Alvin Queen: The Move, The Groove and The Beat
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?
AQ: 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 besta small version of the 7A.
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.
AAJ: 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.