Alvin Queen is one of the jazz drum legends of all time and developed his skills from an early age on the streets of Mount Vernon, New York. Music and jazz were intrinsic to his upbringing and through his childhood he met and played with some of the world’s jazz greats. This phenomenal drummer had a humble start in life, and yet worked through this to succeed in the world of jazz.
Alvin’s early life
Alvin Queen was born on August 16 1950, in the Bronx, but the family soon moved to the Levister Towers Projects in Mount Vernon. Alvin grew up there and, although the family was extremely poor, he had a rich upbringing, surrounded by the jazz music he adored. Although Mount Vernon only covers an area of around four square miles, there were at least five thriving jazz clubs in the neighbourhood where locals went to listen to live music and dance the night away. Alvin’s father introduced him to jazz, taking him to shows at the Apollo in Harlem, where they saw some of the great performers, such as John Coltrane and Ruth Brown.
The Queen family attended church every Sunday, as was typical for black families of the time. Alvin’s grandmother played the tambourine in church and he says, “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 neighbourhood always played a major part of my life. I participated in the choir and I picked up the tambourine and played it too.”
Introduction to drums
Although Mount Vernon was a poverty-stricken area, it produced many musical and sporting legends. Sax players like John Purcell and Jimmy Hill, the pianist Tommy James, the vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, are just some of the big names to come out of the neighbourhood, as well as NBA player Ray Williams of the New York Knicks. Indeed, another future star growing up in the area was Denzel Washington, whose father Elder D Washington was the pastor of the First Church of God in Christ, which was attended by Alvin’s grandmother.
Alvin’s brother, Willie Queen, was five years older than him and introduced him to the pleasures of percussion when he took him along to join in with playing in the Grime School Marching Band. Alvin admired his brother greatly and said: “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”.
It was not long before Alvin’s love of percussion led to a desire to save up for a drum kit, which had been inspired when he watched a child playing drums in the window of Andy Lalino’s Drum School. He had also started running a shoe shine enterprise in the locality and this was to prove his introduction to Andy Lalino, who became a major influence in his life. Alvin wandered up to Andy Lalino’s drum studio to ask if he wanted a shoe shine and explore opportunities for taking drum lessons. For a while, Alvin’s family paid for his drum lessons, but money was tight, and it was not long before lessons became unaffordable. Andy Lalino liked having young Alvin around though and kept him on at the studio for odd jobs and occasional shoe shines, paying him with free drum lessons. The free drum lessons lasted about six years and Alvin commented: “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 45 years.”
Not long after, Alvin bought his first set of drums and would spend up to four hours a day, practising along to some of the jazz greats his father owned on LP. By the time he was 11 years old he had developed a reputation as a drummer in the neighbourhood, so when Jimmy Hill’s drummer didn’t turn up to the Ambassador Lounge on Eleventh Street one Friday night, Alvin was asked to stand in at the last moment. Jimmy Hill turned up at the family home about an hour before the set and asked whether Alvin could perform, though he would need an adult along as chaperone as he wasn’t allowed to be alone in a club serving drinks.
The performance at the Ambassador Lounge was the start of hitting the big time for young Alvin. Andy Lalino became his unofficial manager and introduced him to a number of gigs, such as the Gretsch Drum Night at the famous Birdland in New York City, and a year later he appeared on his first record. All this drum activity did affect Alvin’s schooling considerably and made it difficult for him to get up in the morning. This first album was never released but featured a number of classic jazz musicians, including Zoot Sims, Hank Jones and Art Davis. Alvin was slowly being recognised as a child drumming prodigy and it was not long before he was playing for a live album again, this time on John Coltrane’s Live at Birdland record in 1963.
It was not too long before Alvin’s reputation and prowess had grown ever upwards, and by the age of 15 he was working at a variety of New York clubs and jam sessions, and also out of state with the Wild Bill Davis Organ Trio in Atlantic City and with the singer Ruth Brown. By 1969, he had joined the Horace Silver Quintet, where he worked with a number of big names, this was followed in the early 70s by a stint with the George Benson Quintet. By this time he was regarded as one of the most highly respected jazz drummers of his generation and a range of other musical genres were calling for his talent.
Move to Europe
In 1971 he left for his first tour of Europe with the Charles Tolliver Band. Alvin had a successful working relationship with Charles Tolliver which lasted around 10 years. He spent a good deal of time in Europe over the following years and made the decision to move permanently to Europe in 1979. He says he doesn’t feel America supports jazz, “Not the way the Japanese and Europeans do. I’ve 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.” He now has dual nationality with a Swiss and American passport.
In 2017 Alvin was due to perform at a concert in Washington, however, the US Department of Homeland Security put problems in his way due to some run-ins with the law when he was a minor. Alvin commented from his Geneva base: “Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me one bit. I’ve spent months preparing for this concert. Dozens of others are also implicated in its planning. Funny thing, I gave up my US passport to make life simpler at tax time. I never dreamed I would one day be denied entry, and with such ridiculous reasoning. I am frankly disgusted to be disrespected in this way, after a half-century devoted to music.”
It has to be said, though, that America’s loss is definitely Europe’s gain.