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Interviews

Alvin Queen: The Move, The Groove and The Beat

By Published: October 2, 2007
Alvin Queen There are two types of great drummers in jazz, the impeccable time keepers and the ones who bring something more to both the instrument and the pieces/groups in which they appear. Alvin Queen is of the latter group, possessing a casual grace and instantly recognizable sound. He is in a direct line of artistic descendants from other great skin-men including Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones and Max Roach.



AAJ contributor Maxwell Chandler sat down with Queen to talk about his impressive pedigree.

Chapter Index

  1. Early Days
  2. Studies and Influences
  3. First Gig/Gretsch Drum Night
  4. First Recording/John Coltrane
  5. Organ Trios
  6. George Braith/Grant Green/John Patton
  7. Playing Live vs. Studio Recording/Drum Sound
  8. Horace Silver
  9. Favorite Organists
  10. The European Scene
  11. Nilva Records/Oscar Peterson/Current Line-Up
  12. Club Scene
  13. Current and Dream Projects



Early Days

All About Jazz: You grew up in the Levister Projects during the fifties, and your father was a jazz enthusiast, taking you to shows at The Apollo. Did you inherently have a passion for the music from the get-go or did it grow on you?

Alvin Queen: I've always had passion for the music, because although I lived in a town as small as Mount Vernon, NY, which was an area of only four square miles, they had at that time at least five jazz clubs where folks could hear music.

Alvin Queen You must keep in mind that jazz music was once a danceable music, and I was able to see the connection between entertaining the audience and playing my instrument, and how I could make them a part of my performance. All the good players understood that.

Today, you can hear musicians playing music, which they can understand, but most of them have forgotten that the audience cannot follow what they are saying musically—the audience works every day, nine to five—so chances are if they haven't actually studied music in the context of some school, they're not going to know what you're playing, unless the feeling is there for them to pat their foot, to be a part of it.

AAJ: Your brother, Willie Queen, was a percussionist with the Grime School Marching Band, an activity he tried to turn you onto. At The First Church of God In Christ, you played the tambourine while singing in choir. Did these two things occur at around the same time or did one open you up to the possibilities in your mind of the other?

AQ: I really never knew what I want to do in life at the age of eight, but my brother used to take me to school every day (he was five years older), and I also wanted to follow him in life, so he was marching every year in the annual school parade band and I thought, "Once I become old enough I want to do that.

Regarding the second part of the question, in most black families at that time we had to go to church every Sunday or you wouldn't be able to go out to play with your friends on Saturday, or you'd have to stay in the house all day on Sunday, that's how serious it was. Yes, they did occur around the same time, because I can remember as far back when all children had to sit in the front row during Sunday school meetings, and I saw my Grandmother singing and beating the tambourine when I was just four, so the vibration of being into music was always around me because my family in the neighborhood always played a major part of my life, so I took part in the choir and I picked up the tambourine and played it, too.

AAJ: You were shining shoes to save for a drum kit, a slow-going prospect in any economy, although your shine kit allowed you entrance into the studio, where you were able to meet studio owner Andy Lalino and take lessons. How long did these formalized lessons last? Fairly fast you would get practical application in diverse, hands-on situations. Was this the only time in your career in which you formally studied?

Alvin AQ: To make a long story short, I'll tell you how I met Andy Lalino. It was after Christmas holidays. I remember my mother had taken me Christmas shopping on Fourth Avenue in Mount Vernon, and I remember looking up onto the second floor of a building, where I saw written, "Andrew Lalino Drum Studio, which was like a storefront window everyone shopping could see.

By this time in my life, I'd joined the same marching band in school that my brother was part of before he moved on to junior high school. They were teaching me the marching rudiments, and reading in elementary school, so I did have an idea of how to read music for the drums when I first met Andy.

But, respectfully, I have to correct you on something. When you're a black kid in the neighborhood, most of the children would try to find something to do so they could pick up a few dollars on the side without getting into trouble; this is why I use to shine shoes, because most kids had a paper route or something else.

Most of the people in the neighborhood knew who I was because they used to have many places called skin joints, where most of the black men were playing cards or doing some kind of gambling, and they were all friends of my father, so I knew that I could make a decent buck or two around there, so I'd walk from place to place with my shoe shine box until I felt like I had enough money for the day.

Now to get back to Andy's studio, I needed a way to get up there to see what was happening. So I used my shoe shine job to offer him a free shine, so that I could see what was going on, that's when he asked me if I knew anything about the drums, and I told him yes, because I was playing in the Grime School Marching Band.

He told me to have my mother contact him for lessons—which I did—but my mother was raising five kids at this time on her own, so my lessons became too expensive after nine months. This is where Andy stepped into the picture. He knew I was a good kid and he didn't want me to turn to the streets, so he started to teach me just like the rest of the kids, only now for free, and he told me in return that once I became successful I could pay him back. That's how it happened.

These lessons lasted for about six years, and I turned out to be Andy's best student, so he was very proud. This was only the period in my life that I studied formally, with anyone. To this day, Andy and I are the best of friends, after forty-five years.

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Studies and Influences

AAJ: In general, what did your musical studies consist of? How long each day would you practice, and is this something you still do?

AlvinAQ: I normally would practice for at least three or four hours a day on rudiments and exercises to keep my hands together, but the first thing you have to realize is that the drum is a very loud instrument, so you have to find the correct place, so you're not disturbing someone else with it.

