The Legendary Joe McQueen: Utah's Original Jazz

"How about 'Georgia.' You up for it Joe?"

From his seated position, Joe McQueen takes a drink from a bottle of water and nods his head, pulling the microphone close to his face with one hand as he holds his saxophone in the other. 

It takes a little warming up, but at 98 years old, jazz saxophonist Joe McQueen can still belt "Georgia on My Mind" and without missing a beat pick up his horn and get back to work.

Joe McQueen arrived in Ogden, Utah, in 1945 with his wife, Thelma, and band for a two-week gig. Then, as now, the jagged ridges of Ben Lomond, Lewis Peak, Malan's Peak and other mountains with only numbers for names frame the city, a rock-solid set piece to a city that has grown up a lot, but hasn't forgotten its roots. More than seven decades after first arriving in Utah, McQueen plays regular gigs ranging from swelling crowds at the Utah Arts Festival to packed houses on Ogden's historic 25th Street and near downtown Salt Lake City at the indescribable Garage on Beck. In other words, wherever the music takes him.



A Community Horn

According to blues musician and radio DJ "Bad" Brad Wheeler, "Joe doesn't play because he wants to be famous; he plays music because he loves jazz."

Forrest Crawford, a professor and civil rights activist, elaborates: "You got to understand the reason why Joe plays his horn the way that he plays it is that it's a community horn. It's a community sound." Crawford says McQueen figured out the relationship between music that entertains and music that communicates something more. 

McQueen's percussionist Don Keipp knows what that is: "You hear love, you hear passion, you hear the truth."

There may be no better town for McQueen than Ogden. When writer Paula Colman visited the city in Utah, she discovered that "community is the bedrock of Ogden." She likened Ogdenites to an aggregate of unique minerals bound together. Bound together, but perhaps a little gritty, referencing the city's "untamed" days as a rugged railroad outpost of the American West, less than 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, but almost a world apart.

You'll find Joe McQueen in the community here, too, playing at elementary schools, weddings and funerals.

I know The Good Lord likes jazz because if He didn't I couldn't play it like I do.
Joe McQueen performs with his quartet and
Joe McQueen performs with his quartet and "Bad" Brad Wheeler (back left) at Lighthouse Lounge on Ogden's Historic 25th Street.
At the seasoned age of 98,  Joe McQueen continues to perform over 60 shows a year with his quartet featuring Ryan Conger on Hammond organ, Brad Wright on guitar, and Don Keipp on drums.
At the seasoned age of 98, Joe McQueen continues to perform over 60 shows a year with his quartet featuring Ryan Conger on Hammond organ, Brad Wright on guitar, and Don Keipp on drums.

Person From Another Era

It might be that most professional musicians don't arrive at the truth in their music without a lot of practice. Joe states it a little differently:

Ogden's lively 25th Street nestled beneath the Wasatch Mountains.
Ogden's lively 25th Street nestled beneath the Wasatch Mountains.

"All I know is I just play. I know The Good Lord likes jazz because if He didn't I couldn't play it like I do." His origin story is classic: a confluence of depression-era economic challenges, the Jazz Age and pure, natural talent inform McQueen's saxophone. And as Wheeler observes, he "was there when they invented jazz" and would go on to play with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, even Hoagy Carmichael, who composed "Georgia on My Mind" in 1930.

There are Joe McQueen originals too, but the best way to hear those is to see him in person.

"You don't like to use the word dinosaur," says Wheeler, "but I mean, literally, Joe is like that. He is a person from another era that doesn't exist anymore. He's so rare."

It is perhaps no coincidence that a jazz musician from another era set roots in Ogden, a place as steeped in its own history as it is skillfully improvisational in its transition to vibrant urban setting. And like the musician blessed with innate natural ability, Ogden is harnessing the gifts of its bedrock community and vast outdoor recreation access.

Said another way, Ogden may not have learned the rules in a formal setting, but it seems to have an ear for city planning that puts people and character first. It's a city on the rise that deeply values its humble jazz legend, Joe McQueen, seen in its murals and music venues. For McQueen, Ogden is home — and that's where the music lives. 


Joe McQueen and Utah Live Music

Joe McQueen Quartet

Lighthouse Lounge

Joe McQueen Quartet performs the final Friday of each month (Saturday in March 2018)
130 25th St, Ogden, UT 84401
Closes:1 a.m.
(801) 392-3901

The Garage on Beck

Joe McQueen Quartet performs the first Thursday of every month
1199 Beck St, Salt Lake City, UT 84103
Open for lunch and closes 1 a.m.
(801) 521-3904
Read the story: Urban Vibe and Funeral Potatoes

Ogden Bars & Nightlife

Rooster’s Brewing Co. 
253 25th St
Ogden, UT 84401
Get Directions
801-627-6171

Hearth on 25th
195 25th St. Ste 6
Ogden, UT 84401
801-399-0088

Funk n’ Dive Bar
2550 Washington Blvd
Ogden, UT 84401
801-621-3483

Brewskis
244 25th Street
Ogden, UT 84401
801-394-1713

Wiseguys Comedy Club
269 25th St
Ogden, UT 84401
801-622-5588

Harp and Hound
2550 Washington Blvd
Ogden, UT 84401
Get Directions
801-621-3483

Slackwater Pub & Pizzeria
1895 Washington Blvd
Ogden, UT 84401
801-399-0637

The Sandtrap
2851 Washington Blvd
Ogden, UT 84401
801-394-4446

Salt Lake City Jazz Club

Avant Groove
122 W. Pierpont Avenue
Salt Lake City, UT 84101
801-953-0433
(Wed–Sat 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.)

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