Alvin Queen: The Move, The Groove and The Beat
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?
AQ: 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 Minorone LP with the music chartswhich 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.
During 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.
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!
AAJ: 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.
There 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!
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?
AQ: 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.