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Utah jazz legend Joe McQueen still playing with “oomph” after 99 years

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — His resume includes stints with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles and countless other musical legends, but in Utah music circles Joe McQueen is in a class all his own.

“Now I can’t play like I used to play,” says the straight-shooting saxophonist, “but I thank the good Lord that I’m able to play good enough to hang with these young guys.”

The Joe McQueen Band performing at the Gallivan Center on May 31, 2018. (Photo: Scott Jones)

Joe McQueen is 99-years-old. The young guys he’s talking about are the middle-aged members of the Joe McQueen Quartet.

The band is known to play up to 50 concerts a year throughout Utah.

“I tell these young guys, you guys don’t have as much ‘oomph’ as we had – the old guys,” McQueen said. “And we had the thing that the show must go on.”

McQueen’s ‘show must go on’ philosophy brought him to Salt Lake City’s Gallivan Center on May 31, one day after he turned 99.

He was joined by his 94-year-old wife, and 91-year-old first cousin.

Two-hour concerts are the norm. Nowadays, his shows includes the first song he ever wrote, “The Thing” – a lively be-bop ramble he composed and recorded at the age of 96.

Shortly after McQueen arrived in Ogden in 1945, he found it a place to his liking. He had just married, and wanted to get off the road. Before long, he was smashing color barriers – becoming the first African-American musician to play in Ogden and Salt Lake’s all-white clubs.

He recently told the Deseret News, “We wound up staying here and I’m glad I did. I doubt I would’ve still been alive if I’d have left and gone someplace else.”

Over the years, McQueen worked as a mechanic at Hill Air Force Base, and taught automotive technology at Weber State University. But he mostly credits his drive to play the music that he loves and a strong faith for his success.

“People don’t realize that the good Lord is looking at you and me and all of us right now,” he said. “And he’s blessing us, he blesses us every day. To let us live.”

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