A living legacy, a role model, an inspiration, authentic, accessible, legendary: these are some of the words Joe McQueen’s friends and associates use to describe him, but the celebrated jazz musician feels otherwise.
“I’m not a legend, I’m just Joe McQueen,” he said.
His once-dark hair is now nearly all grey, and his brown skin looks as though it has evaded the effects of aging for as long as possible. He wore a dark green plaid button up and khaki cargo pants, a reflection of his personal style even at 98 years old.
His firm handshake is a telltale sign of not only his physical strength, but also the strength of someone who’s lived to see it all — from the segregation era to the first black president.
“I don’t even need glasses,” McQueen said as he demonstrates how well he can see while reading the tiny print on a bottle of prescription pills.
He sat comfortably in a recliner in the home he’s lived in for over 40 years with his wife, Thelma, and watches “Family Feud.” An old VHS that could be found in an antique shop or museum rests just below his television.
An older car model and a black and white picture of him playing his saxophone also adorn his living room. His home is a reflection of times then and now.
“When you meet him you’re like, ‘is this guy real?’ He’s just so authentic,” said Brad Wheeler, a blues musician, McQueen apprentice and McQueen’s adopted grandson.
McQueen has had many awards and accolades given to him over the years, including a special collections section in the Weber State University Library. He is one of the pioneers of Historic 25th Street in Ogden.
April 18th has already been declared an honorary day for McQueen in the state of Utah, and now McQueen is going to be inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 17, immortalizing his legacy.
McQueen was born in Texas and raised in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He discovered his musical talent accidentally after picking up his cousin’s horn. He displayed an immediate propensity for music.
Although he could play several instruments, his instrument of choice was the saxophone. He honed his skills as a saxaphonists and ended up leading a band that brought him to Utah.
McQueen and his band came to Ogden in Dec. 1945 from the Bay Area to play in Ogden’s black clubs. Ogden at the time was becoming a popular jazz spot as it was one of the stops on the railroad line between San Francisco and Chicago.
Only intending to stay a short while, McQueen and Thelma decided to stay and make Ogden home. And they’ve been here for 72 years, not only playing music but also impacting the Ogden community.
“He’s so unassuming, he doesn’t look for fame or recognition. He shields away from it even though he’s more than deserving,” said Betty Sawyer, a longtime friend from church. “He’s touched us all in a positive type of way.”
Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole are among some of the legendary jazz icons McQueen has had the chance to play with and meet.
WSU professor, Forrest Crawford, has known McQueen for over 20 years, and has performed along side the famed Ogden musician on several occasions. Forrest acknowledges McQueen’s contributions to Utah’s music scene.
“He is not just some local talent. This man has played with the great music makers of the big band era. He has traveled the U.S. over and brought that musical influence to this community that would otherwise never been exposed to the artists that have come to this community to play,” he said.
As McQueen started gaining more recognition around Ogden and surrounding areas, his audience also began to grow. While he was only playing at black clubs at the time, the curiosity of white jazz fans eventually ended up getting him gigs at white clubs as well.
McQueen became a player in the fight to break racial barriers and discrimination in Ogden by becoming the first black person to play in white bars and restaurants in Ogden.
“When I first came here, black people couldn’t go in none of these dog gone places around here. They didn’t have mixing of the races at that time.” McQueen said.
“If they weren’t letting black people in, I wasn’t going to play there,” he continued, which eventually led to more places becoming integrated.
McQueen’s white apprentice, Wheeler, said of his mentor, “Joe made it so that black and white musicians could play together. He created venues so that African-Americans and white people could come through the same front door.”
Although being a musician was a large part of his life, it was not McQueen’s only occupation.
“I was raised in the Big Depression, where you needed to know everything you could to make a little money because money was very scarce,” he said, “and I knew how to do a lot of things, and I did a lot of things to make a little bit of money.”
He says as he got older, he applied various skills and talents he had accumulated into other aspects of his life, “all those different things that I knew came in handy. I knew how to press clothes, make shoes and boots, fix cars, I could cook, you name it I could do it. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life time.”
One of his jobs even took him to Africa for 30 minutes. He worked on a cargo ship and one of his stops was in Cape Town where he dropped off his load and went right back to the US.
Although he never made it to Australia, McQueen said, “Africa and Australia were always on my bucket list.”
As everything about his life has a fascinating story behind it, he shares story after story with such ease as though the events occurred yesterday.
McQueen tells of a time when he saved a young man in Oklahoma from drowning. In return, he was asked what he wanted. He told the boy’s father who was a mechanic, “You don’t owe me nothin. But I would like you to teach me something about mechanics.”
Because of the skills he learned from that father, McQueen was able to teach auto mechanics for a number of years at WSU.
He opened his own garage in 1975 and worked on cars in his yard until he was 80 years old.
Health issues threatened to slow him down, but McQueen has taken it all in stride. He fought through several bouts of different types of cancer including throat cancer, which he feared might have affected his ability to play, as well as receiving a pacemaker and a knee replacement.
He jokingly said, “Now I’m part bionic.”
McQueen is still playing shows with his band and intends to continue to play for as long as he is able. After all, he says playing his horn gives him the greatest joy.
Both of his current bandmates he plays with have music degrees — his drummer has a doctorate degree in music — but McQueen never learned to read music.
“I used to read a little bit but I found out I could hear something and play, so why mess with the music?” McQueen says. He said that he often plays by ear and can hear things that people who have studied music can’t play.
“Sometimes they ask what that note was that I played and I don’t know,” he said.
Aside from his ability to play by ear, Wheeler thinks something else makes McQueen stand out even more.
“Joe plays jazz music differently than anyone I know,” he said. “Most play intellectual. Joe plays emotional.”
Sawyer believes McQueen’s passion for people is as strong as his passion for music. His ability to connect with others has helped him remain a steadfast and positive figure in the community.
“He’s been kind of that flame that kept jazz music alive in Ogden and Utah,” Sawyer said, “other musicians come and stay a little bit and go, but Joe has stayed here.”
McQueen’s friends, fans and family are all thrilled to see him reach this pinnacle of success and acknowledgement. Many will even accompany him to Oklahoma as he is inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.
Crawford, also an Oklahoma native, said he plans to travel with McQueen to the induction program. “It will be nice to be home yet have some Utah folks have his back in tow,” Crawford said.
The hall of fame worthy musician gives credit to God when it comes to his musical gifts.
“I know God likes jazz. I know he does,” McQueen said, “If God didn’t like jazz I couldn’t play like I play.”