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Alvin Queen: The Move, The Groove and The Beat

Maxwell Chandler By

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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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