OGDEN — What birthday gift do you give to the centenarian who has it all — or, at the very least, who has pretty much seen and done it all in a full century of living?
How about a brand new saxophone and an official proclamation from the State of Utah?
Iconic Utah saxophonist Joe McQueen turns 100 years old later this spring. In honor of that milestone, last week McQueen was gifted with a new saxophone from the Sandy-based company Cannonball Musical Instruments. And last Thursday, House Concurrent Resolution 12 was introduced in the Utah Legislature, celebrating the 100th birthday of the Ogden musician.
For the life of him, McQueen can’t figure out why he’s attracting all this attention of late.
“I don’t know what I’ve done, other than play my horn and try to be a nice guy,” he said. “But all this attention, I can’t dodge it. I’m just glad I kept my nose clean, otherwise I might have problems with the police.”
McQueen was born May 30, 1919, in Ponder, Texas, and was raised by his grandmother in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He began playing the saxophone as a teenager, eventually touring the country with jazz bands. In late 1945 McQueen and his new bride, Thelma, were traveling with a band when they made a stop in Ogden. While here, another member of the band stole the group’s money and left town. The couple decided to stay and make a home here.
McQueen became a fixture in the local music scene, playing with many of the big jazz names coming through town — Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. He also toured on and off throughout the West.
Not only does McQueen turn 100 on May 30, but just 11 days later — on June 10 — Joe and Thelma McQueen will celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary.
Salt Lake City bluesman Brad Wheeler is a longtime friend of McQueen’s. (The saxophonist often introduces Wheeler to others as his “white grandson.”) Wheeler says the recognition being heaped on McQueen this year is well-deserved, but it will undoubtedly make him uncomfortable.
“This 100th birthday will probably drive him nuts,” Wheeler said. “He doesn’t like the attention. Joe didn’t play jazz to be famous, he played jazz because he loves it.”
It was Wheeler who started the push to get McQueen a new saxophone.
“I realized he needed to get a new horn — it’s been with him for 50 years,” Wheeler said. “You’re just not supposed to play a horn that long.”
However, Wheeler also knows McQueen doesn’t take kindly to accepting charity. Friends had talked about raising money for a new saxophone, but they also knew McQueen doesn’t care for fundraisers like Kickstarter.
“He doesn’t like to accept donations,” Wheeler said. “He’s still a proud man.”
Wheeler approached Cannonball Musical Instruments about the possibility of giving McQueen a new instrument. They agreed, but said it would take a couple of weeks to prepare it.
“I told Joe what was going on, I didn’t want him upset,” Wheeler said. “And he was, like, ‘Whoa, I’ve needed a new horn, but I didn’t know how I’d do it.’”
After that, Wheeler says it was like waiting for Christmas.
“He started calling me every day, like a little kid — ‘Have you heard anything? Is it in yet?’” Wheeler recalls.
Then, in the middle of last week, McQueen and Wheeler went to the Cannonball factory, where owners showed the musician two saxophones to choose from — a gold and a silver Vintage Reborn model.
“They had these two horns in these two beautiful cases,” Wheeler said. “Joe looked at them and his eyes got big. Then Joe goes, ‘I’ve never been a silver man, I really like gold horns.”
Cannonball engraved McQueen’s signature on the instrument while they were there. Wheeler says that was a tender moment for him.
“I started crying, I still get emotional thinking about it now,” Wheeler said. “Joe couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. This makes being alive feel good. The fact they would give this man a horn was not lost on me.”
Sheryl Moore Laukat, CEO of Cannonball, grew up in Sunset and attended Weber State University, so she was already familiar with McQueen and his legacy in Ogden. She said making the decision to give the elderly jazz musician a saxophone worth thousands of dollar was “actually pretty easy.”
“Our business has always been a lot more than just making money,” Laukat said. “Of course, we have to make money to survive, but in our hearts we like to do things like this. It makes us feel so good when we have the opportunity to do something like this.”
Laukat said she’d heard that McQueen’s old sax had seen better days. A musician like him would have “played it and played it and played it,” according to Laukat, and a saxophone can only be repaired so many times.
“We’re glad we could provide this new saxophone, so Joe can make music, instead of worrying about leaks,” she said.
As McQueen approaches his 100th birthday, there are no guarantees how much longer this Ogden treasure with be with us. However, while Wheeler worries that he could lose his friend one day, he also knows the man is in amazing health for his age.
“He’s as sharp as he’s ever been,” Wheeler said. “His playing is as ferocious as ever. Most people his age should be slowing down, not speeding up. Joe’s speeding up.”
Laukat, whose company had just gifted McQueen an expensive saxophone, isn’t worried about McQueen going anywhere anytime soon, either.
“I just heard the oldest lady in the world died in Russia last week. She was 129,” Laukat said. “You talk with Joe, and you can tell he’s not going anywhere. But even if he did, to bring even one day of joy to him was worth it.”
McQueen says he hasn’t played the new saxophone in a concert yet, but he has been rehearsing with it.
“It’s a very nice horn, and very beautiful,” McQueen said. “It even has my name on it, and that was really something.”
Audiences will have a chance to hear the new saxophone’s inaugural performance next week with the Jazz at the Station concert series. The Joe McQueen Quartet will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, in the Grand Lobby of Ogden’s Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave.
In addition to McQueen on sax, the quartet features Don Keipp on drums, Brad Wright on guitar and Ryan Conger on keyboards.
Admission is free, and the concert is open to all — including well-behaved children. Organizers warn folks to arrive early; Jazz in the Station usually plays to standing-room-only audiences.