of time I was out there, it was terrible.
And that guy was a friend of mine until he passed. He lived in Evanston, Wyoming, and he was on his way to Oklahoma City and I was on my way to Oklahoma, and so he followed me all the way to Oklahoma City and he told me when I got ready to come back, to call him and he’d meet me out there on the highway. And I said I don’t know exactly when I’m going back. And he said, well, I’m going to stay down here until you call me. He gave me a number to call and said, when you get ready to come back I’ll meet you out there. I’m going to follow you all the way. And that guy used to have a big garden up in Evanston, and he’d come all the way down from Evanston and bring me all kinds of vegetables and things.
See, that’s, it never bothers you to help people. If you see somebody you can help, help them, and the good Lord will tell you, love thy neighbor as thyself, you know. And that’s a statement that kind of throws a lot of people because you say, well, people don’t think about it, just in regular terms they think I’m not going to buy my neighbor a car. I’m not going to buy my neighbor a new suit. That don’t mean for you to do that. It mean you do everything else you can do to help them. They might need you to come and help them. Maybe they might need to go to the doctor and they don’t have a car and you have. They might need to go to the grocery store or something. Anything you can do to try and help somebody, that’s what the good Lord meant when he said to honor thy father and mother. And love thy neighbor as thyself, and all those things help you. They really do. I’ll say that all the time because I know I’ve lived by that code all the time and I’ve never had something that I needed someone to help me that somebody didn’t come and help me.
Special thanks to Dr. Michael Wutz, who organized the lecture and got permission from Joe McQueen for it to be published on this website.