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Ogden jazz saxophonist played with Count Basie, other greats

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OGDEN (AP) — Saxophonist Joe McQueen was literally stranded here in 1945 when his jazz group's manager blew all their touring money gambling in Las Vegas.

McQueen would be the first to tell you there was nothing here that compelled him and his bride, Thelma, to stay. But there was also nothing to take them back them back to their home in the San Francisco Bay area, nor back to their native Oklahoma.

The couple decided to plant roots in Salt Lake City's northern rough and tumble neighbor during Ogden's railroad heyday, when it was an important stop for routes between California and Chicago.

It proved to be a good decision for the musician, who was able to sit in with some of jazz's biggest names when people like Count Basie and Ray Charles passed through town.

McQueen, 86, is the closest thing Ogden has to jazz royalty, even though he's reluctant to accept any title. Other's aren't as hesitant, however, as McQueen is the subject of a new documentary crowning him "King of O-Town."

In the film and in real life, McQueen is not one to mince words. He says Charlie Parker "was about the nuttiest guy I've ever seen in my life," Nat King Cole was a prankster and the plastic reed that Lester Young once gave him wasn't very good.

McQueen even once told Louis Armstrong that he didn't like his Dixieland sound.

"He said, 'I'm sorry about that, pops,' " McQueen says with a perfect "Satchmo" impersonation.

Ogden blues musician Brad Wheeler, who manages a live music venue in Ogden and runs a local Blues in Schools program to teach children about the roots of American music, couldn't believe an artist of McQueen's caliber was in his own back yard.

Wheeler made it a goal to befriend him. Little did he know all it would take was a little elbow grease.

When Wheeler, 35, finally made contact, McQueen told him he could use some help laying a new concrete floor in his garage. He helped, and from there a friendship was born.

Wheeler has joined with journalist and filmmaker Greg Thilmont in creating the short documentary that captures some of McQueen's recollections of Ogden's once vibrant jazz scene.

The documentary was screened at Weber State University last month and has revived local interest in the jazz saxophonist from historians to journalists. The creators are also shopping it around to film festivals.

McQueen was born in Texas in 1919, but grew up in Ardmore, Okla. His father left when he was young, and he lived with his grandparents after his mother died when he was 14.

That same year, he spotted his cousin's saxophone sitting on a bed. He picked up the horn and blew a few notes, wowing his cousin, Herschel Evans, with a natural talent for the instrument. Two years later, McQueen was being paid to play.

His cousin didn't fare too badly, either, playing sax with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.

Still, jazz has never been McQueen's full-time job. He worked as a redcap, or baggage handler, with the railroad after he landed in Ogden. He's also held jobs at nearby Hill Air Force Base, building trucks for White Motors and as an auto mechanic instructor at Weber State before retiring in 1979.