June 24, 2018

The Resilience of Jazz

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By Michael Evans

Salt Lake City is home to a vibrant jazz music culture

Jazz emerged as a form of popular music 100 years ago, and achieved a high peak of popularity by 1945, when twenty-three-year-old Joe McQueen arrived in Ogden with his tenor saxophone. McQueen soon started leading his own jazz group and accompanying nationally known jazz stars who travelled by train to Utah in the days when Ogden boasted the largest community of African Americans in the state.

Jazz records moved up and down the charts over time, but the music evolved to rival classical in the skill of its players and innovations of its composers.

Today, Utah’s colleges employ top-notch, distinguished jazz musicians, such as Chris Johnson, Director of Jazz Studies at the U of U, who are fueling a resurgence of live jazz along the Wasatch Front, supported by audiences of vastly different ages.

Last summer, 8,000 twenty-somethings heard Kamasi Washington play from his award-winning jazz album, “The Epic” at the Twilight Concert Series, while audiences the same age and older attended two other Jazz shows the same night. Almost two dozen venues across the Wasatch Front present Jazz regularly or occasionally throughout the year, including the west side’s Sugar Space.

The Garage on Beck, near the west side’s northern tip at 1199 Beck St, has featured Jazz on Thursday nights since 2011, beginning with fine local musicians Mark Chaney on drums, Harold Carr on bass, and the late guitarist Keven Johansen. “[Johansen] was one of the finest musicians ever to come out of Salt Lake,” said Chaney, “Everyone’s favorite sideman!”

“We played three Thursdays every month,” he said, “and built up a friendly Jazz crowd that wasn’t there [at the Garage] before.”

The Garage devoted the first Thursday of every month to the Joe McQueen Quartet over those same years, with ace musicians Don Keipp from Weber State University, Brad Wright of Ogden, and Ryan Conger, music teacher at Fast Forward Charter High School in Logan.

“The Joe McQueen Quartet solidified at the Garage,” said keyboardist Conger, “We had been gigging around, but playing at a regular location allowed us to really develop.” Noted local musicians such as “Bad” Brad Wheeler, Keven Johansen, and Jay Lawrence sat in with the band.

Conger described his relationship with McQueen as “learning life lessons all the time.” “There is this grandfatherly feeling; he is a strong male role model. Working with him is being a part of a bigger thing. Besides his history in music, he was part of the Desegregation Movement, and so much more. ”

McQueen’s active role against racial segregation is documented in the book “Jazz & Cocktails: Rethinking Race and the Sound of Film Noir” by Jans Wager, plus films by the Ogden Standard-Examiner and Issac Goeckeritz about Ogden’s 25th Street and the Porters and Waiters Club.

Excellence in the Community concert series celebrated McQueen’s 99th birthday at the Gallivan Center in Downtown Salt Lake City in May. There was cake for everyone, and his multi-generational quartet performed skillful, nuanced arrangements of standards like “Willow Weep for Me,” and McQueen’s own tune “The Thing.”

Jazz disk jockey Steve Williams of KCPW 88.3 FM, who has been on Salt Lake Radio since 1979, was “really excited” to be MC at the concert. “Joe McQueen is such a great man,” said Williams, “For me, anytime I can be with Joe is a treat – anytime you get a fellow around who has the credentials he does. He’s an innovator and a motivator for all of us guys.” 

Williams is also a regular MC for Jazz concerts at the historic Capitol Theater presented by JazzSLC, which Gordon Hanks started twenty-four years ago, with influential jazz DJ Wes Bowen as announcer at first.

Williams has been on the Excellence in the Community team since 2005, an organization that has promoted over 400 concerts by the best musicians in Utah.

“Excellence” teamed up with the Gallivan Center in 2011, and now produces free concerts every week there throughout the year, in addition to other free concert venues. “We may only have a few celebrities in Utah, but we have lots of excellence,” said Excellence in the Community Founder Jeff Whitely.

That excellence includes McQueen. “We made an album a few years ago,” said Conger, “but Joe’s playing so well right now that we are recording another one called “9 by 99,” which we will release this autumn.”

“The Lord has blessed me with a long life,” McQueen tells the audiences at his shows, “and I hope he blesses everybody just as much!”