OGDEN — An Ogden legend died Saturday.
Joe McQueen, pioneering jazz saxophonist and Northern Utah resident, died Saturday morning at the age of 100.
Fellow jazz musician Brad Wheeler said in a Facebook post Saturday afternoon that McQueen, his close personal friend and fellow musician, died at 10:20 a.m. Saturday.
“He has been living his whole life for this day,” Wheeler wrote in the post. “He told me to tell everyone not to cry for him, 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.”
Lars Yorgason, an Ogden resident and bass player, told the Standard-Examiner that McQueen was a wonderful person, and he’s considered himself lucky to call McQueen a friend.
“He was a very honest, honorable person,” Yorgason said. “I think the world should know that. I’m grateful I was his friend.”
Yorgason played with McQueen since 1977, when he moved back to Ogden. He described McQueen as a leader for desegregating Ogden establishments, telling club owners that he wouldn’t play at their establishments unless they allowed people of all colors inside.
“He was a force in getting establishments to reduce and eliminate segregation in Ogden,” Yorgason said. “He really enjoyed being in Ogden.”
McQueen was described as a tender, kind and strong man, according to Ryan Conger, an organist who played for years with Joe as part of his quartet.
Conger, who said he’s known McQueen for about eight or nine years, was always amazed at what the saxophonist could do, even in his older years. Conger recalled a piano teacher he had at Utah State University who would sit in on jam sessions where others could join in. It was competitive, and the teacher was always intimidated when trying to keep up with McQueen.
Conger would later share in that experience when he, too, would play with McQueen. His speed and expertise in music could be seen well into his later years.
“Mere mortals could hardly keep up with him back in the day,” Conger said. “It was one of those experiences that left you in awe.”
McQueen was much more than just a musician, said Conger, as he was known for his strength and passion for helping others. After McQueen retired in his 80s, Conger said McQueen would spend 40 hours a week driving seniors to doctor’s appointments, pharmacies and anywhere else they needed to go.
“It’s hard to imagine all he did for this community,” Conger said. “That was just Joe, he was tough as nails but always cared about others. He was the kind of guy you wanted to be.”
McQueen was born May 30, 1919, in Ponder, Texas, and was raised by his grandmother in Ardmore, Oklahoma, according to previous Standard-Examiner reporting.
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.
Through the years, McQueen toured across the country but always remained true to Ogden.
Earlier this year on June 1, dozens gathered at Ogden’s Second Baptist Church to celebrate McQueen’s 100th birthday.
Speaker after speaker noted McQueen is an inspiration for more than just his music. They praised McQueen for breaking barriers during segregation, playing in any clubs he could, and helping generations of younger musicians learn how to play and be good people.
In anticipation for his centennial birthday, the Utah Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 12, which honored the jazz legend’s birthday. The musician also received a brand new saxophone from the Sandy-based company Cannonball Musical Instruments.
In 2002, former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt declared that every April 18 would be Joe McQueen Day.
Conger said that it’s difficult to imagine the type of place Ogden would be without McQueen. He mentioned that Saturday, the date of his death, was the 74th anniversary of McQueen arriving in Ogden, the place he would call home.
“I don’t know any other person who had as much of an impact on Ogden as he did,” Conger said. “There will never be anyone else who could do the things he’s done.”