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OGDEN - Hoagy Carmichael liked the way he played "Stardust." Ray Charles once recognized him by the sound of his voice. Lester Young gave him a saxophone.
His name is Joe McQueen, and he is the closest thing Utah has to jazz royalty. He was the first black jazzman to play Ogden's whites-only clubs in the 1950s, when the railroad made that city an unlikely jazz magnet. His stand against racial segregation helped integrate Utah's nightclubs. And he shared Utah stages with such jazz greats as Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Nat King Cole.
"I've outlived them all and a whole lot of others," says McQueen, 85, in his deep, raspy voice. "I'm an old man - that's the reason I knew all those guys. They're all dead, man. The only guys I can play with are younger than me."
Utah musicians speak of him with reverence, and former Gov. Mike Leavitt once proclaimed April 18 as Joe McQueen Day. McQueen, who lives in Ogden, has blown his tenor sax at countless weddings, funerals, dances, festivals and governor's balls, and he plays gigs almost every week.
"He's a piece of living history," says Jazz Arts of the MountainWest board member Skip Musgraves, a trumpet player. "The list of people he's played with reads like a Who's Who of jazz. He learned his craft with those guys, and he probably taught them something, too. He's the only living legend I've ever met."
Such talk bemuses McQueen, who would rather discuss his efforts to raise money for music workshops in secondary schools.
"I don't know what the hell a living legend is," he says. "People say this stuff, but I don't see it like that. I'm just Joe. I thought legends were dead."
A 'natural': Born in Dallas in 1919, McQueen grew up in Ardmore, Okla., near the Texas border. His father left when he was little. When his mother died, the adolescent McQueen went to live with his grandparents.
"I didn't have it too easy when I was a kid," he says. "I was working two or three jobs sometimes and trying to go to school, too."
McQueen had a cousin, Herschel Evans, who had a brief but notable career playing tenor sax with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. At 14, McQueen was visiting his aunt in Texas when he spied Evans' saxophone lying on a bed. The boy picked up the horn and blew some notes, impressing his cousin.
"He said I was a natural," McQueen recalls. Young McQueen plunged into music, playing the tuba and clarinet before settling on the tenor sax. Before long he was getting work in big bands around the Midwest.
McQueen was living in the Bay Area when his band got hired for a two-week gig in Ogden. He and his new wife, Thelma, arrived in Utah on Dec. 7, 1945. McQueen's bandleader gambled away their earnings, stranding his musicians. Weary of big-city crime and enchanted by Ogden's slower pace, the McQueens decided to stay.
"Nobody tied me down and made me stay here," he says. "I could have left. But I'm glad I made Utah my home."
In those days, Ogden was a junction stop on the well-traveled rail line between Chicago and San Francisco. McQueen found work as a redcap, or porter, at the train station and played jazz almost every night in black-owned clubs along nearby 25th Street.
The best known of these was the Porters & Waiters Club, which catered to the railroad crews passing through town. Annabelle Mattson, who ran the club, recalls McQueen and his band playing to huge crowds almost every weekend in the '50s.
"That was a booming place for about six or seven years," says Mattson, who now lives in Salt Lake City. "Joe McQueen was a legend there. He was very, very popular."
Touring musicians would get off the train and ask where they could hear some jazz. Others stopped in Ogden for paying gigs. McQueen remembers Charlie Parker showing up at a club in the early 1950s, carrying his sax in a paper bag. In the early 1960s, when Basie passed through Ogden, McQueen played a session with him.
"We got to be friends," McQueen says. "Every time [Basie] came through town again, he'd let me know."
McQueen met Ray Charles in the early 1960s when the singer performed at Lagoon. Fifteen years later, McQueen ran into Charles at a gig in Seattle and greeted the blind musician without introducing himself. Charles searched his memory for a moment, then said, "Utah. McQueen."
Like all black entertainers of his time, McQueen encountered his share of racism. Hotels, restaurants and nightclubs were segregated, and some eateries wouldn't serve him food even when he went around to the back door. By the late 1950s, his popularity extended to Ogden's white clubs. But when some club owners refused to admit McQueen's black fans, he took a stand.
"I made it known if they were going to hire my band and not let black people come in, I wouldn't be playing there," he says. Many Utah club owners, reluctant to pass up a lucrative live act, relented.
A former cigarette smoker, McQueen was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1969. After surgery, he stopped playing for several years, worked as a mechanic and considered selling his saxophone. By this time, the railroad's demise had turned 25th Street into a seedy strip of dive bars, and popular music tastes ran toward disco, not jazz.