I mostly practice when I'm traveling, because usually I can get into the club a few hours earlier, before the sound check, and enjoy working out.

I came up when they didn't have metronomes, which would tell you how a triple or an eighth note would sound like, so the teacher would tell us how they would sound, and you'd sing that sound all week long to yourself and if you forgot it, that would be your lesson for another week.

This definitely gets to be expensive when you have to pay for those lessons, so this is how I learned about the sound of the sixteenth note, the eighth and the quarter note.

I can still remember some of the books I learned from at that time, such as Haskin in Hard, Ted Reed Syncopation, and I had to study with the Jimmy Chaplin Music Minor—one LP with the music charts—which was made for drummers learning to play with big bands.

AAJ: During this time what were you listening to and who were your heroes? Were there any drummers or particular sounds you made an effort to emulate?

AQ: My father was very heavily into music at this time of my life, so it was always being played in my house, and I was always trying to act and imitate people like Arthur Prysock, Billy Eckstine, Bill Henderson and Jimmy Rushing, some of my favorite drummer were: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Walter Perkins, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Gus Johnson, Panama Francis, just to name a few.

AlvinDuring this time of my life black people were still using chemicals to straighten their hair, and I was waiting until I became old enough to have my hair done. I'm telling you this to understand the rest of the story I'm going to tell you, about my introduction into the music world, because you asked me what I was listening to during this period. Remember, I was not older than ten or eleven and I knew some of the very biggest names in jazz already.

So, to continue the story, my father would to take me to Sugar Ray Robinson's barber shop down in Harlem, where folks would have their hair done. My father was having his hair processed at least every two weeks, at this same place where Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Joe Louis, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Philly Joe Jones would also frequent.

After each visit to Sugar Ray's barber shop, my father would take me to the Apollo Theatre to catch a show before we'd return to Mount Vernon by subway, and if he didn't have a copy of the record with him, by the artist we'd just seen, after the show we would go to a record shop across the street and do just that, before our journey back home.

It was run by a guy called Teddy McRae.

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First Gig/Gretsch Drum Night

AAJ: One of your first professional gigs was at the age of eleven with the Jimmy Hill Trio. Had you your own kit yet? How hard is it for a drummer to play another musician's kit, or do the potential difficulties vary with each musician?

AQ: By this time I had managed to get my own drums, and I'd like to share with you how this happened. Jimmy Hill was a self-taught alto player who was always trying to help other people out. He was more like the Cannonball Adderley of Mount Vernon, and my father and most of the people in the neighborhood would always go do to the Ambassador Lounge on Eleventh Avenue to listen to him play on weekends.

One special evening Jimmy Hill's drummer didn't show up, and I believe this was on a Friday night, which left Jimmy in a very difficult situation, as there wasn't anyone else around that he could call, so he thought of me this particular evening.

He knew I was underage, and therefore not allowed to be in a place that sold alcohol unless accompanied by an adult. Jimmy had about an hour to get things together, so we heard a knock on the door and he spoke with both of my parents explaining the situation. My father called me in the room and asked me, "Alvin, do you think you can help Mr. Hill out for the evening, and do you think you know the music? After which I turned around and said, "Sure Dad, I think I can help Mr. Hill for tonight and I know that there wouldn't be any problem, because they can't be playing any music other than what's in your record collection and I know all that. So my father said "Fine. Put your little suit on and let's go!

AlvinAAJ: Like your first gig, because of your age, you had to be accompanied by an adult to your next baptism of fire, the annual Gretsch Drum Night held at the original Birdland [in New York City]. You garnered enthusiastic responses from what now reads like jazz percussion's royal court (Elvin Jones, Charlie Persip, Max Roach and Mel Lewis). Being young but already displaying talent, did any of these cats have any advice to offer?

AQ: Yes, this was something organized by Andy Lalino, who was also more like my manager. Once he got permission from my parents, he was able to pick me up and drive to Birdland, where he introduced me to Elvin Jones. Elvin took me in right away, and told all the drummers around him to leave me alone, because I was his son. Pee Wee Marquette used to bother me all the time until Art Blakey and Elvin told him to leave me alone or he would know what was going to happen, and after that Pee Wee backed off.

Elvin presented me on stage with five other Gretsch Drummers that night: Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Charlie Persip and Mel Lewis. They didn't give me any advice, per se. They just commented about how they were very happy to see me playing and handling the drums so well at that age. It was a key moment for me, to feel at that young age that it was all about being around the correct musicians to be able to hear what was right. It's hard for musicians today to get this right, because most of the legends are dead and gone.

AAJ: This special night was held on the still thriving 52nd Street scene. It was a fertile period when masters of different eras and schools could still be found in late night jam sessions. Did you get the feeling of the cats being broken into different camps based on genre (bop, cool et al) or was the old adage that there are only two types of music good and bad the general rule?

AQ: There were different forms of music and around this time things were beginning to change, but still, above all, musicians had respect for one another. John Coltrane gave musicians more of a chance of playing much freer.

Roy Haynes was playing triplets way back with Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan, but everybody thought it was something new when Elvin came along playing them with Coltrane.

AlvinThere was a big change during this period with Elvin's style of playing and also Tony Williams. Normally Elvin played more triplets off of the beat whereas Tony was able to free up the bass drum and use it for a lot of accentuation.

The older guys used to demand you just play time, without any syncopation, and when it was time for you to solo they'd give you the freedom to play, but you'd have to play that solo in time with the bass drum. The bass drum to the older guys was the heartbeat of the band, just like the engine of a car, and without that, nothing would function, so they depended on that.

