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Jazz on the patio with Irv

It’s a perfect May evening in downtown St. Paul. Blue skies, no mosquitoes, warm enough to dine al fresco.

It’s a perfect May evening in downtown St. Paul. Blue skies, no mosquitoes, warm enough to dine al fresco. We’re sitting with friends on the patio of Il VescoVino on West 7th having a glass of cool, crisp Trebbiano, dining on gnocchi and chicken ravioli, listening to the sweet, singing sounds of Irv Williams’ saxophone. And I know that for this rare and golden moment, Paris and Montreal, San Francisco and New York and Rome have nothing on the former Pig’s Eye Landing. They don’t have Irv.

A fixture on the Twin Cities jazz scene since 1942, when he came to the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis to play in the U.S. Navy band, Williams is a national treasure who happens to live in Lowertown. He had many opportunities over the years to travel with famous bands and their leaders — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie — but turned them down, preferring to stay put.

Known as “Mr. Smooth,” he’s a master of the love song, the jazz standard, the hummable melody: “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Body and Soul,” “Come Rain or Come Shine.” He swings, he struts and pops, he whispers in your ear. His long, breathy, graceful, elegant notes float through the night air like crepe-paper streamers.

Williams raised his first family in Minneapolis, his second in St. Paul. He played every jazz club in both towns, many now forgotten: places called the Red Feather and the Flame, the Crystal Coach and Cassius’ Bamboo Room. When money was tight and Irv still had children to feed (nine in all), he worked a day job as a dry cleaner.

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Incredibly, given the fact that he turns 90 this Aug. 17, he’s still working two regular weekly gigs, one at the Dakota on Fridays with bassist Ron Fosse, the other at Il VescoVino on Saturdays with pianist Peter Schimke.

He’s also making CDs at the pace of a much younger artist: four since 2004, with a fifth due out this year, in time for his birthday. This one will be mostly original compositions, a first for him. He’ll be feted at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival this summer, where he’s scheduled to perform right before headliner Allen Toussaint, but the big birthday bashes will happen in August, one at the Dakota (with the Steeles) and one at the Artists’ Quarter. A CD release at the AQ will follow in September.

I might have to write about those when they come around. Irv Williams is an endless and fascinating story — of growing up in Cincinnati and Little Rock, coming to Minnesota as a black man in the 1940s, making a life from music, mentoring young musicians, teaching in the public schools, lecturing at the University of Minnesota, winning awards, serving our community, playing, playing, playing. He doesn’t move as quickly as he once did, and he often has to stop and think during conversations, but once he raises his horn to his mouth, the years fall away.

Irv Williams and Ron Fosse play every Friday at the Dakota during Happy Hour, 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m.

Irv Williams and Peter Schimke play every Saturday at Il VescoVino from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m.

Irv Williams will play the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in Mears Park on Friday, June 19, from 6:45 p.m. until 7:45 p.m.