Jazz musician, legendary saxophonist Joe McQueen, the ‘coolest cat in town,’ dies at 100 after pioneering Utah’s music and civil rights scene

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Joe McQueen plays his tenor saxophone in his "shed" behind his home in Ogden on Jan. 18, 2009.

Joe McQueen, the dynamic yet humble jazz saxophonist who made Ogden his home for 74 years starting in the days when musicians like Count Basie and Charlie Parker would play in the northern Utah city’s segregated nightclubs, has died.

He was 100.

“Bad” Brad Wheeler, a Utah radio host and longtime friend, noted McQueen’s death on Saturday in a Facebook post and later confirmed it in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

“We were definitely very special friends,” Wheeler wrote. “He made me feel like I was a part of his family and promised me before he passed that we would always be connected.”

Wheeler said McQueen died Saturday at 10:20 in the morning — on the exact anniversary he came to Ogden at night. “It’s kind of poetic that way.”

Lucretia McQueen said on Facebook that she was going to miss her cousin.

“You made your mark on earth and I [know] you will be playing that trumpet loud in heaven,” she wrote. “See ya when I get there.”

The railroad brought McQueen and his bride, Thelma, to Ogden on Dec. 7, 1945, when he came for a two-week gig and stayed for life. He gained an early reputation among jazz musicians on the train between Chicago and San Francisco, and some legends — names like Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles and Lester Young — stopped to play with him.

McQueen became so well-known around Ogden that white students would try to get into the black clubs to hear him. By the late 1950s, the white-only clubs wanted to hire him. Those clubs refused to admit McQueen’s black fans, and the musician told club owners they had to change their policies.

“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,” the civil rights pioneer said in 2005. Many club owners, fearing a popular performer would get away, gave in.

Wheeler said ending segregation in parts of Utah was something McQueen was proud of in his life.

The nonprofit music promoter Excellence in the Community paid tribute to McQueen and his legacy.

“Joe was the coolest cat in town,” the group wrote on Facebook, “and lived a life that we as musicians can all hope to live.”

Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo Jazz saxophonist and civil rights activist Joe McQueen in 2017.

Joe McQueen was born in Dallas on May 30, 1919, and grew up in Ardmore, Okla. His father left when he was a young boy; his mother died when he was 14, and he went to live with his grandparents.

"I didn't have it too easy when I was a kid," McQueen told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2005. "I was working two or three jobs sometimes and trying to go to school, too."

His cousin, Herschel Evans, had a brief run playing tenor sax with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. When McQueen was 14, he saw Evans’ sax and picked it up. When he tried playing it, Evans was impressed. “He said I was a natural,” McQueen said.

McQueen played tuba and clarinet before settling on the tenor sax. Before long, he got work with big bands around the Midwest.

McQueen met Thelma in Ardmore on a dance floor during his band’s performance. They married June 10, 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day.

In December 1945, just after the end of World War II, McQueen and Thelma were living in the Bay Area. McQueen’s band was hired for a two-week gig in Ogden. The story goes that the group’s bandleader gambled away the travel money, leaving the McQueens stranded. The story, McQueen told The Tribune in 2017, “got it all wrong.”

“I could've left and gone anywhere I want. You're not stranded if you got money. And I'm not bragging, but I had enough money I could've gone anywhere. I could've gone back to California. I could've gone to Oklahoma," McQueen said. "[Ogden] was just so different than anyplace I'd ever been. … So one thing led to another, we stayed here and we still like it."

Settling down in Ogden — “being on the road was just a pain in the a--,” he said in 2017 — meant that anytime the train brought a jazz star to town, they would play with McQueen.

"So Charlie Parker comes to town, he got off the train and some guys told him a band was playing across the street from the station," McQueen recalled. "He walks into the room, and I saw who it was and I almost fell over! He came down and played with us."

In 1969, McQueen, for years a cigarette smoker, was diagnosed with throat cancer. He had surgery, and quit playing for several years. He worked as a mechanic and thought about selling his sax. The railroads weren’t bringing musicians through town, Ogden’s 25th Street became home to a string of disreputable dive bars, and disco overtook jazz in popularity.

It took a new generation of younger Ogden musicians to talk McQueen into performing again. He signed up for the odd gig around northern Utah, playing classics like “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Pennies From Heaven,” and telling war stories about his early days.

“I just play what I feel on a given night. I never play the same solo twice,” he said in 2005, adding that he carried around 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."

Wheeler said he developed a special relationship with McQueen after the two were in an accident together. Wheeler is white and loves blues and rock. McQueen was black and played only jazz.

“Our friendship transcended age and race and even genre,” he said, trying to choke back tears Saturday night.

McQueen also became friends with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert — who used to play the trumpet — and the musician knew just about every faith leader in Utah, too.

“He was a very spiritual guy,” Wheeler said. “He was a jazz man, but at the same time he was a salty preacher.”

Wheeler said he was going to visit McQueen at the care center where he was living and bring him home Saturday when he learned of his passing. He took McQueen’s wife there, instead, and the two said goodbye.

McQueen had been sick in recent months and was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. Wheeler said he didn’t recover much after surgery for that diseases in the past few weeks.

McQueen is survived by his wife, Thelma, and countless musicians who played with him or learned from him.

Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.