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Remembering Minnesota jazz legend Irv Williams, ‘Mr. Smooth’

“His playing was sweet, heart-on-your-sleeve,” said pianist Bill Carrothers. “Irv was all about storytelling. He had a very unhurried way of playing. He was the kind of player they don’t make anymore. It’s the end of an era.”

Irv Williams
For years, Irv Williams was a fixture at the Dakota, playing Friday happy hours regularly through 2017.
Photo by Monika Hurka

Irv Williams, a beloved figure on the Twin Cities music scene, died Saturday at the Episcopal Homes in St. Paul. He turned 100 on Aug. 17. He had been playing the tenor saxophone for almost 90 years.

Growing up in Cincinnati and Little Rock, he started out on violin, but the other kids teased him for playing a “sissy instrument.” He switched to clarinet, then tenor sax. By age 15, he was playing professionally. When World War II began, he joined the Navy and came to the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis with the U.S. Navy Band. On his first weekend here, he met bassist Oscar Pettiford, who introduced him to the local jazz scene.

Williams backed Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. He played with his friend Clark Terry. He took the occasional out-of-town gig, including the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He could have toured with Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong and had a completely different life. Instead, he chose to stay here and raise his family.

Williams played every jazz club in the Twin Cities, most of them long gone, and taught in the St. Paul Public Schools. When he needed extra cash – he would marry twice and have nine children – he worked as a dry cleaner. Along the way, Williams picked up a nickname that stuck: “Mr. Smooth.” (According to jazz historian Jay Goetting, that came from Bob Protzman at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.) It was all about his tone. Once you heard it, you never forgot it. His tone was like a kiss on the cheek.

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Pianist Bill Carrothers was 16 or 17 when he met Williams, and they played together often at a place called Farrell’s in St. Paul. By phone on Monday, Carrothers lingered on “that sound he had. The way he played. Warm, mushy, slightly sentimental. Musically speaking, that’s the greatest loss of Irv’s passing. He’s like a beautiful old ship from the past.

“His playing was sweet, heart-on-your-sleeve. Irv was all about storytelling. He had a very unhurried way of playing. He was the kind of player they don’t make anymore. It’s the end of an era.”

Williams had a good life here. In the early years, according to Goetting, racism and being new in town made it hard to find work. But he made a life in music. In 1984, he was honored by the State of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day,” a first for a jazz musician. He was named an Arts Midwest Jazz Master in 1995, inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of fame in 2014, then the Mid-American Music Hall of Fame in 2015. He was the first-ever inductee to the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame.

Williams also released about a dozen CDs, starting in 1994 with “STOP Look and Listen.” In the mid-2000s, they took on a teasing tone. For “That’s All?” (2004) he wrote in the liner notes, “This new CD has been such a joy to make, only God knows if there will be another.” For “Dedicated to You” (2005), the liner notes began, “As the sun goes down like a ton of bricks on my career ….” Along with giving “Finality” (2008) an ominous title, he signed our copy (and probably everyone else’s) “Thanks! Going fast!” His really, truly last CD, “Pinnacle,” came out in 2015. Sorry, you won’t find his music on Apple Music or Spotify.

For years, Williams was a fixture at the Dakota, playing Friday happy hours regularly through 2017, less often in 2018 and rarely in 2019. “We had an open door policy for him,” said club co-owner Lowell Pickett on Monday. “He could do Fridays as long as he wanted.” Williams held at least two “retirement parties” there, one in spring 2011 and one in spring 2012, but changed his mind both times.

The Dakota hosted birthday parties for Williams: his 96th, 97th, 98th, 99th, 100th. These were festive events filled with friends, long-time fans and admiring fellow musicians. Williams showed up and played his saxophone at every one but the last. “He said he wanted to come, his daughter said he wanted to come, and we arranged for someone [at Episcopal Homes] to help him get dressed and get ready,” Pickett said. “We sent somebody over to pick him up. But he just said ‘No, I’m too tired. Maybe I’ll go tomorrow.’”

“He was such a wonderful man. Warm and gracious, with a dry, humorous sparkle. Absolutely kind. I never heard him say anything mean about anyone. His playing reflected that. There wasn’t a mean tone in anything he played. It was the kind of sound that embraces you and lifts you up. Even at his 99th birthday, his tone was beautiful.”

Carrothers considers Williams “one of my first teachers of music … and a huge part of my love of jazz. He knew tons and tons of tunes.” He remembers a night at O’Gara’s when Williams taught him “Strike Up the Band.”

“Back then,” Carrothers said, “they didn’t have music or Real Books [collections of lead sheets for jazz standards]. They would just stomp off the beat and say the name of the tune, and if you didn’t know it, you learned it quickly. That was the old school way. ‘Strike Up the Band’ is a tune I’ve carried with me ever since. Every time I play it, I think of Irv.”

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Pickett summed up the way a lot of us feel, now that Williams is gone: “He was one of those people that make this world a better place, in every conceivable way. His presence, his kindness, his music. We could use him for another hundred years.”