AAJ: A year later you would make your first appearance on a record. Leading up to this, where you now regularly gigging? Did this affect your schooling at all? At what point did you realize this was your calling, and did you readily find support from your family?

AQ: Well no, I was not gigging, because I never realized what success was, I was mostly just a happy kid, and it wasn't about what you didn't have, it was all about what you were accomplishing in life. It did affect my schooling, because it made it very difficult for me to get out of bed many mornings after getting in late at night, but I managed to do it, burning eyes and all. I never realized this was my calling, because at my age what would I know about a calling? Twelve years old is pretty young!

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First Recording/John Coltrane

AAJ: Your album debut has an impressive cast, and features Zoot Sims, Art Davis, Hank Jones and Harold Mabern (splitting piano chores). Do you remember the set list? You were still very young; did you get any guff from your fellow musicians? This album was never released, and besides being a shame for us listeners, did it affect your outlook towards the business? Has anyone ever explained why this album was not released, then or now?

AQ: This record was also arranged by Andy Lalino, who managed to speak with some important people who'd heard me perform at the Gretsch Drum event at Birdland. That night was very successful for me; someone had decided to spend the money to introduce me to the world as a child prodigy.

Andy decided to contract the musicians and Joe Newman was contracted as music director, so he got for the date Zoot Sims, Art, Davis, Hank Jones and Harold Mabern. Hank was not able to do the second session because he was still working for NBC, so he was replaced by Harold Mabern.

The set list I don't remember, but I know there were a couple of Joe's and Zoot's tunes added to the date.

I did have a problem a few times within the date, but they were not with the musicians, they were more with Joe Newman. Joe was the type of guy who always stayed on your back about keeping the time up, play strong and keeps the beat steady, and that's all I could hear.

I was only twelve years old, so from time to time my muscles would get tired and Joe would say, "Let's take a break, so the kid can take a rest and get his chops together, but the record turned out in the end to be perfect.

AAJ: The next event in your life could definitely be seen as a "graduation of sorts. While still in your teens, happenstance found you once again at Birdland, this time as John Coltrane's classic quartet was recording their live album, Live at Birdland (Impulse!, 1963). Elvin Jones had you sit in with the band midway through first set. Do you remember the set list? In some respects, now, jazz has become more rigid in an audience's expectations of what encompasses a show. To your knowledge, were people responsive to your presence on the bandstand?

Alvin QueenAQ: I remember this night so well, because the Terry Gibbs Quartet was the opening act for Coltrane, and I remember Alice McLeod was playing piano with Terry's group. Of course later she became Alice Coltrane.

This is where George Braith first spotted me, which led to my joining his group soon after. During this special night Elvin sat me at his table with his wife and put a coca cola in front me, before he headed for the stage, I was no more than three feet from the band, where I could see both feet and hands working.

I never knew what Elvin had in mind, but all of a sudden Elvin got up from the drums while John was playing and said, "The kid has to learn, and he picked me up, sat me on the drums and said, "Now play!

People were responsive to the way I played, because they realized I knew what I was doing, and it would just be a matter of time before building up my muscles. Thanks to this special night at Birdland, I was at the top of the list as one of the youngest jazz musicians in the business in 1963.

The set list consisted of the same tunes as found on Live at Birdland, and one of the tunes which was very popular was "Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria. I can't recall what tune it was when Elvin put me up on the drums.

AAJ: Did you ever play with or keep in touch with any members of the band after that?

AQ: I use to call Elvin just about every day, and he was responsible for getting me a brand new set of drums from the president of Gretsch drums at the time, Mr. Phil Grant. McCoy and I have been talking about getting together for many years, but things haven't as yet materialized.

I used to go down to Pooky Pub to hear Elvin's group after he left Coltrane, and he had Joe Farrow on tenor and Junior Booth on bass and sometimes Jimmy Garrison.

I was part of Jimmy Garrison's band before he passed away, which included George Braith, Ronnie Mathews, Juantine Faulks and me on drums. I use to see Jimmy a lot because he was living in Horace Silver's building, I believe on 87th Street, before Horace moved to Los Angeles.

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Organ Trios

AAJ: You were now working with Wild Bill Davis in an organ trio. Was this your first time playing with this instrument and did you find you had to alter your touch at all for the music being produced?

AQ: No not really because the first organ player that I ever worked with was Richard Levister from Mount Vernon and he was a part of the Jimmy Hill Trio in which I replaced the drummer.

AAJ: In general, do you find you must change your touch depending upon the instrumental line-up of an ensemble?

AQ: This is a very interesting question, because it is the most important one for me. The reason why I've taken so much time and [so many] years to play with everyone that I've played with is because every individual person has something to say. They speak differently and their emotions are different. You can't play the same way with everyone, because it simply won't always work, and there'll definitely be some kind of conflict with the musicians in the band.

If each musician tries to be creative at a certain spot within the music, you are supposed to hear this within an eight to a sixteen bar phrasing, if you're listening. I've learned from my experience of life and as a musician to learn from playing on the bandstand, not going to school. My school was the bandstand.

The musicians used to yell at me years ago and at times say some very ugly things, but they only meant well, funnily enough. They all knew in the long run I could do it, so one would have to take this like a man during these moments, and to keep your mouth shut if you wanted the gig.

