RIP Mr. Smooth: Irv Williams, 1919-2019
Either “the coolest old guy or the oldest cool guy…” — Pioneer Press
Like a bobo doll, saxophonist Irv Williams seemed as if he would bounce back for an eternity. His career spanned more than 8 decades. He must have “retired” a dozen times, issuing new recordings and playing countless happy hour gigs in between each announced finale. A true legend, Irv passed away on December 14, a few months after celebrating his 100th birthday. He is survived by his wife, Mary, nine children and many grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Raised in Cincinnati and Little Rock, Irv Williams started out on violin, switched to clarinet at age 11 to counter the effects of bronchitis, and soon moved on to saxophone. Early in his career, he played in bands behind Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Eckstine at such venues as the Apollo Theater and the Howard Theater. Irv first performed in the Twin Cities as a clarinet and sax player with the Navy during Word War II. Turning down invitations to play with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, he stayed in the Twin Cities where he taught in the St Paul Public Schools and played with the late Reginald Buckner. And here at home, Williams has played at every jazz venue, past and present, including the old Flame Bar where he was often back to back with such stars as Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges. The first jazz musician to have his own “Irv Williams Day” granted by the State of Minnesota (1984), he has been inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame and was pictured on the “Celebrate Minnesota” official state map in 1990.
Irv hinted at retirement in his liner notes for That’s All (2004), but clearly that was premature. But apparently the title only referred to Irv’s feelings about recording sessions, not performing opportunities. At the KBEM Winter Jazz Festival in 2005, Irv was one of three recipients of Lifetime Achievement Awards. Three CDs later, the then 88-year-old known fondly as “Mr. Smooth” issued a more dramatic hint with the release of Finality (Ding Dong Music) in 2008.
In Spring 2011, Irv seemed more determined that we let him rest his chops, proclaiming the release of yet another CD (Duke’s Mixture) at the Dakota Jazz Club to be his “Retirement Party.” Shortly thereafter, he was back playing for the Dakota’s Friday Happy Hour with Peter Schimke. Then came the May 2012 “Retirement Party” at the Dakota, followed by more happy hours, and a special guest performance in spring 2013 with Estaire Godinez at the Museum of Russian Art. And still he held weekly happy hours at the Dakota.
Later that summer, Irv released a studio recording (Then Was Then, Now Is Now) with a special performance at the Museum of Russian Art — an early 95th birthday present, soon followed by another party at the Dakota. And within the next year, Irv had yet another recording ready, Pinnacle (2015), released ahead of his 96th birthday. Of particular significance are the excerpts from the late Leigh Kamman’s interview with Irv, which became the broadcaster’s last recorded interview, filled with historical anecdotes and typical Irv humor.
Irv not only continued his weekly Happy Hour gigs at the Dakota, but in 2016 was honored as spotlight artist at Jazz Central, headlined at the Dunsmore Room at Crooners Lounge, and celebrated number 97 at the Dakota. Celebrations followed marking 98, 99, and in August 2019, a grand 100th birthday celebration. Although Irv was too tired to attend himself, the event (at The Dakota) was filled with music and the announcement of the first Irv Williams Scholarship (presented to Sophia Kickhofel of Apple Valley High School).
Throughout his eight-decade career, Williams focused on the Great American Songbook and the tenor sax as a solo vehicle. His knowledge of the idiom was legendary and fellow musicians marveled at his ability to play any song in any key. Noted Matt Peiken (St. Paul Pioneer Press), “Veteran saxophonist Irv Williams has always been about sweetness not power, and he’s still gigging strong.”
My first encounter with saxophonist Irv Williams was at the 2004 Twin Cities Jazz Festival. I last saw him at his 99th birthday party at The Dakota. In-between I saw and heard him countless times, his tenor saxophone yielding one of the sweetest sounds in music, his smile lighting up the darkest day, and his standard greeting–“I’m still here.” When we think of jazz in the Twin Cities, he’s “still here.”
“To be with my family as long as possible and to play music as long as possible, so that’s what I’m going to do. And when the good Lord says, ‘well son, that’s enough’ — and then I’m gone.” –Irv Williams