If you grew up in Ogden Utah, like I did. Or if you spend any amount of time there you’ll begin to feel the vibrations of a city that once was. There are ghosts inOgden and they can be rough and loud and dangerous or full of laughter and wicked fun. You mostly hear and see the signs of these ghosts and the echos of their stories on 25th Street and at Union Station where, thankfully, some of their old haunts still stand.
The old railroad station itself is still there at the west end of 25th and then moving east on either side of Two Bit Street are the old hotels and restaurants and night clubs and former opium dens and houses of ill repute. The names have changed over the years as have, surely, their uses. But the echos of the city Ogden once wasare still there. And tkhere are som few people who were actually there and can summon the ghosts and tell us part of the story of the Ogden that once was.
I don’t really know shit about jazz music. I like some of it well enough and I subscribe to the philosophy of music that if it sounds good, then it is good. But jazz isn’t why I wanted to meet and talk to jazz saxophonist, Joe McQueen. His music sounds good, really good to me. But I wanted to meet Joe because he’s a legend. He’s 94 years old and he still plays out a couple of times a month. And he has lived in my hometown, Ogden, Utah, since 1945. He is an authentic Ogden man who knows what a great town it was.
I meet Joe for our interview* at my sister’s restaurant, The Two Bit Street Cafe on 25th Street in Ogden. Joe has a rich, smoky sounding voice.
“I don’t know why my voice is smoky,” he says when I ask him.
“I stopped smoking 56 years ago.”
“How, old were you then?, I ask.”
“I don’t know. 40 something.”
Okay, so Joe’s math isn’t so great. He’s 94, not 96 but there’s not much he doesn’t remember, not much that get’s by him. He knows that he came to Ogden in 1945, on December 7th, exactly 4 years after Pearl Harbor. McQueen was touring with a quartet in California when they got the call to go to Ogden and play a two-week gig in a club on 25th Street. That two weeks turned into 68 years of living here with his wife, Thelma, and playing jazz music in Utah…”and I’m damned glad it did,” says Joe.
“So your wife, Thelma, came here in ‘45 too?”
“Was she touring with the band?”
Joe get’s a little testy. “No. She wasn’t touring with the band. We were married. She was with me.”
But there is one thing about the whole settling in Ogden story that bothers McQueen. Most of the tellings of the story in his biographies for some reason tell it that Joe got stranded in Ogden; that one of his band members took off with all the money and Joe had to stay here because he was broke.
That story is a damned lie and the people who tell it are damned liars says Joe. Joe wasn’t stranded. He wasn’t broke. He had 300 bucks in his pocket from playing the slots in Reno.
“That ain’t broke,”he says.
Joe doesn’t like people thinking he couldn’t pay his own way. He always has and he always will. Here’s what really happened; the event that kinda set Joe up for his life in Ogden.
Joe and the band’s drummer got into a fight because the drummer wanted to leave without paying Joe and the other guys.
“He had a knife and I had a gun,” Joe says. “And the police broke up the fight and threw us both in jail.”
“You had a gun?”
“Hell yes, I had a gun. I might be packin’ right now. You don’t know. A man’s got a right to protect himself.” And then he gives a quick smile and a laugh and says not to worry, he’s left his piece at home this time.
Well, when he got out of jail Joe took over the band and they found work in the clubs on 25th street.
He hadn’t ever seen so much snow as he saw here that winter and he didn’t care much for that, he said, but as spring and summer rolled around he saw something about Ogden he really liked; people sleeping out on their front porches and front lawns to beat the heat.
“Folks would be afraid to do that, the places I come from,” he said. “I liked that. It seemed safe here and I wanted to stay.”
Joe talks about those days and the ghosts of Ogden come alive as we sit on 25th Street and he tells of opening a club in the basement of the old Porters and Waiters Hotel and Restaurant almost right across the street from where we are. Porters and Waiters, the only place open to blacks in Ogden in the era before desegregation.
Joe says there was illegal gambling in the back; he can tell that now because no one is alive anymore who could get in trouble. But the basement wasn’t being used for anything. So he went to Annabelle, the owner of the joint, and said he wanted to open a club down there.
And he did.
“Was the club segregated?”
“Hell no. I said I will not play in a place where everybody can’t come. Whites. Mexicans. Indians. Everybody was down there. Cops came and these two white boys said, it’s first time I ever hear this, them boys got up in the cops face and said; We’re free, white and 21 and you can’t tell us what to do.’ and them cops just got out of there. That’s what started breakin’ down the racial prejudice in Utah. Lotta people don’t know that.”
McQueen goes on to talk about refusing to play in clubs that wouldn’t admit blacks. He says always had white guys in the band. So why shouldn’t blacks be allowed in the bars they played in?
And then we talk about all the famous people who came through Ogden on the railroad, looking for a hook-up, looking for a ride, looking for a band to play with for just a bit. Joe McQueen met them and played with many of them.
Like the time Charlie Parker got off the train at Union Station and walked across the street to the Royal Hotel. Charlie “The Bird” Parker, one of the most famous jazz men to ever live.
The way McQueen tells the story, Parker was looking for someone to play some music with while waiting for a connecting train. Someone sent him to the Royal because they knew Joe was doing a gig there. But it almost didn’t happen because the guy at the door didn’t know who Charlie Parker was and wanted to charge him a cover to come in.
“So they come and got me,” says Joe. “They said there’s a guy at the door who wants to see you and when I saw who it was my eyes got real big and Parker said, ‘I heard you playin and it sounded good can I sit in with you?’ and I just said ‘Oh man.’ And we played together.”
McQueen played the sax with lots of others and met many of the greats; Louis Armstrong , Ray Charles, Hoagy Carmichael and Lester Young to name a few. He saw it all in Ogden and the more you get Joe to talk, the more you can feel that ghosts all around you.
“You could get anything you wanted on 25th Street in them days if you had the money. If you wanted a giraffe, all you had to do was ask and you could get it if you had the money.”
His smokey voices goes on, summoning the spirits of an Ogden City long time gone.
“The Ogden cop who arrested me, Marshall White, he taught me how to shoot when I got out of jail. And I’m good,” he brags. “I could shoot a guy between the eyes across the street if I had to…..”
Joe McQueen; 94, maybe 95 now, still going strong. He has been a red cap for the railroad; an automotive instructor at Weber State University; he spent several years as a volunteer caregiver and driver for the elderly...people often twenty, even thirty years younger than himself. And all the while, he plays his horn; the first friday of the month at the Wine Cellar on Washington Boulevard in Ogden and the last thursday of the month at the Garage on Beck Street in Salt Lake City. And by proclamation of Gov. Mike Leavitt in 2002, every April 18th is Joe McQueen day in the Utah.
*You can hear my complete interview with Joe McQueen on my podcast The Let’s Go Eat Show. It’s available at www.theletsgoeatshow.com. Also available for downloads on Itunes and Stitcher.