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Saxophonist Irv Williams to celebrate 99th birthday at the Dakota

“All of the money collected at the door will go to a scholarship fund in Irv’s name for one of the students in the Dakota Combo at MacPhail,” said Dakota owner Lowell Pickett.

As a young man, Irv Williams played tenor sax and clarinet in bands behind Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine and Mary Lou Williams.
Photo by Monika Hurka

When Dakota owner Lowell Pickett called earlier this month to talk about Irv Williams, we thought he was about to announce another Irv CD release.

There was a time not long ago when the tenor saxophonist was making a new CD every other minute. “That’s All” came out in 2004, leading everyone to believe it would be his last. Then he released “Finality” in 2006. How could that not be someone’s final album? “Final” is part of the title! Three more followed, the most recent, “Pinnacle,” in 2015.

But this wasn’t about another CD. Williams turned 99 on Aug. 15. On Tuesday, the Dakota will throw him a birthday party. This is something they’ve done since hosting his retirement party in 2011 – the first of many. At the time, Williams had been playing Friday happy hours at the Dakota. He told Pickett he wanted to retire, and Pickett believed him.

“It was a big celebration,” Pickett recalled. “I introduced him and talked about how he was retiring and how wonderful it’s been to have him here. Later, he said to me, ‘Lowell, what about Friday night? Do you still want me to play?’ I said, ‘Well, Irv – sure! Do you want to?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think I’d like to.’ I said, ‘Great! Then come on and play.’

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“He said, ‘But what about all of this?’ He meant all those people who were there to celebrate his not playing anymore. I said, ‘No problem, Irv. I’ll just go back out on stage and tell people you’re not quite retiring.’ ”

Williams hasn’t played Dakota happy hours for the past several months. “As far as we’re concerned, he’s on hiatus,” Pickett said.

As a young man, Williams played tenor sax and clarinet for Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine and Mary Lou Williams. He came to the Twin Cities as a Navy bandsman in 1942. On his first weekend here, he met bassist Oscar Pettiford, who introduced him to the local jazz scene.

Williams could have toured with Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, but he liked it here and stayed. He taught in the St. Paul Public Schools and played jazz clubs all over the Twin Cities, now long gone: Cassius’s Bamboo Room, the Flame Bar, the Red Feather, Freddie’s, the Crystal Coach, the Top of the Hilton, Suzette’s. He married twice and had nine children. When money was tight, he worked as a dry cleaner by day and a jazz musician by night. For his rich, warm tone and fluid touch, he acquired a nickname: “Mr. Smooth.”

In 1984, Williams was the first jazz musician honored by the State of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day.” He was named an Arts Midwest Jazz Master in 1995. At the KBEM Winter Jazz Fest in 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2014, he was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame, and in 2015, the Mid-American Music Hall of Fame. In 2016, he became the first-ever inductee to the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame.

Isn’t there something else we can give him?

That’s part of the plan for Tuesday’s event at the Dakota. “We wanted to do something that celebrated Irv and at the same time had a broader context,” Pickett said. “All of the money collected at the door will go to a scholarship fund in Irv’s name for one of the students in the Dakota Combo at MacPhail.” The scholarship will be awarded annually. A Go Fund Me has been set up for online donations.

At the party, trumpeter and Dakota Combo alumni Jake Baldwin will perform with a group of other Combo alums. Guitarist Steve Blons (aka “Dr. Jazz”) will join Williams for a short set. Saxophonist Pete Whitman and his group Mississippi will play. Everyone will sing “Happy Birthday” to Irv.

Just don’t ask him to play “Satin Doll.”

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Pickett told the story. “Years ago, at the old Dakota [in Bandana Square], Irv was playing one night when someone made a request. They asked if he would play ‘Satin Doll.’ And he said, ‘I must have played that song two, three thousand times. Man, I hate that song.’

“The person said, ‘You don’t have to play it.’ Irv said, ‘No, no, you asked for it! Of course I’ll play it … Boy, I really hate that song.’ The person protested, ‘Don’t play it!’ Irv said, ‘I always want to play requests. I’ll be happy to play it for you. [Sighs.] I really hate that song.’ Then he played it.”

Pickett laughed. “Nobody asked for any more requests. What a charming way to lay the groundwork on the relationship he wanted to exist between himself and the audience.”

Pickett has known Williams for more than 30 years. What would he like us to know about him? “He’s a treasure – as a musician, an important part of Minnesota’s musical landscape and a person. He’s inspirational. His tone is beautiful, and his musical ideas are wonderful.

“We forget sometimes how old someone is because of how well they’re able to continue to engage with the world and with others. Irv is mentally acute. His memory is sharp and his sense of humor is still intact. So is his ability to play the saxophone. Other musicians who have played with Irv a lot are knocked out at how young his musical ideas are.

“Plus he’s such a sweet man. He has such charm and grace. People should celebrate this incredible man in our community. He’s one of the people who make life better.”

The details: Irv Williams 99th Birthday Celebration. 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 21, at the Dakota. $20 reserved seating. Pay-what-you-can general admission at the door. All money from the door and online ticket sales will go toward the Dakota Combo Irv Williams Scholarship. FMI.