|Jeff Bailey (L) and Irv Williams at Irv's 90th birthday in 2009
On August 17, 2009, Williams—fans call him “Mr. Smooth”—turned ninety. He has lived in Saint Paul for forty-seven years, moving here in 1962 to be closer to his job at the Sherwood Supper Club, now long gone. Most of the clubs he has played over the years—Cassius’s Bamboo Room, the Flame Bar, the Red Feather, Freddie’s, the Crystal Coach, the Top of the Hilton, Suzette’s—have shut their doors, been torn down or redeveloped.
Williams could have left town, hit the road with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Louis Armstrong, ended up in New York, and become a star. Instead, he chose to stay and become part of Saint Paul’s history.
Along with playing at every jazz club in the Twin Cities since the 1940s, Williams has taught in the public schools, lectured at the University of Minnesota, and mentored many musicians. In 1984, he was the first jazz musician to be honored by the State of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day.” His picture appeared on the Celebrate Minnesota state map in 1990 (he appears on this year’s Almanac cover; take a look).
Williams was named an Arts Midwest Jazz Master in 1995 and is a member of the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame. He plays a new sax because his old one is now in the “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation” exhibit at the Minnesota History Center.
Acclaim is appreciated, but for Williams, it’s all about the music. His first instrument was the violin, which he played as a cute little kid growing up in Cincinnati and Little Rock. The older he got, the more other kids teased him for playing a “sissy instrument.” They also called him “Ir-vin-ee” because his name was Irvine, with an e at the end.
Williams dropped the violin and later the e. By the time he was eleven, he had switched to clarinet and then to tenor saxophone. He started playing professionally at fifteen. He attended college as a pre-med student, with plans to be a doctor like his father, but music’s pull was too strong. Besides, there was plenty of work for young sax players during the Big Band era of the 1930s and early ’40s. When World War II began, Williams joined the Navy and came to the Naval Air Station in Minneapolis with the U.S. Navy Band.
He had ample time to practice his horn and explore the Twin Cities. On his first weekend here, he met the great bassist Oscar Pettiford and his family. Pettiford introduced Williams to the local jazz scene and places like Buford’s BBQ and the Elk’s Rest. Williams remembers, “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.”
Two marriages and nine children followed. When money was tight, Williams worked two jobs: dry cleaner by day, jazz musician by night. Today he’s free to spend as much time as he wants on his music. He walks and talks a bit slowly, and he admits to having problems with getting tired, but many people believe he has never sounded better.
After all these years as a musician—Williams started playing violin at age six, so he’s had eighty-four years of playing and practicing, learning and trying to get better every day—does he still enjoy it? “I enjoy it more than ever now,” he says. “I can’t slack off. I have to put every ounce of myself into my music. That’s what I do. It keeps me going—myself and my dog.”
His tone is breathy and warm. Sometimes his playing is like a kiss on your cheek or a gentle hand on the back of your neck. He’s a master of the love song. The next time you and your sweetheart are alone together, if you’re old enough, forget the R&B and play a little Irv.
Originally published in the 2010 Saint Paul Almanac.
Photo by John Whiting.