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Alvin Queen was born on August 16, 1950 in the Bronx, New York, but his family relocated to Mt. Vernon when he was 2 years old. The Queens were poor, but the Levister Towers Projects, where Alvin grew up, proved to be rich territory, as he was surrounded by many individuals who, like him, sprouted into the leading exponents of their generation.
There were scores of musicians, like sax men John Purcell and Jimmy Hill; vibraphonist Jay Hoggard; pianist Tommy James; B-3 organ champ Richard Levister; his swinging brother, Millard Levister on drums; and far too many others to name. And Alvin's list of celebrity running mates didn't end with musicians; they included future NBA stars like Ray Williams of the New York Knicks and Gus Williams of the Seattle Supersonics.
Alvin's hoop skills, however, were limited to the neighborhood courts, where he'd go head-to-head at the infamous Fourth Street playground with other wannabe hardwood stars, which included future Academy Award winner Denzel Washington. In fact, it was Denzel's father, Elder D. Washington Sr., who was pastor of the First Church of God In Christ, where Alvin's grandmother was a member. That church ended up playing a pivotal role in Alvin's life, because it's where he got his first dose of spirit-filled music, and -- after he began singing in the choir and playing the tambourine - it's where he began connecting with and conveying the rhythms of his life.
Alvin was introduced to the drums at an early age by his brother, Willie Queen, who was a standout percussionist at with the Grime School Marching Band. It was Willie who convinced Alvin that this was something he should stick with. While Christmas shopping with his mother one morning, Alvin spotted a kid playing drums in the second-floor storefront window of the Andy Lalino Drum Studio. At the time, Alvin had been earning some change shining shoes, but dreams of pulling together enough money to get his own drum set were just that - dreams.
But while shining shoes wouldn't get him the money he needed, it did give him an excuse to meet the studio owner. So one day, Alvin, shoe shine kit in hand, wandered up the stairs of the studio and asked Andy Lalino if he wanted a shine.
That’s how it all began.
“You know anything about playing drums?” Andy asked.
“Well, I play for the Grime School Marching Band, and I’d love to play your drum set,” Alvin replied.
“OK, then have your mother give me a call,” he said.
Alvin’s mother contacted Lalino and Alvin started lessons. But money was tight, and the lessons were one of the first things that had to go.
Fortunately, though, Andy decided to keep Alvin around the studio for odd jobs and an occasional shine. Free lessons were a bonus.
Alvin was introduced to jazz at an early age. Every Saturday, his father would take him to Harlem to have his hair done at Sugar Ray Robinson’s barbershop. Afterward, he’d take Alvin to the Apollo to catch a show before heading back to Mount Vernon. He’d see such lions as John Coltrane; the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, featuring Nancy Wilson; and Ruth Brown, who would end up giving Alvin one of his first professional gigs.
During the early ’60s, there were many places to check out jazz in Mount Vernon, too. The city might have been only four square miles, but there were at least eight clubs in the tiny town.
In fact, it was in Mount Vernon that Alvin played his first date. It was at a club called the Ambassador Lounge, with the Jimmy Hill Trio, featuring Richard Levister.
The drummer couldn’t make the date at the last minute, and Jimmy Hill came to Alvin’s parents’ home to see if Alvin could help out. Alvin was just 11 years old, and the only way he could get in was to be escorted by an adult. But Alvin knew all the tunes, thanks to his father’s record collection, and the word was out that he was “the man,” despite his young age.
“This is how my professional music career started,” Alvin says, “Thanks once again to people like Jimmy Hill and Tina Sattin, who helped out so many kids in the Westchester area, working with us through the YTI in Yonkers, to keep us on the right track.”
That same year, it was Andy Lalino who escorted Alvin to the original Birdland on 52nd street for the annual Gretsch Drum Night.
Andy seated his student right next to an all-star lineup of drummers: Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Charlie Persip and Max Roach. And after Alvin played, they all poured accolades on the young prodigy for his performance.
A year later, Alvin did his first recording at the age of 12, but the recording was never released. Joe Newman was the contractor and musical director; the musicians included Joe Newman on trumpet; Zoot Sims on tenor sax; Art Davis on bass; Hank Jones on piano, on only one side; and Harold Mabern, playing piano on the other side.
Despite the whirlwind of musical opportunities that had come Alvin’s way up to that point, he sees the following year, 1963, as the “big night” in his early jazz experience. That’s when John Coltrane was performing at Birdland, and Alvin happened to be on hand for the recording of the now-famous “Live At Birdland” album, featuring the tune Afro Blue. Elvin Jones sat Alvin at the front table – “under the drums” – next to Elvin’s wife.
“Elvin started the set out with John and played a few numbers,” Alvin remembers. “Then he said the kid has to learn this stuff, and he put me up on the drums. It was the greatest opportunity of my life, to sit in with the great John Coltrane!”
