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/group 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 descendents from such other great skin-men as
Billy Higgins, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. I sat down with Alvin for a chat
about his impressive pedigree.
MC: 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?
AQ: Ive 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.
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 havent actually studied
music in the context of some school, theyre not going to know what
youre playing, unless the feeling is there for them to pat their foot, to
be a part of it.
MC: 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
AQ: Maxwell, 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 your
question, in most black families at that time we had to go to church every
Sunday or you wouldnt be able to go out to play with your friends on
Saturday, or youd have to stay in the house all day on Sunday,
thats 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.
MC: 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
AQ: To make a long story short,
Ill 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, Id 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.
respectfully Maxwell, I have to correct you on something. When youre 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 Id 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 Andys 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, thats when he asked me if I knew anything
about the drums, and I told him yes, because I was playing in the Grime School
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 didnt 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. Thats how it
lasted for about six years, and I turned out to be Andys 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
MC: 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
youre not disturbing someone else with it.
I mostly practice when Im
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 didnt 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 youd
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.
MC: 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: You see Maxwell, 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
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. Im telling you this to
understand the rest of the story Im 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 Robinsons 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
After each visit to Sugar Rays
barber shop, my father would take me to the Apollo Theatre to catch a show
before wed return to Mount Vernon by subway, and if he didnt have a
copy of the record with him, by the artist wed 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 Mc Rae.
MC: 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 musicians
kit, or do the potential difficulties vary with each musician?
AQ: By this time I had
managed to get my own drums, and Id 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
One special evening Jimmy Hills
drummer didnt show up, and I believe this was on a Friday night, which
left Jimmy in a very difficult situation, as there wasnt 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 wouldnt be any
problem, because they cant be playing any music other than whats in
your record collection and I know all that. So my father said Fine.
Put your little suit on and lets go!
MC: 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. You garnered
enthusiastic responses from what now reads like jazz percussions 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 didnt 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. Its hard for musicians today to get this right,
because most of the legends are dead and gone.
MC: 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 Elvins 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
theyd give you the freedom to play, but youd 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.
MC: 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
AQ: Well Maxwell no, I was not
gigging, because I never realized what success was, I was mostly just a happy
kid, and it wasnt about what you didnt 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!
MC: 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
whod 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
The set list I dont remember, but
I know there were a couple of Joes and Zoots tunes added to the
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 thats all I could
I was only twelve years old, so from
time to time my muscles would get tired and Joe would say, Lets
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.
MC: 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
Coltranes classic quartet was recording their live album (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
audiences 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 Terrys 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 Coltranes album Live at Birdland, and one of the
tunes which was very popular was Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria. I
cant recall what tune it was when Elvin put me up on the drums.
MC: 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
havent as yet materialized.
I used to go down to Pooky Pub to hear
Elvins 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
Garrisons 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 Silvers building, I believe on
87th street, before Horace moved to Los Angeles.
MC: 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
(we spoke about this earlier in the interview).
MC: In general, do you find you
must change your touch depending upon the instrumental line up of an ensemble?
AQ: Maxwell, this is a very
interesting question, because it is the most important one for me. The reason
why Ive taken so much time and years to play with everyone that Ive
played with is because every individual person has something to say. They
speak differently and their emotions are different. You cant play the
same way with everyone, because it simply wont always work, and
therell definitely be some kind of conflict with the musicians in the
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 youre listening. Ive learnt
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 older musicians were like your
parents, so you didnt speak back to them in a nasty way - and if you did
you knew youd 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.
MC: 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 Dons work (piano) through his stint with Charles Mingus and his Don
Pullen/George Adams groups, never realizing hed 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
Pullens trio, but I didnt know Ruth Brown until Don called me up to
join his group. Im not sure if it was C.I. Williams on alto or Tony
Williams from Philadelphia, but we used to play a lot in Gracies Belmont
club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which was the same place I was working with
Wild Bill Davis and Dicky Thompson.
I really didnt know Don as a
piano player 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. Im pretty sure theres a record out under Dave
Hubbards name, on the Mainstream label, produced by Bob Shad, who did the
date featuring Don on organ.
MC: 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
AQ: Man, this is one of the most
painful things that can happen, because once youre involved in a group
its 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 &
Hardarts restaurant or at Bickfords, and if you had enough money to
buy a sandwich, youd break that into pieces and share that with him -
thats 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, thats 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 Blakeys bands
would stay together for ten or fifteen years, the same was true for Horace
Silver and Miles Davis groups - you didnt leave school until it was
time for you to be a band leader.
