Duke Ellington. Count Basie. Louis Armstrong. The biggest names in jazz unsuccessfully tried to convince Irv Williams to join their bands and leave St. Paul.
But Williams, who died at the age of 100 on Saturday, preferred family to touring, and chose to stick close to home.
After relocating here in 1942 while playing in a U.S. Navy jazz band, the saxophonist who’d come to be known as “Mr. Smooth” gigged regularly throughout the Twin Cities, eventually becoming a regular performer at the Dakota. When singers like Tony Bennett or Andy Williams came to the Cities, they sought out Williams as a sideman. And he passed on his knowledge to students at St. Paul Central High School as a music teacher.
Williams was “what we should all be: kind, good, smart, with a wry sense of humor,” Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett told the Star Tribune. “He enhanced this community by being here. He had this graciousness.”
Williams was born in 1919 and grew up in Cincinnati and Little Rock, where he started playing violin but soon switched to saxophone. He enlisted during World War II, which brought him to the Cities, where Williams met two people who’d change his life: the first of his two wives, and bassist Oscar Pettiford, who introduced him to the local scene. As he told the St. Paul Almanac in 2010, “We walked into the Elk’s Rest, I didn’t have a horn, and a guy named Rail says, ‘You can play my horn.’ So I played it and their mouths dropped open. I always like that.”
Williams soon became a fixture on that scene, touring occasionally but rejecting offers for long-term employment, supplementing his artistic career with a day job as a dry cleaner. Later in life the plaudits started piling up. In 1984 he became the first jazz musician to be recognized by the state of Minnesota when “Irv Williams Day” was declared. He was named an Arts Midwest Jazz Master in 1995 and was inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame. His saxophone was included in the “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center.
In the last decades of his life, Williams remained active as a recording artist and live performer, despite hints and assertions to the contrary. In 2004, That’s All became his first final album. He followed that up with another last recording, Finality, in 2008. As writer Rick Mason joked in City Pages in 2014, “Williams has ‘retired’ more times than Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, and Jay Leno combined.”
Williams’ actual final release, 2015’s Pinnacle, is something special. Credited to the Irv Williams Trio (with Billy Peterson on bass and Steve Blons on guitar), Pinnacle is a collection of standards that also includes clips of a wide-ranging conversation between Williams and legendary Twin Cities jazz radio broadcaster Leigh Kamman.
Williams hadn’t been able to play at his annual birthday party at the Dakota in August, but he still kept busy that day. Instead, he performed for nearly an hour for family and friends at Episcopal Homes, the assisted living facility where he moved in 2017. Here's a clip that shows Williams still had it.
Irv Williams is survived by his wife, Mary, nine children, and multiple grandchildren.