The older musicians were like your parents, so you didn't speak back to them in a nasty way—and if you did you knew you'd better look for another gig. There were great musicians years ago and they all could play. Whenever you were on a gig with someone years ago, there was always someone waiting around for something to go wrong, so that they would get the gig and replace you.

AlvinAAJ: Your next gig was backing singer Ruth Brown. The rest of her band at that time was the Don Pullen Trio. In this group Don played not piano, on which he was a wizard, but organ. I had known Don's work on piano through his stint with Charles Mingus and his Don Pullen/George Adams groups, never realizing he'd also played organ. I read that it was partially commercial considerations that made him adopt organ for a while. Don was always very forward thinking, with a modernistic progressive bent to his piano playing. What were his chops on organ like?

AQ: Yes, it was Don Pullen's trio, but I didn't know Ruth Brown until Don called me up to join his group. I'm not sure if it was C.I. Williams on alto or Tony Williams from Philadelphia, but we used to play a lot in Gracie's Belmont club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was the same place I was working with Wild Bill Davis and Dicky Thompson.

I really didn't know Don as a pianist until years later when he showed up in Europe with Charlie Mingus, and this is when he got his big break, but he had a beautiful touch on the Hammond B3. I'm pretty sure there's a record out under Dave Hubbard's name, on the Mainstream label, produced by Bob Shad, who did the date featuring Don on organ.

AAJ: I think when one is young the coming or leaving of a job seems a more serious, heavy thing. Did leaving one group to join another bother you? Were they for the most part amicable departures?

AQ: Man, this is one of the most painful things that can happen, because once you're involved in a group it's like being part of a family, and you learn to do things together.

The vibe among musicians is different today than years ago. When I came up, there were musicians traveling from different parts of the country to New York, and if they had nowhere to go after a jam session, they used to hang out all night at Horn & Hardart's restaurant or at Bickford's, and if you had enough money to buy a sandwich, you'd break that into pieces and share that with him—that's what the music world was all about.

Most of the musicians would take another musician home with him and throw an extra mattress on the floor to give him a place to sleep, that's what it was all about until you got a gig.

Most of the time there were not "put-together bands. For example, some of Art Blakey's bands would stay together for ten or fifteen years, the same was true for Horace Silver and Miles Davis' groups—you didn't leave school until it was time for you to be a bandleader.

Most bandleaders would tell the record labels, "He's ready —that's how things were. This is one of the reasons I went out of my way to perform with so many different people, to get my approval that I was ready, for the word to be out there.

This didn't take four years; it took more like thirty-five years, and now I'm putting it through the test. I've always left any group under good conditions. If not, I'd feel guilty and couldn't face the person later in life.

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George Braith/Grant Green/John Patton

AAJ: Multi-reedman George Braith was also present at the Birdland Gretsch event. He offered you a place in his band which at this time also included Grant Green and John Patton. This is one of my favorite line-ups which George has had. Did you have a chance to record with George or Grant at all? In looking at an overview of your career there is a wide variety of playing situations in which you participated, but all seemed somewhat based in a sort of soul-groove feel or a progressive hard-bop thing. Was your time with George your first foray into music which went a little further out? George is a definite one of a kind, and like yourself seems in his music to be comfortable with incorporating some of the same sonic base elements. Did your time with all these various artists up to this point add things to your artistic palette or was your artistic evolution more of a solitary inner thing?

AlvinAQ: George was really the one to discover me at Birdland and to put my music through the test. I really have a lot of respect for George because he was the one to help me to develop the mind and the sense for putting things together.

When George bought me into his group it had some very powerful guys and I suffered a lot because my chops were not strong enough at the time, but they also took the time with me to get them right.

Try to remember that the Hammond B3 is a very strong instrument, and when you add John Patton to the mix, it's even stronger. Grant Green only wanted to know if you could find a groove. He was all about closing his eyes and asking you to help him find that groove. It used to be funny, because after Grant's solo he would turn around say "You are that bad motherfucker, and I would just smile, because I knew I was doing something right.

George was the one who introduced me to so many people at this time. He's the one who would take me by Elmo Hope's house.

I can remember a gig I did with George at the Blue Cornet in Brooklyn, and he had Larry Young on piano, Ernie Farrow on bass and me on drums.

I was with George when he decided to change his form of music by letting the organ go and then adding piano and bass. After this, George decided to only use bass and drums. He was always the guy to say to me "Free up the time and drop the two and four on the hi hat.

I had this same experience with Joe Henderson. Joe uses to love for the time to flow, without the hi hat on every two and four, that's what I like about Joe Chambers. He's a master at this and whenever I get a chance to check Joe out, I'm sitting right there.

The only recording I ever did with George is part of his private collection, and I think that someone should definitely speak with him to get them out on CD. I was the one who originally helped George to build his club Musart down on Spring St. during the '60s and early '70s.

I can remember Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane use to go there to rehearse and play together, and I also received an offer from Sonny Rollins at this time to join his band at George's place. Many people used to come by, for example Roy Haynes, Janet Getz, Evelyn Blakey, Joe Lee Wilson, Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton. Lots of musicians began to have lofts around this time, were you could play all night.

AAJ: Would it be safe to say that at this point you had appeared more in live situations than you had on record? Do you have a preference for one over the other?

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Playing Live vs. Studio Recording/Drum Sound

AQ: Yes, that's true, I never looked at it that way, because I have been having a lot of fun during my life, expanding my horizons with music and musicians, and it really doesn't matter to me whether I'm on record or not.

