OGDEN — Joe McQueen, the pioneering jazz saxophonist who entertained Ogden audiences for almost 75 years, got a soaring sendoff Saturday afternoon in a memorial event featuring performances by fellow musicians and ringing tributes about his selflessness.
Hundreds thronged into the Monarch on 25th Street for a service by Ogden’s Second Baptist Church in remembrance of McQueen, 100, who died Dec. 7 after a struggle with cancer.
Surviving members of the Joe McQueen Quartet, the church choir, and other local musicians entertained the crowd in an event infused with what speakers said was McQueen’s life of quiet leadership and service.
“He used his music to get your attention,” said nephew Allen Benson. “Then he’d drop wisdom on you.”
A longtime friend, Elliott Burrell, said McQueen “was a gifted genius with music who touched hearts and souls.”
McQueen, revered for breaking through racial segregation barriers in Utah music clubs and elsewhere, was never bitter or filled with hatred about those times, Burrell said.
“He was a giant of a man,” he said. “He was patient and never judgmental.”
McQueen also resisted descriptions that he had been “lucky” in life, Burrell said.
He said McQueen was often the first congregant to testify at their church’s 8 a.m. Sunday service about how blessed he was.
“It seems like God has put a special touch on Joe,” Burrell said.
Musician Brad Wheeler imitated McQueen’s deep, gruff voice while telling stories about his friend, but he became tearful at times too.
“Joe was the biggest badass I ever knew,” said Wheeler, who met McQueen 22 years ago and after a time found himself in the role of an unofficial grandson.
He said knowing McQueen was “a powerful, powerful experience” because he drummed into him the importance of being “selfless instead of selfish.”
Early on, McQueen told him to say yes when asked to do something for someone, “even though it may be hard.”
Wheeler said he soon afterward was asked to teach Ogden-area kids to play the harmonica, and he agreed. Then he found out hundreds had signed up.
“I was so angry at Joe,” he said. “But I did it and it felt good to do something for others.”
At the same time, McQueen couldn’t understand why so many gravitated to him.
“He was confused by people being so enamored of him,” Wheeler said. “I told him, ‘You are a vehicle for God. He uses you to influence others.”
McQueen died six months after the community celebrated his life at a birthday party in his church.
On Saturday, all speakers praised McQueen’s wife, Thelma, 95, who came to Ogden with the young saxophonist in 1945 and helped the community as well.
Paris Brown, another friend of McQueen’s, said he couldn’t afford good shoes for playing high school basketball, but Thelma found some for him in a thrift store where she worked.
In the past year, Wheeler said, McQueen found deeper meaning about having lived a century.
“He said anyone can live to be 100, but how many live to be married 75 years?”
After McQueen retired at age 83, he volunteered another 10 years with Weber Human Services’ Seniors Companions program.
During his long jazz career, McQueen played with famed musicians Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, according to the quartet’s website.
An obituary published in the memorial event program said Joe Leandrew McQueen was born May 30, 1919, on Ardmore, Oklahoma. His mother died when he was 14 and he was raised thereafter by his grandparents and uncle.
He is survived by his wife, a cousin and many nieces and nephews.
During Saturday’s service, Benson, his nephew, pointed around the packed public hall and told the predominantly black congregation, “Look around you. Before Joe McQueen, we couldn’t do this.”