Alvin Queen: The Move, The Groove and The Beat
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.
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 organevery 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.
I'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.