During this time, Alvin was still shining shoes to keep some change in his pocket. But his sidewalk business played a much more important role than financial: It allowed him to stay in touch with the musical giants of the era, as he buffed the shoes for the likes of Blakey, Ben Webster and Thelonious Monk.
But Alvin’s reputation far surpassed his prowess as a shoe shine man. By age 15 he began to frequent the various Manhattan jam sessions in nightclubs and lofts. There was the Doom, across from the Five Spot Café on St. Mark Street, where he’d meet up with Tony Scott, Walter Bishop, Jr., Reggie Johnson and Walter Perkins.
There was also the famous East Side club, Slug’s, a favorite of players like Lee Morgan, J.C. Moses and Jackie McLean, among others.
Then he’d often pop into an after-hour joint run by vibraphonist Ollie Shearer. “This is where I met Kenny Barron, Marvin Pertilo and D*** Berk,” Alvin recalls.
Alvin also started getting out of the New York area. He’d travel down to the Gracie Belmont Club in Atlantic City to work with the Wild Bill Davis Organ Trio, with Dickey Thompson on guitar. Alvin was 16.
“I spent at least six months performing with the singer Ruth Brown, who was featuring the Don Pullen Trio, for whom I played drums,” Alvin remembers. “Don was playing Hammond B-3 Organ, and he had Tony Williams, an alto saxophonist from Philly, in the band.”
Saxophonist George Braith, who had spotted Alvin during the Gretsch event at Birdland, also offered him a gig; the group included Big John Patton on organ and guitarist Grant Green; later, the group included Ernie Farrow on bass and Larry Young on piano. Around the same time, Alvin also began working with trombonist Benny Green and guitarist Tiny Grimes.
In 1969, Alvin was afforded another opportunity that would change his life: “I was offered a chance to try out for the Horace Silver Quintet, and I managed to land the gig after Horace sifted through 10 different drummers,” says Alvin, who replaced Billy Cobham in the group.
In addition to Horace on piano, the band included such notables as Benny Maupin on tenor; Randy Brecker on trumpet; and John B. Williams on bass; later replacements included trumpeter Tom Harrell; saxophonist Bob Berg; and Anthony Jackson and Stanley Clark on bass.
After Horace dissolved the band in the early ’70s, Alvin joined the George Benson Quartet, which had Lonnie Smith (who was later replaced by Charles Covington) on organ and Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. Alvin was with the Benson group when they appeared on the Johnny Carson Show that year.
Another TV opportunity opened shortly afterward, and Alvin was asked to join tenor man Stanley Turrentine, pianist John Miller and bassist Sam Jones for the television program “Tell It Like It Is,” directed by Gil Noble.
Recognized as one of the most respected jazz drummers of his generation, Alvin was also sought after in other musical genres.
He was tapped by the Hob label and suddenly found himself transported back to the pulse of his youth, providing the beat for such gospel luminaries as James Cleveland, Shirley Caesar, Swan Silver Tones, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, the Stars of Faith and Marian Williams.
Still, it was jazz that would keep him musically charged. And it was jazz that ultimately propelled him a continent away.
Alvin was 19 years old and playing with Horace’s band at Club Barron in Harlem when he first met Trumpeter Charles Tolliver. Two years later, in 1971, when Alvin was performing with Benson, Tolliver called and asked him if he wanted to go to Europe with him.
“I told him, ‘Yes,’ and I quit George’s group and left America for my first trip to Europe that November. The group included Stanley Cowell on piano and Cecil McBee on bass. This was also the original “Music Incorporation” group; I was just replacing Jimmy Hopps, who was on drums.”
Alvin traveled with Tolliver back and forth to Europe many times over the next several months before getting another call from Horace. “Horace said, ‘Hey man, I’m putting together another group. Are you available?”
This time, Alvin joined the band for five years before moving to Montreal, where he was the house drummer for Rockhead’s Paradise.
He stayed in Canada for two years before returning to New York. But after arriving, he quickly became disenchanted with the pressure put on jazz musicians to water down the music. “I didn’t want to commercialize my music to become successful,” says Queen, “so I returned to Europe in 1977.”
After regular communications with other musicians who decided to call Europe home – including Kenny Clark, Johnny Griffin, Art Taylor, Memphis Slim, Champion Jack Dupree, Benny Bailey, Pony Poindexter, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Thad Jones, Jerome Van Jones and Babs Gonzales – Alvin moved there permanently in 1979.
“I was introduced to many great jazz musicians traveling through Europe, by Jimmy Woodie, a very good friend of mine who brought me to the attention of such great people as Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Clark Terry, John Collins, Doc Cheatham and Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis." -- Alvin Queen