This gives me more reason to lead a group because I haven't been overexposed this way, and I have a lot to offer, and most of that you'll begin to hear on my own records. I have a treasure chest full of stuff to share with the world that I received from some of the greatest musicians who ever lived; they gave me the material during the years I worked with them.

I prefer to play for a live audience, and if it's being recorded, it's definitely great to capture this if possible, as these are some of the best recordings. This was the case with the live album at the Domicile in Munchen [Impact (Strata East, 1975)] with the Charles Tolliver Quartet in 1972, the same for the Loodrecht Jazz Festival in Holland double record set [Live at Loosedrecht Jazz Festival (Strata East, 1973)]; these were classic recordings which opened doors for me in Europe and America.

AAJ: When reading about rock & roll and sometimes with saxophones in jazz, equipment is discussed. Not as often though with things other than horns, unless it's an article in a trade specific magazine (Drum World etc). Do things like types and brand of stick matter to you? Has the size or configuration of your drum setup changed over the years or with whomever you are playing? I know they are constantly coming up with new materials to make mouthpieces and things with, new types of mics and ways of recording. Have you tried anything new and cutting edge which either didn't work or that became part of your working setup?

AlvinAQ: We are living in a world which tells us from day-to-day, that this is better than this. I really don't believe this because the best set of drums that I ever had were Gretsch from the 1960s. The wood they made the drums with at that time was much better than today.

I don't hear a real drum sound anymore on most recordings. What I hear is a drum sound which is put together by the sound engineer. The studio today has modern equipment and the engineers are from today; most don't have a foot in the past.

My sound is coming from only four drums; this is what I use mostly, and my set up never changed. My last recording [I Ain't Looking At You (Enja, 2006)] was mixed by Pete Bernstein and I, and I'm the one to push the levels of the drums up without using any compression on the instrument. I also told the engineer how to set up the microphones to get the sound I wanted.

I don't need an engineer to make my sound for me. I know what I'm looking for, and analog recordings are much better for jazz. Normally digital recordings make everything seem sharp to me, and that's not the sound of the drums that I remember.

I'm a true jazz lover, and I haven't heard anything better today than I did years ago for me to want to change my setup. I remember when you used to be able to get the whole set of drums in a car in 1963 without any problems at all. Now you need a van to go to the gig. It's just not possible to get the drums into a car.

I have been using Vic Firth sticks for many years, which the company has been providing me with, and they're the best—a small version of the 7A.

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Horace Silver

AAJ: You had an opportunity to audition in 1969 for Horace Silver, getting the gig. He had tried a whole bunch of drummers, had you ever heard who had been turned down in lieu of you? At this point in Horace's career he had Bennie Maupin and Randy Brecker in his band. What did the band's book look like? Was Horace still performing his Blue Note hits?

AQ: I prefer not to speak about this, because they were all friends of mine, and this has nothing to do with who fixes this position the best. I feel we all had something to offer and Horace simply decided to accept me over everyone else.

Horace's band book always stays the same. We were still doing tunes such as "Filthy McNasty, "Senor Blues, "Tokyo Blue, "Happy Medium and "Song for My Father, which we had to play more than three times a night, as this is what the audience had come for.

AAJ: Horace was a founding member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Really, one of the original working models for the whole jazz mentor thing, which is still practiced in various forms even today. Looking at the list of all the people you shared the bandstand with up to this point, it's easy to forget that at this time you were still very young. Did Horace show you the ropes at all?

AQ: Yes, he did show me the ropes. This is what you don't have anymore today. Horace was the one who showed me how this business of jazz really works. The first thing you were asked was if you owned a suit, and were you a member of the local 802 union. I was not, so Horace took me down there personally and had me join the union.

You'd also need a cabaret card, which was a card from the police authorizing you as a musician to perform in a place that sold alcohol. This law was banned after I became eighteen, so I didn't really need this card anymore.

Horace Silver's music was the ideal situation in which any young man could get it together, if he could play. Horace would teach you the complete format of a tune, and most of them were written with eight or sixteen bar heads, then you'd play the bridge and solo off the changes. Most young people today are trying to compose off that same format that Horace used back in the '60s. This is how I learnt all about the dynamic behind the soloist and learning how tocreate something with the artist.

AlvinAAJ: Horace then disbanded the quintet, and you went to George Benson's band. He's more known for smooth jazz, but at this time he was doing something different. What was the sound of this band? Lonnie Smith was also in the band. Do you find there's more freedom for a drummer in a group whose front line was organ/guitar, as opposed to one consisting of horns?

AQ: First I want to clarify that Horace didn't actually disband this group. What happened was Horace was taking his annual vacation every year for about 2½ months, then he'd call up the guys to start rehearsing so he could return to the road within the fourth month.

I needed a gig during this period, and I'd heard the drummer with George Benson was leaving. It's been such a long time now that I really can't remember how I got the gig, but Ronnie Cuber was there along with Lonnie Smith, and then after Lonnie left Charles Covington replaced him.

George was also singing back then, but he wasn't then known as a singer. He used to admire Ronnie Dyson and Little Jimmy Scott during our travels, hearing them whenever possible. On George's first album, he sang "The Other Side of Abbey Road, which I had the opportunity to perform with him on the Johnny Carson show.

There's another album which we did at his studio, with him singing, but which was never released. Every time I see him we always talk about this record.

