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Utah’s jazz legend, groundbreaking saxophonist Joe McQueen dies at 100

Even at his age, Joe McQueen never stopped blowing into his tenor sax, keeping a busy schedule and regularly performing three-hour gigs

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Saxophone player Joe McQueen, still going strong as he nears his 99th birthday, Joe adjusts his horn at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018.

Saxophone player Joe McQueen, nearing his 99th birthday, adjusts his horn at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018. McQueen died Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 at 100 years old.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

OGDEN — Joe McQueen, Utah’s legendary saxophonist who talked tempo changes with Charlie Parker, tried to get Count Basie to quit smoking and told Louis Armstrong that he didn’t like his style, died Saturday morning. 

He was 100 years old. 

Even at his age, McQueen never stopped blowing into his tenor sax, keeping a busy schedule and regularly performing three-hour gigs. He received a brand new saxophone and a special Utah Jazz jersey for his 100th birthday In May, celebrating his life and love of jazz with a public concert at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City. 

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Utah saxophone legend Joe McQueen celebrates his 100th birthday by blowing on a brand new sax at the Gallivan Center in May 2019.

Lottie Johnson

“It was an honor to be able to share the stage with Joe on literally hundreds and hundreds of shows in the last few years of his life,” said Joe McQueen Quartet member Ryan Conger in a Facebook post. “He was an inspiring, swinging and powerful player right up to the last show only about a month ago.” 

Born on May 30, 1919, McQueen grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma. After his older cousin, Herschel Evans — a tenor saxophonist who performed for a few years with the Count Basie Orchestra — gave him a sax lesson in the 1930s and told him he could make money playing the instrument, McQueen quit playing basketball and football and started devoting his life to music. 

That choice brought him to Utah in 1945, when his band had a gig at one of Ogden’s 25th Street jazz clubs. Things got out of hand when McQueen and his drummer got in a fight on the bandstand and wound up in jail for several days, McQueen recalled in a Deseret News interview last year. Upon being released, McQueen discovered that some of the band’s traveling money had been gambled away. Although he still had $380 that he’d won from a slot machine in Reno, he and his wife, Thelma, decided to make Ogden their home. 

McQueen married Thelma, also from Oklahoma, at the age of 25, on June 10, 1944 — four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy. Not long after that, he decided to abandon the touring life common to musicians. 

“You don’t go off when you got a wife, for two or three months on the road,” he said. “That don’t make sense.”

Being married to Thelma for 75 years was his proudest accomplishment in life — more important than any performance, according to McQueen’s longtime friend Brad Wheeler.

Which is saying something, since starting in late 1945, McQueen went on to meet and play with jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, who would pass through Ogden, as it was then a major railroad stop for routes between California and Chicago, the Deseret News previously reported. Through jazz, McQueen broke down racial barriers, performing in white-only clubs and making sure that his friends, who were black, weren’t turned away at the door.

“I told ‘em I don’t intend to play for no segregated club,” McQueen told Ogden’s Standard-Examiner.

Saxophone player Joe McQueen, still going strong as he nears his 99th birthday. McQueen, who taught auto mechanics at Weber State, shows off his car at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018.

Saxophone player Joe McQueen, still going strong as he nears his 99th birthday. McQueen, who taught auto mechanics at Weber State, shows off his car at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018. McQueen died Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 at 100 years old.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

McQueen’s talents extended far beyond music. He worked on B-17 carburetors at Hill Air Force Base, was a mechanic for White Motors and taught automotive technology at Weber State University — all without ever earning a college degree. In 1975, he added a garage to the back of his house and worked on cars until he was 80 years old.

But music was his life’s blood. Just last year, as he was getting ready to celebrate his 99th birthday, McQueen sat in his Ogden home, speaking proudly of his role in keeping jazz music alive and well in Utah.

“I’ve been (in Utah) going on 73 years, and there ain’t never been a period when I wasn’t playing here. I’ve been playing jazz all the time,” McQueen told the Deseret News. “I’ve been here 73 years and I’ve been playing all the time.”

McQueen is survived by his wife, Thelma, and countless friends and musicians who have shared the stage with him over the years.

Saxophone player Joe McQueen, still going strong as he nears his 99th birthday. McQueen adjusts his horn at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018.

Saxophone player Joe McQueen adjusts his horn at his Ogden home on Saturday, May 26, 2018. McQueen died Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019 at 100 years old.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While McQueen could be rough around the edges, it didn’t take long for Wheeler to learn that McQueen had a heart as gold as his saxophone.

“Joe is a humble person. He’s never done any of this stuff to be famous,” Wheeler told the Deseret News earlier this year. “He’s always done it because he loves it.”

And that humility, above all else, is what Wheeler will remember most about McQueen. And he knows it’s what McQueen would want to be remembered for.

“He told me to tell everyone not to cry for him,” Wheeler announced in a Facebook post Saturday. “That when you think about him to think about all of the blessings he had received, and know that he had lived a full and meaningful life.”