If you grew up in Ogden Utah, or spend any amount of time there you’ll begin to feel the vibrations of a city that is bathed in history. From it’s early roots in American fur trade, to it’s rise to prominence as a major railroad hub in the 40’s and 50’s, Ogden holds its fair share of ghosts. They can be rough, loud and dangerous or full of laughter and wicked fun. The City itself seems alive with these specters of the past, and you will certainly hear echoes of their stories on 25th Street where, thankfully, some of their old haunts still stand.
The railroad station, which is the origin of so much Ogden history, still stands at the west end of old 25th. To the east, on either side of what the locals call ‘Two Bit Street,’ are stately hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, some of which have a shadier past as opium dens and houses of ill repute. The venerable brick facades and red pavers in the sidewalk perfectly complement the vintage signs and colorful awnings that line the street and give you a true sense of an era gone by. Of course, building names have changed over the years, as have their purpose, but echoes of the ghosts of Ogden’s history are still present.
These days, only a few people can still summon these spirits of the past, and tell us tales of Ogden in it’s heyday. It was a time when railroad passengers poured from Union Station and old Two Bit Street was alive with the sounds of jazz.
I must confess, I don’t really know shit about jazz music. I like some of it ok, and I subscribe to the philosophy that if it sounds good, then it is good. But the melody isn’t why I wanted to meet jazz saxophonist, Joe McQueen. For the the record, his music “sounds good” to me, but I really wanted to meet him because he’s a legend. At 94 years old, McQueen still finds a couple of times a month to get up in front of an audience and play his sax. Also, he has lived in my hometown, Ogden, Utah, since 1945. He is an authentic Ogden man who knows what it used to be like when jazz was king.
I met McQueen at The Two Bit Street Cafe on 25th Street. He was instantly recognizable by his rich, smoky sounding voice.
“I don’t know why my voice is smoky,” he says “I stopped smoking 56 years ago.” When I asked how old he was when he quit, he said “I don’t know. 40 something.” Besides that, there’s not much he doesn’t remember.
He told me how 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 hired to travel to Ogden and play a two week gig in one of the 25th street jazz clubs. 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 McQueen. It turns out his wife also moved here in 45, but when I asked if she was on tour too, he said indignantly “No. She wasn’t touring with the band. We were married. She was with me.”
People have certainly written about McQueen before. Local articles often tell how he settled here in Ogden, but there is one thing about the relating of his story that bothers McQueen. Most of the would-be biographers tell it that he got stranded in Ogden; that one of his band members took off with all the money and McQueen had to stay here because he was broke. “That story is a damned lie and the people who tell it are damned liars.” said McQueen. It turns out he wasn’t stranded, or broke. He had 300 bucks in his pocket from playing the slots in Reno.“That ain’t broke,”he said.
McQueen doesn’t like people thinking he couldn’t pay his own way. He always has and he always will. He told me what really happened. McQueen and the band’s drummer got into a fight because the drummer wanted to leave without paying the other members of the band. “He had a knife and I had a gun,” McQueen said. “And the police broke up the fight and threw us both in jail.” When I followed up, McQueen said “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.” He gave a quick smile and laugh and told me not to worry. This time he left his piece at home.
When he got out of jail, McQueen took over the band and they found work in the clubs on 25th street. He had never seen so much snow in his life as he saw his first winter here. He told me he didn’t care much for that, but as spring and summer rolled around he saw people sleeping out on their 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.”
Listening to McQueen talk about those Ogden glory days as we sit on 25th Street makes a few of those old ghosts seem alive. He told me about opening a club in the basement of the old Porters and Waiters Hotel and Restaurant just across the street from where we sat. Porters and Waiters was the only place open to black people in Ogden before desegregation.
McQueen said there was illegal gambling in the back; (He can tell me that now because no one is alive who could get in trouble) But the basement was empty. McQueen approached Annabelle, the owner of the joint, and told her he wanted to open a club down there.
When I asked him if his club was segregated, he said “Hell no. I said I will not play in a place where everybody can’t come. Whites, Mexicans, Indians…everybody was down there.” McQueen recalled one incident when the police showed up, and two white men stepped up to defend the place. “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.”
McQueen said “That’s what started breakin’ down the racial prejudice in Utah. Lotta people don’t know that.”After that, McQueen refused to play in clubs that wouldn’t admit black people. His bands were always a mix of white and black, and he felt it was right.
McQueen also conjured up the ghosts of a number of famous people who came through Ogden on the railroad. Some looking for a hook-up, or for a ride; others looking for a band to play with for bit. McQueen met and played with many of them. Like the time Charlie Parker, one of the most famous jazz men ever, got off the train at Union Station and walked across the street to the Royal Hotel.
The way McQueen told it, Parker was looking for someone to play some music with, while waiting for a connecting train. Someone sent him to the Royal because McQueen was doing a gig there. But it almost didn’t happen. 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,” said McQueen. “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 greats: Louis Armstrong , Ray Charles, Hoagy Carmichael and Lester Young to name a few.