People talk about smooth jazz, but back then, this word didn't even exist. It was more of a rhythm and blues-based commercial form of music to reach the marketing world.

I think the organ confines you more than any other instrument, because it's one person doing two jobs, playing the piano and also the bass line, whereas working with a pianist he'd definitely think differently from the bassist.

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Favorite Organists

AAJ: You have the distinction of having played with most, if not all, of the modern masters of jazz organ. To the casual listener, organ is organ, but there is a multitude of stylistic differences. Did you have a particular favorite to play with?

AQ: Larry Young, I feel, was the John Coltrane of the organ, and you can hear this on some of the recordings with Tony William's Lifetime, and also his own record Unity (Blue Note, 1965).

I've worked with many different organ players, and they all had a different type of conception for the instrument. It was a pleasure to learn how to deal with this instrument. You must be mindful of the fact that in ghettos throughout the USA the most popular instrument when I came up was the Hammond organ—every club had one.

AAJ: At the age of twenty-one (in 1971), you first went to Europe with trumpeter Charles Tolliver. Before the opportunity arose, did you have any ambition to get there?

AQ: No, I never thought about going to Europe at all, but this opportunity came when Charles Tolliver proposed it.

Alvin QueenI'll tell you about how I met Charles Tolliver. He'd casually worked and recorded with Horace Silver. I can remember one night I was working with Horace at the Club Baron in Harlem when Charles came by to check out my playing. I can remember very clearly because Billy Paul was the opening act for Horace, and this was when he had a hit with "Bluesette, and he had Sherman Ferguson on drums, from Philadelphia.

When I finally heard from Charles, I was no longer a member of Horace's band. I was, at this time, with the George Benson Trio. I left George's band to go to Europe with Charles Tolliver Music Incorporation, and I was the replacement for Jimmy Hopps.

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The European Scene

AAJ: I constantly write about the difference in attitude towards jazz in Europe. Was it immediately apparent to you?

AQ: Yes, definitely. Young musicians had more of chance to say what they've been trying to say in America for years. The Europeans were always open to greater things, and they would definitely give you the support needed to stay on your feet to be successful. Most of the guys from America either came over and spent some time or remain to this day in Europe.

AAJ: You were with Charles Tolliver for only a few months. Were you mainly gigging in Europe at this time? There was an informal expatriate community of jazz musicians that included such heavy hitters as Dizzy Reece, Johnny Griffin, Donald Byrd and Larry Young, who used Quai de Chat Qui Pêche (in Paris) as a sort of home base. Did you have a chance to interact with this loose knit confederation at all?

AQ: Firstly, I'd like to inform you I was with Charles Tolliver much longer than six months. Our relationship was for at least a decade, on and off, and we're still the best of friends.

Charles helped me out a lot, and made me the person I am today, and I must confess that if it weren't for Charles Tolliver I wouldn't be in the position I've enjoyed for the last thirty years. This guy's supported me every step—and still would do if I asked.

The Chat Qui Pêche, the River Bop, The Living Room, there were many places that, as you mention, the expatriates were hanging out. You forgot to mention the Drugstore, which we called the Green Star, on Blvd. Saint German near the Lippo Restaurant. These were places where you would go to find out what was happening after arriving in Paris, and asking who was in town playing.

I first met Maurice Cullaz through Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell, then I was introduced to Kenny Clark, and "Klook [Clarke's nickname] and I became the best of friends. He also started turning me on to different gigs within the Paris area, and Slide Hampton and Art Taylor were also a part of this community of musicians.

AlvinAAJ: You once again answered the call, rejoining Horace Silver for a five year stint. This was the early 1970s. I think more is known about Horace during his 1960s Blue Note years. At this point, artistically, what was he up to? With this group, was it clearly "Horace Silver...and or was it a musical democracy?

AQ: At this moment of Horace's life he was working on different material, and I believe it was Silver 'n Brass (Blue Note, 1975), and Silver 'n Strings [{;ay the Music of the Spheres] (Blue Note, 1978), a series of albums.

You must keep in mind that Horace never recorded with his complete quintet during these years. He was using mostly the Blue Note musicians such as Mickey Roker and Bob Cranshaw. On record, he'd just started to use the musicians he traveled with after I left the band in 1975. Horace was always clearly Horace—he was simply not about musical democracy.

AAJ: From your return stint in Horace Silver's band you found yourself in Canada acting as house drummer at Rockhead's Paradise [in Montreal]. During the early to mid 1970s, it was a bleak time for jazz in general. Commercial considerations became part of the equation for most musicians at the time, with the only other alternative being self-imposed exile in Europe, which many did (Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, Ben Webster, many more). Ultimately you too returned to Europe. When reading about this time, the amount of talent now living in exile is staggering. Did this make it harder to get steady gigs?

AQ: No, it didn't. In fact I left the Horace Silver Quintet and returned to Boston, where I lived for about four months, and then I received a call from a friend of mine telling me that a guy by the name of Eddie Davis, an organ player, was looking for a drummer. I managed to travel to Montreal to check this gig out, and when I arrived I found out what the gig was all about: playing Barry White's music, which was not my bag at all.

I managed to stay with Eddie Davis for about three weeks, and I met a guy there by the name of Billy Martin. He had a drummer with him that enjoyed this type of music, so they decided to switch drummers, which made things much better for me and I made more money. Billy Martin was playing more jazz, but we were working mostly at very exclusive supper clubs, so I managed to get myself an apartment on my own. I use to go by Rockhead's Paradise every night to sit in when I got off, because the gig I was doing didn't give you much of a chance to play.

