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September 9, 2005
West St. Paul, Minn. — Irv Williams played his first paying gig on saxophone in the mid-1930s. It was in his native Arkansas. He was 15.
"I played at a Phyllis Wheatley house for a prom," he says. "And I got 75 cents. And I've been making money off it ever since."
Williams came to Minnesota when he enlisted in the navy during World War II, and was stationed outside the Twin Cities. He decided to stay.
Over the decades Williams has had a lot of high profile jobs, including playing in female jazz pioneer MaryLou Williams' band and with Billy Eckstein. He's also led a number of Twin Cities-based combos.
In Williams mellow brand of straight ahead jazz, you can hear all those years and experiences everytime he blows into his saxophone.
Williams says he plays for the people, not other musicians. He doesn't indulge in the noisy, at times dissonant stampede of notes some younger, more experimental performers unleash on an audience. He likes hooks too much. He wants listeners to leave his shows humming, mainly because they know many of the songs.
"We get a lot of requests," he says. "It's because I'm in the band and I know so many tunes, you know? I play "Satin Doll" and I hate that. It's getting to the point that my horn won't play it anymore, even if I ask."
Williams' nickname in local jazz circles is "Mr. Smooth." Even he thinks it fits.
"I have a different way of phrasing," he says. "I just use a lot of air and don't breathe as much as other guys do, you know. So it's more seamless than otherwise. And I enjoy doing it. But I'm not as good as I used to be, but I'm good."
While Williams may not feel his playing is as strong as it once was, Minneapolis jazz writer Tom Surowicz begs to differ.
"Ever since Irv got his hip replaced a few years back he's been sounding terrific," he says. "He's smooth, strong, breathy, he's got that beautiful tone. Especially on ballads."
Surowicz says even at 86, Williams is not on automatic pilot. He's recording and performing new tunes, and putting his stamp on older ones he's never played before. Surowicz thinks part of the reason Williams' sound has stayed fresh is because he deliberately seeks out adventurous piano players for his bands.
He also says Williams uses his age to his advantage.
"Irv'll says stuff like, 'If you want to get a cd signed, you better buy it now, right now, 'cause I could keel over and die tonight, right here,'" Surowicz says. "He's working the living legend, codger angle really well and more power to him."
"He's got THE sound that every saxophone player would love to have."
Minneapolis saxophonist Gary Berg, who compared to Williams is a youngster at 66, first ran into him in the early 50s on the local jazz circuit. Berg says Williams' decades-long presence in the Twin Cities has been a gift to generations of musicians who've come to recognize a master in their midst.
"When he plays a solo, he gets right to the meat of the tune," he says. "There's nothing wasted. He plays all the right notes and with such a beautiful sound that after hearing him play you get to think 'Well, why should anybody else bother to play that? It's already been done.'"
Berg says everyone who's anyone in American jazz knows about Williams. He believes Williams would be considerably more famous if he had lived on either of the coasts, especially New York.
Williams himself has no regrets about the time he's spent in Minnesota, but unfortunately his time may be running out. In 1982, he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer, which after treatment went into remission for more than 20 years. Last year, doctors discovered it had returned. Williams decided to opt out of surgery, and for the last year has been getting hormone shots as treatment. He also suffers from glaucoma.
And yet, he wouldn't dream of putting down his saxophone for good.
"I mean, why am I taking all these shots and everything, you know?" he says. "To be with my family as long as possible and play music as long as possible. And when the good lord says well son, that's enough, and then I'm gone, you know."
Until then, Williams is content to stay as busy as his energy will allow. He thinks there's as many as 15 cds worth of material waiting to come out.