St. Paul jazz saxophonist Irv “Mr. Smooth” Williams died Saturday in hospice care at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul. He was 100 and he was playing music right up until the end. Services are pending.
“He’s one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people you can imagine,” said Lowell Pickett, owner of Minneapolis club the Dakota in 2016. “And, obviously, his tone is beautiful. That sweet wonderful tone, that’s why he got the nickname ‘Mr. Smooth.’ ”
Raised in Cincinnati and Little Rock, Ark., Williams started playing music at the age of 6. He first picked up the flute, then tried the violin and later the clarinet. He took up the saxophone at 12, when he was old enough to join the school band. “I liked that you had to be creative to play jazz music,” he told the Pioneer Press in 2016.
He went on to pursue music professionally and backed the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Fletcher Henderson and Mary Lou Williams. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served on ships and played clarinet and sax in Navy bands. He came to St. Paul with a Navy big band, met the woman who would become his first of two wives and ended up making the city his home.
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By that point, Williams had earned a reputation in jazz circles and Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong heavily recruited him to join them on the road. But Williams didn’t like touring and stayed in town, teaching in the St. Paul Public Schools and performing in venues all around town, including the Sherwood Supper Club, Cassius’s Bamboo Room, the Flame Bar, the Red Feather, Freddie’s, the Crystal Coach, the Top of the Hilton and Suzette’s.
What kept him in St. Paul? “I had kids, of course,” he said. “That’s about it. That’s a long story.”
Williams had nine children. His daughter Sandra Jones said Sunday that “he was a great dad with a wonderful sense of humor. He was always full of fun. We’d having shaving cream fights and water balloon fights until my mom made us stop. He was young at heart and kind of a kid at heart.”
In 1984, Williams became the first jazz musician honored by the state of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day.” The 1990 Celebrate Minnesota state map featured his photo.
“He’s got all the plaques and awards you can imagine,” said guitarist Steve Blons, who has known Williams for decades. “He told me a story about when he was honored by Norm Coleman, back when he was the mayor of St. Paul. Irv told Coleman, ‘This is great, but where’s the money?’ ”
Pickett opened the Dakota in 1985 at St. Paul’s Bandana Square and Williams soon became a regular there. Williams followed Pickett to downtown Minneapolis when he moved the Dakota to Nicollet Mall in 2003.
“He started playing at the Dakota at an age when most people are retired,” said Pickett, who told a story about Williams once responding to an audience request for “Satin Doll.”
“He said, ‘Oh gosh, I must have played that song 500 times. A thousand times, three thousand times. Man, I hate that song.’ The person who asked for it told him he didn’t need to play it. ‘No, no, you asked for it. I’ll be happy to play it for you.’ And right before he put the horn to his mouth, he said, ‘I sure hate this song.’ He told me later that usually ends the requests.”
Williams first hinted at retirement in the liner notes of his 2004 album “That’s All.” Four years later, he followed it up with another CD, “Finality.” But Williams kept at it, and played annual birthday shows at the Dakota as well as happy-hour gigs. In 2015, he issued his final album, “Pinnacle.”
Several times, Pickett threw Williams retirement parties at the Dakota. Backstage after one of them, Williams asked Pickett about the coming Friday. “I said, ‘What about it? Did you want to play?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, I kind of think I do.’ ”
In 2016, Blons said: “My professional opinion is that music is part of why he’s still alive. It’s been the thing that has given him the most joy, sense of purpose and social connections to musicians and the public. He’s talked multiple times about quitting, but then two days later, he’s talking about next week’s show. My expectation is that he’ll continue to play until he literally cannot do it anymore. He might play until the day he dies; that wouldn’t surprise me.”
Williams moved into an assisted-living facility in 2017, Jones said, and went into hospice care in September. “Basically, it was for weakness,” she said. “Being 100 years old, he was getting progressively weaker and his geriatric doctor recommended hospice.”
When Williams turned 100 in August, he was too tired to make the trip to the Dakota. But he played for nearly an hour for family and friends at a birthday party at Episcopal Homes.
“Music gave him enormous fulfillment,” Jones said. “He never stopped.”
When asked in 2016 how many reeds he’s gone through over the course of his life, Williams let out a loud, hearty laugh. “Well, I’ve been playing since I was 12 years old. So I would say a million reeds, at least.
“I don’t have retirement in mind, but the good Lord does. Whenever he says stop, I’ll take the signal. I’ll continue to play as long as I don’t get tired, and I do get tired sometimes. I do enjoy talking about music and meeting other musicians. Anybody who wants to talk about music, I will talk about it, so get the word around.”
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