This is when I met Nelson and Ivan Symonds and Nick, the bassist; also Sadik Hakim who used to work with Charlie Parker. They were all working downstairs and they would have the American rhythm and blues people come upstairs on the weekends. I started getting other offers to work with Milt Jackson and many others that came to town.

I decided to leave and return to Europe to do another tour with Charles Tolliver in 1977.

It was never hard for me to get gigs anywhere I lived, because the musicians knew I could play, so they were very happy to see me. Most of the time I'd show up and they would put me to work right away.

I went back to Europe because the Europeans were doing much more for me than any American was. I was born and raised in New York, but was never offered any major contract from the recording labels, and I saw other people coming from other states within the USA and they were well supported, so that's when I thought this is enough for me, and I left for Europe and built a whole new life.

AAJ: Was there a general overall mood among the expatriate musical community, happy to be there or resentful?

AQ: Mostly all the guys I ever met living in Europe were very happy to be there. If you were going to be resentful the attitude was that it would be better if you go home and do it there.

AAJ: It seems, in general, that the small European record companies enthusiastically recorded people not generally regarded as "leaders Stateside, yet these smaller labels have contributed to important discographies of artists whose work would otherwise have been buried by time. They also seem to offer a freer rein to artists with regards to repertoire. Many of these recordings are rewarding and well worth hunting down. Did you participate in more recordings while over in Europe?

AlvinAQ: Yes, I did participate in many recordings in Europe which are treasures to many American collectors today. I feel America doesn't support jazz the way the Japanese and Europeans do. I've done DVD recordings with Kenny Drew, Randy Brecker, Bob Berg, Clark Terry, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Jay McShann, Carrie Smith, George Wein, Wild Bill Davis, just to name several, and many records.

Most documentaries that are made about jazz musicians use as source material European television dates from the past.

I feel that my work would definitely have been buried if I'd stayed in United States. The Europeans are getting ready to empty their vaults full of material that I did starting over thirty-five years ago, right up to now, so America will definitely hear about me loud and clear, and it's only the beginning.

AAJ: Did you find a marked difference in many aspects of recording in Europe as opposed to Stateside?

AQ: No I don't find a difference in recording anywhere. I think it's up to the individual musician to know what he's looking for, and to have the right people around to help him get it.

AAJ: In the late 1970s you moved to Switzerland, whereas a lot of artists were moving to Amsterdam and France. What was behind your choosing this country?

AQ: I had met a very nice young lady at the time and she was helping me get back on my feet after going through so much hell and stress trying to keep up with the American dream.

I decided to get married and to start a different life in Europe, which turned out to be very nice, and things are definitely looking good for me at the present time. I have studied photography with Oscar Peterson for the last 2½ years, I'm getting ready to start playing golf, and financially I'm not worried about anything, so I'm happy.

AAJ: There was throughout the 1970s an influx of rock influences to be found in jazz, both subtly and the more blatant fusion genre which emerged. Did you ever delve into the realm of fusion at all? Did fusion or what was going on stateside register at all with the tastes of European audiences?

AQ: You have to remember that whatever happens in America comes to Europe within ten or fifteen years, and this is what happened to Europe in the late '70s—the same things. I wasn't a part of this because I'd already made my mark within the jazz business over here.

There are a lot of musicians who are still thinking about moving to Europe, but it's hard to get over now because you have European musicians who can play and the business is a little different over here. I saw when all of this fusion stuff started, so I was never interested in being a part of this in the first place. I left America when jazz was at one of its artistic high points.

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Nilva Records/Oscar Peterson/Current Line-Up

AAJ: In 1979 you joined another long tradition of musicians starting their own labels, naming your Nilva Records. Your roster of artists is impressive (John Hicks, Big John Patton, Junior Mance, Ray Drummond, James Spaulding and many others). How big a company is Nilva, and how "hands on were you in the company's operations? Where can jazz fans find these records now?

AQ: This was not the musicians' company, this was my own company which I had started here in Europe with the help of my wife. When I first returned to Europe I made so much money within the first two years I decided to do something with it, and this is how the company started.

I learned a lot from Charles Tolliver and his company Strata East, and I had the same ideal. I went after all the artists in the New York area that recording companies were not recording, and that's how I ended up with so many different musicians. They were all friends of mine who I'd worked with in the past.

I made over seventeen recordings for the label, but was never able to get worldwide distribution, so this, coupled with the worldwide changeover to the compact disc, made things very difficult. Many of these records have still yet to be converted.

I still have different copies available, and you can also find them at special LP collector's sites on the internet and in some specialty stores. I'm trying to work out a deal now, where you will definitely see them on the market again as CDs, within the next year or so.

Alvin AAJ: You joined Oscar Peterson's trio, but also became leader of your own group, Alvin Queen & The Organics. You seemed to have waited to front your own group. Did you find playing and touring different, participating as the leader?

AQ: No, I just thought after some thirty-five years it was time for me to do for other young musicians what was done for me. I spent 2½ years with Oscar Peterson at the request of my late friend Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, who also arranged for me be a part of the original Kenny Drew Sr. Trio.

Most of all the people I've worked with in the past are dead and gone, so I have to try to keep their legacy alive.

Niels and I used to have our own group together many years ago, and Oscar always loved the way Niels and I accompanied him during our performances. I don't think being a bandleader will be difficult, because I have a lot of respect for the musicians around me, and I realize that I couldn't make it without them.