Most band leaders would tell the record
labels Hes ready - thats 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 didnt take four years; it took more like
thirty-five years, and now Im putting it through the test. Ive
always left any group under good conditions. If not, Id feel guilty and
couldnt face the person later in life.
MC: Multi-reedman George Braith
had also been 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. Had your time with all these various artists up to
this point added things to your artistic palette or was your artistic evolution
more of a solitary inner thing?
AQ: 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
Try to remember that the Hammond B3 is
a very strong instrument, and when you add John Patton to the mix, its
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 Grants solo he would turn around say
you are that bad mother******, 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. Hes the one who would take me by Elmo
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
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, thats what I like about Joe Chambers. Hes a master at
this and whenever I get a chance to check Joe out, Im sitting right
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
Georges 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.
MC: 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?
AQ: Yes, thats true
Maxwell, 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
doesnt matter to me whether Im on record or not.
This gives me more reason to lead a
group because I havent been overexposed this way, and I have a lot to
offer, and most of that youll 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 its being recorded, its definitely great to capture this if
possible, as these are some of the best recordings. This was the case with the
album Live at the Domicile in Munchen with the Charles Tolliver Quartet in
1972, the same for the Loodrecht Jazz Festival in Holland double record set;
these were classic recordings which opened doors for me in Europe and America.
MC: When reading about rock
& roll and sometimes with saxes in jazz, equipment is discussed. Not as
often though with things other than horns, unless its 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 set up 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 didnt work or that became part of your working set-up?
AQ: We are living in a world
which tells us from day to day, that this is better than this. I really
dont 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 dont 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 dont 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 Aint Looking At You) was mixed by Pete Bernstein and
I, and Im 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 dont need an engineer to make
my sound for me. I know what Im looking for, and analog recordings are
much better for jazz. Normally digital recordings make everything seem sharp to
me, and thats not the sound of the drums that I remember.
Im a true jazz lover, and I
havent heard anything better today than I did years ago for me to want to
change my set-up. 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. Its 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 theyre the best - a small version of the 7A.
MC: 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 Horaces career he had Benny Maupin and Randy Brecker in his
band. What did the bands 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 over everyone else.
Horaces 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.
MC: Horace had been a founding
member of Art Blakeys 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 had shared
the bandstand with up to this point, its 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 dont have any more 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.
Youd 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
didnt really need this card anymore.
Horace Silvers 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 youd 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 to create
something with the artist.
MC: Horace then disbanded the
quintet, and you went to George Bensons band. Hes 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 theres
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 didnt actually disband this group. What happened was Horace
was taking his annual vacation every year for about two and a half months, then
hed 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
Id heard the drummer with George Benson was leaving. Its been such
a long time now that I really cant 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 wasnt then known as a singer. He used to admire Ronnie Dyson and
Little Jimmy Scott during our travels, hearing them whenever possible. On
Georges first album, he sang The Other Side of Abbey Road,
which I had the opportunity to perform with him on the Johnny Carson show.
Theres 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 didnt 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 its one person doing two jobs, playing
the piano and also the bass line, whereas working with a piano player hed
definitely think differently from the bass player.
MC: 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 are 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 Williams Lifetime, and also his own record Unity.
Ive 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.
MC: At the age of twenty-one (in
1971), you first went to Europe with trumpeter Charles Tolliver. Before the
opportunity arose, had you had ambitions to get there?
AQ: No, I never thought about
going to Europe at all, but this opportunity came when Charles Tolliver
Ill tell you about how I met
Charles Tolliver. Hed 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
When I finally heard from
Charles, I was no longer a member of Horaces band. I was at this
time with the George Benson Trio. I left Georges band to go to Europe
with Charles Tolliver Music Incorporation, and I was the replacement for Jimmy
MC: I constantly write about the
difference in attitude towards jazz over in Europe. Was it immediately apparent
AQ: Yes, definitely. Young
musicians had more of chance to say what theyve 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.
MC: 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 Maxwell, Id
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 were 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 werent for
Charles Tolliver I wouldnt be in the position Ive enjoyed for the
last thirty years. This guys 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 [Clarkes 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.
