Irv Williams remembers a woman knocking on the door of his apartment at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul as he played his saxophone several years ago.
“That was beautiful!” the woman said. “What did you play?”
“I was warming up,” Irv replied.
He laughs as he recalls the woman’s next question. “She said, ‘Can you remember it? I’d like to have that.’ I told her I couldn’t remember it. She said ‘Oh, shucks.’”
Born on Aug. 17, 1919, and raised in Cincinnati and Little Rock, Ark., Irv began playing the saxophone when he was 12 and it became his calling.
Over the years, his legacy as one of the Big Band era’s many celebrated artists has only deepened. Today, Irv is one of the most publicly renowned jazz musicians in Minnesota.
Early in his career, Irv toured the country and performed with the Henderson brothers, Clark Terry, George Hudson and other artists of the Big Band era. He also backed artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine.
As a bandsman in the U.S. Navy during WWII, Irv first came to Minnesota in 1942 and never left. When asked what made him stay, Irv says, “One thing is I got married. That would do it.” Irv also wanted to be around to raise his children (he has nine). “I enjoyed fatherhood,” he says.
Despite turning down offers to tour with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, Irv managed to build a pioneering jazz career in St. Paul. He also worked in the dry-cleaning business, taught in the St. Paul Public School District, lectured at the University of Minnesota, mentored other musicians and continued a weekly gig at the Dakota Club until 2017.
“I can tell you what made it for me,” Irv says. “First thing I did, I made myself a consummate player. After I did that, I made myself a good arranger of music. Then, I learned how to deal with other musicians, which is an art within itself. It’s a slow process, you know.”
Irv’s signature sound – long, lilting notes and smooth slides between keys – built a loyal audience over the years. For decades, he played in venues all over the Twin Cities and at every local jazz club.
“I think the best compliment is my doing all the standard tunes, the proper tunes – I do them in my own way on the saxophone.” With a twinkle in his eye, he adds, “Sometimes it’s hard to do and please the jazz people, too. They’ll tell me, ‘Jump em’ up!’”
Today, Irv lives at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul, where he enjoys frequent visits from family and friends. His 99th birthday is just days away.
Since 2003, Irv has released four albums, including That’s All in 2004 and Finality in 2008. He gave a birthday performance at the Dakota when he turned 98 in 2017. On Aug. 21, the Dakota Club will host a celebration in honor of Irv’s 99th birthday.
Looking back on his career, Irv says it was hard work and required perseverance. He also had to manage prejudice along the way. “You learn fast what you can get away with,” Irv says.
Irv says he was proud that he helped expose Minnesotans to such a wide range of jazz genres, mingling the familiar with a little something new. “The main thing is that we mixed up the dinner style music with the jazz also. And dancing, you know. Lindy. Charleston. It was great.”
That sort of musical versatility is one of the many reasons Irv has collected dozens of accolades thought his nine-decade career.
“They called me great, but I don’t think it’s great,” he says. “I think it was pretty good.”
His countless awards and honors suggest otherwise.
In 1984, Irv became the first jazz musician to be granted his own “Irv Williams Day” by the State of Minnesota. He was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2014, and the following year, he was inducted into the Mid-American Music Hall of Fame.
When someone recently suggested he was a celebrity, Irv shook his head with a chuckle before offering an alternative.
“I like the word ‘luminary.’”