But a handful of younger Ogden musicians tracked down McQueen and persuaded him to start playing again. He joined them for sporadic gigs around northern Utah, playing such standards as "Take the 'A' Train" and "Pennies From Heaven" and regaling his new bandmates with tales from his glory days.
"To tell you the truth, I was kind of wondering about all these stories [and] whether he was stretching the truth," says Musgraves. Then he accompanied McQueen in the early 1980s to a Count Basie concert in Salt Lake City. After the show, McQueen went backstage to see Basie, who greeted him by name with a big smile. Musgraves was convinced. "I never doubted him after that."
'The busiest old man I know': McQueen has a cluttered shed behind his small Ogden house that serves as a rehearsal studio and office. He reaches into a cabinet and produces a stack of plaques and awards: the 2002 Joe McQueen Day decree from Leavitt, along with congratulatory letters from U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, the pastor of McQueen's Baptist church and several Ogden mayors.
"Sometimes I wonder how all this started," he says, gazing at the sheaf of certificates in his enormous hands. "I get all this recognition. It just snowballed."
Despite the accolades, McQueen remains little-known outside his hometown. He never sought the recording deals that might have brought him fame, and he stopped touring the country after settling in Ogden.
"I've had bands try to get me to go other places, but I just wasn't interested. I didn't want to go off and leave my wife," he says. "When I was younger I did some traveling on the road, and that's not a good life at all."
Self-effacing almost to a fault, McQueen shows little interest in celebrity. Fellowship is another matter. He speaks warmly of his family of friends in Ogden - the McQueens have no children - and the many familiar faces who turn up at his shows.
This becomes clear on April 18, Joe McQueen Day, as he and several friends perform for an adoring group of fans at the Iron Horse tavern in Ogden. Joined on a corner stage by Clayton Furch on piano, Musgraves on trumpet and Dan Weldon on guitar, McQueen perches his large frame on a stool, cradling his sax against his right side. He chews gum while he plays.
Moving effortlessly from swing to the country-tinged "King of the Road" to the blues of "Stormy Monday," McQueen produces a sound that is fluid and warm. His timing is perfect, his solos inventive. Despite his age, he never sounds winded.
Weldon launches into an original song that McQueen has never heard, but the old man isn't fazed. After a few verses he joins in as if he's known the tune all his life. McQueen doesn't use sheet music, preferring to play by ear.
"I just play what I feel on a given night. I never play the same solo twice," he says. McQueen estimates he carries some 5,000 songs in his head. "A lot of guys, if they can't read it, they can't play it. But once I get the tune down, I never forget it. It's strictly a gift."
After several decades of intermittent bookings, McQueen is busier now than in years. As he says often, "I'm the busiest old man I know." Last week alone, he played four gigs. His rebirth as a jazz performer coincides with the renaissance of 25th Street, which has reclaimed its position at the center of Ogden's nightlife.
When he's not playing, McQueen volunteers five days a week as a companion to Ogden's elderly, helping seniors with their household chores and driving them to and from doctor's visits or dialysis treatments. McQueen genuinely enjoys the work.
"He's the best we've got," says Kelly Van Noy, director of community service programs for Weber Human Services. "He volunteers eight hours a day. I don't even have employees who work eight hours a day. I asked him once if he needed a rest. And he said, 'No, I'll rest when I'm gone.' "
Still robust in his twilight years, McQueen can look back on a life filled with its share of struggle and heartbreak. He was orphaned at 14. His first wife died in childbirth after 10 months of marriage. He endured years of racial prejudice and has overcome throat, bladder and prostate cancer.
But if he feels any bitterness, he does not show it. Instead, McQueen speaks of feeling fortunate to be alive. He and Thelma will soon celebrate 61 years of marriage. Their home is paid for. His health is good. He has lots of friends.
Perhaps most of all, he still has his music.
"Music has done everything for me," says McQueen, who turns 86 next month. "I don't have too much to complain about. I've always had food to eat and a place to stay. I've never gone hungry in my life, and not many people can say that. I have no regrets. No regrets at all."
Money for music
Joe McQueen and Jazz Arts of the MountainWest (JAM) have launched an effort to raise funds for music education in Utah schools. In recognition of Joe McQueen Day earlier this month, McQueen and JAM have asked Utah's working musicians to donate the proceeds from one gig to the cause. More than $1,000 has been raised so far. Proceeds will fund music clinics and master classes in secondary schools. They welcome donations from other citizens as well. Contributions may be sent to: Jazz Arts of the MountainWest, Attn: Joe McQueen Day, 515 E. 4500 South, Suite 100, Murray, UT 84107.