MC: 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 Silveràand or was it a musical
AQ: At this moment of
Horaces life he was working on different material, and I believe it was
Horace Silver and Brass, and Horace Silver with Strings, 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, hed
just started to use the musicians he travelled with after I left the band in
1975. Horace was always clearly Horace - he was simply not about musical
MC: From your return stint in
Horace Silvers band you found yourself in Canada acting as house drummer
at Rockheads Paradise. 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 didnt. 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
Whites 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
Rockheads Paradise every night to sit in when I got off, because the gig
I was doing didnt give you much of a chance to play.
This is when I met Nelson and Ivan
Symonds and Nick the bass player 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.
Ill tell you Maxwell, it was
never hard for me to get gig anywhere I lived, because the musicians knew I
could play, so they were very happy to see me. Most of the time Id 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 thats when I thought this is enough for me, and I
left for Europe and built a whole new life.
MC: 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
MC: Whenever I travel, I always
go record hunting. It seems like, in general, 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. Much of these recordings are rewarding and well worth hunting down.
Did you participate in more recordings while over in Europe?
AQ: Yes, I did participate in
many recordings in Europe which are treasures to many American collectors
today. I feel America doesnt support jazz the way the Japanese and
Europeans do. Ive 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 Id 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 its only the beginning.
MC: Had you found a marked
difference in many aspects of recording in Europe as opposed to stateside?
AQ: No I dont find a
difference in recording anywhere. I think its up to the individual
musician to know what hes looking for, and to have the right people
around to help him get it.
MC: 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: Well Maxwell, 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
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 two and a half years, Im getting ready
to start playing golf, and financially Im not worried about anything, so
MC: 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
wasnt a part of this because Id already made my mark within the
jazz business over here.
are a lot of musicians who are still thinking about moving to Europe, but
its 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.
MC: In 1979 you joined another
long tradition of musicians starting their own labels, naming yours 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 companys
operations? Where can jazz fans find these records now?
AQ: Maxwell, 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.
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 thats how I ended up with so many
different musicians. They were all friends of mine who Id worked with in
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 collectors sites on
the internet and in some specialty stores. Im 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.
MC: You joined Oscar
Petersons 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 Maxwell, 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 two and a half 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 Ive worked
with in the past are dead and gone, so I have to try to keep their legacy
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 dont think being a band leader will be
difficult, because I have a lot of respect for the musicians around me, and I
realize that I couldnt make it without them.
You have to learn how to let them make
you now. You did it, and now its important to showcase
them, so that you yourself will continue to live on. Its a chain.
MC: 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 Im trying to say musically, and they
definitely know who they are when theyre accompanying me. I feel I have
the best front line now, with Jesse Davis and Terrell Stafford, really
couldnt be any better, and I also have Pete Bernstein on guitar who
really knows what hes doing and hes also such a nice person to work
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 thats how that happened,
and he really gave me what I needed.
MC: 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?
AQ: I like small jazz clubs
where the musicians dont need all this electronic equipment like a PA
system. Jazz was created in small clubs where the feeling was like being in
someones living room and youve invited your own guests who love the
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 whod be coming by,
it was not about the money.
If the club wasnt filled up for
the second set, theyd 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 whore playing there, the staff
doesnt know who you are and they dont 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 wasnt for the musicians producing music, there
wouldnt be any reason for people to go there - just think about that.
MC: What are you currently
working on? Where can the fans keep track of your tour dates and releases?
AQ: Maxwell Im working on
many things, because Im not only a musician, but Im working within
the production world organizing things for different companies and people.
Ive learned to be independent, and not to depend on anyone for anything.
If theres something out there
that I want, Im going to get it. I really dont 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
wouldnt have done in America, but I had a greater opportunity in Europe,
so I stayed.
Im government supported here in
Switzerland, so for the most part, anything I ask for is given to me. Ill
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
MC: 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 Ive lived and breathed for the
past fifty years of my life. I was there with the greatest and I definitely
wouldnt 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.
MC: Well, it has been a pleasure.
You keep playing, I will keep listening.
Alvin Queen, I Aint
Looking at You, (Enja Records, 2006)
Smith, Lenox and Seventh (Black and Blue, 2006)
Alvin Queen, Ashanti
(Nilva Records. 2002)
Dusko Govkovich, Blues in
the Gutter (Diskoton Records, 2002)
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, Im Back
(Nilva Records, 1997)
George Coleman, At
Yoshis (Evidence Records, 1992)
Kenny Drew, Standard
Request Live at Keystone Korner (Alfa Jazz, 1991)
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 Recordsù8057, 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,
Jaws 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)
will return with More Adventures in Sound