You have to learn how to let them make you now. You did it, and now it's important to showcase them, so that you yourself will continue to live on. It's a chain.

AAJ: Did you aspire to a permanent roster or a revolving cast of musicians for your group? Is there a preference on your part for either way?

AQ: I feel there are certain people who understand me for what I'm trying to say musically, and they definitely know who they are when they're accompanying me. I feel I have the best front line now, with Jesse Davis and Terrell Stafford, really couldn't be any better, and I also have Pete Bernstein on guitar who really knows what he's doing and he's also such a nice person to work with.

I knew Mike LeDonne from a tour with Milt Jackson some time ago, but he was playing piano at the time, so I never knew that he could play organ. When I decided to put this group together for the recording, I said, "Who can I get? and someone mentioned Mike LeDonne. I said "Mike LeDonne is a piano player, so they said "Try listening to him on organ, so that's how that happened, and he really gave me what I needed.

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Club Scene

AAJ: There seems to be a resurgence of desire for cities to have small jazz/supper clubs. Places like New York, L.A, San Francisco and even Toronto are making an effort to showcase local talent but also important but not as well-known names. In Europe the more well-known players seem to play the larger festivals and venues, I imagine it is to a certain extent a matter of financial logistics. For me though, jazz loses a little of its power the bigger the venue. I can enjoy McCoy Tyner at some enormous festival, but there is more enjoyment and a sense of communion in a smaller, intimate setting. Do you have a preference for venue size?

Alvin AQ: I like small jazz clubs where the musicians don't need all this electronic equipment like a PA system. Jazz was created in small clubs where the feeling was like being in someone's living room and you've invited your own guests who love the music.

The first they need to learn is that the original Birdland was a place in New York that employed people who knew something about the music, and knew all the musicians who'd be coming by, it was not about the money.

If the club wasn't filled up for the second set, they'd tell the customers to please stay and just pay for your drinks and enjoy yourself. Now, you go to a club and when a musician shows up to speak with one of their friends who're playing there, the staff doesn't know who you are and they don't want to know!

I only hope that they send the staff to school, to teach them about jazz musicians before they put them on the door, because if it wasn't for the musicians producing music, there wouldn't be any reason for people to go there—just think about that.

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Current and Dream Projects

AAJ: What are you currently working on? Where can the fans keep track of your tour dates and releases?

Alvin QueenAQ: I'm working on many things, because I'm not only a musician, but I'm working within the production world organizing things for different companies and people. I've learned to be independent, and not to depend on anyone for anything.

If there's something out there that I want, I'm going to get it. I really don't care about not knowing a language, or learning the currency of a country. Just remember, I came back to Europe on my own and rebuilt a whole new life which I wouldn't have done in America, but I had a greater opportunity in Europe, so I stayed.

I'm government supported here in Switzerland, so for the most part, anything I ask for is given to me. I'll also receive all kinds of retirement funds when I become old enough to get it, and I have the best insurance coverage in the world, so what more could I ask for?

AAJ: This is my one stock question, but one whose answers always intrigues me: Do you have any dream project you have yet to do and what is it?

AQ: My dream project is to give back to the world what has been given to me, and that is to perform the true and the real form of jazz music, which I've lived and breathed for the past fifty years of my life. I was there with the greatest and I definitely wouldn't let them down at this stage of my life.

Elvin Jones use to say to me all the time, "You were definitely fortunate to be there, to be able to see it with your own eyes. Now put it into action and live it.


Selected Discography

Alvin Queen, I Ain't Looking at You, (Enja Records, 2006)

Alvin Queen/Lonnie Smith, Lenox and Seventh (Black and Blue, 2006)

Alvin Queen, Ashanti (Nilva Records. 2002)

Dusko Govkovich, Blues in the Gutter (Diskoton Records, 2002)

Alvin Queen/Jasper Thilo, This is Uncle Al (Music Mecca, 2001)

Alvin Queen, Hear Me Drummin' To Ya! (Jazzette, 2000)

Alvin Queen/Stepko Gut, Nishville (Moju, 1998)

Alvin Queen, I'm Back (Nilva Records, 1997)

George Coleman, At Yoshi's (Evidence Records, 1992)

Kenny Drew, Standard Request Live at Keystone Korner (Alfa Jazz, 1991)

Kenny Drew, Recollections (Alfa Jazz, 1989)

Pharoah Sanders, A Prayer Before Dawn (Evidence Records, 1987)

Niels Lan Doky, Here or There (Storyville Records, 1986)

Alvin Queen, Jamming Uptown (Nilva Records, 1986)

Alvin Queen, A Day In Holland (Sound Hills Records—8057, 1984)

Bill Saxton, Beneath the Surface (Nilva Records, 1984)

Ray Drummond, Susanita (Nilva Records, 1984)

Alvin Queen, Glidin' and Stridin' (Nilva Records, 1982)

Art Farmer, Round About Midnight (Jugton Records, 1981)

Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Jaw's Blues (Enja Records. 1981)

Alvin Queen, In Europe (Nilva Records, 1980)

Charles Tolliver, Impact (Strata East, 1975)

Charles Tolliver, Live at the Loosdrecht Festival (Strata East, 1973)

Photo Credits

Top and Bottom Photos: Jose Manuel Horna
Second Photo: Philippe Haulet
Third Photo: Dragan Tasic



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