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Sun, 08.17.1919

Irv Williams, Saxophonist born

Irv Williams

*Irv Williams was born on this date in 1919.   He is a Black jazz musician and educator. 

From Cincinnati, Ohio, he is one of two children of LeRoy and Georgia Williams (both educators) and has a sister Sibyl.  He was named after his grandfather, educator, and activist Irving Garland Penn, who he always admired. He was born an Rh-negative baby, pronounced ‘still-born’ by the delivery room doctor.  Luckily his grandmother was present; she sucked everything out of his lungs, slapped him on the butt, and young Williams began crying.  He spent most of his infancy with his grandmother, partly due to his frailty and his mother's work in Arkansas.   Early on, during a visit to his parents, he got Asthma and had to return to Cincinnati, where he and his sister stayed with their grandmother commuting between the two cities until she died in 1931. 

From then on, Williams was raised in Little Rock and started musically as a violinist.  His father, a doctor, prescribed the clarinet to strengthen Irv's lungs during a bout with bronchitis at age 11. Williams fell in love with the horn and soon moved on to the sax; all he wanted to do was blow the horn.  Williams graduated from Dunbar High School in 1938 and then enlisted in the Navy, where he played in the Navy Band. After the military, Williams settled in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1942.  

As a tenor sax player, Williams has worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine's orchestra, and many other jazz luminaries at the Apollo Theater and the Howard Theatre. His warm, soulful tone and mastery of the jazz ballad earned him the nickname “Mister Smooth."  Williams is a legend in the Twin Cities.  One of his main venues is The Flame Bar; he split sets with stars like Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges.  An educator and mentor to countless musicians, his contributions to the music scene go far beyond his estimable sax skills. He spent decades teaching in the St. Paul public schools, guest lecturing at the University of Minnesota, and performing.  Williams was the first jazz musician to be honored by the State of Minnesota with his own “Irv Williams Day” in 1984 and had his picture on the “Celebrate Minnesota” official state map in 1990.  

Neither prostate cancer nor a hip replacement in his 80s could slow down Mr. Smooth.  His many awards include induction into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame and receiving the Arts Midwest Jazz Masters Award in 1995.  Williams has threatened retirement on several occasions – luckily for his fans, retirement seems to be the one musical endeavor he can't master. Since turning 85, he released two wonderful CDs and continues to be a hard-working live performer. Dedicated to You, and That's All.  Since recording his “Finality” album in 2008, he cut three more discs, with “Pinnacle” in 2015 being his last. He maintained his Friday happy-hour gig at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis for nearly a decade until late 2017.  

In 2018, MacPhail School of Music established an Irv Williams Fellowship for young musicians.  But he didn’t stop blowing his horn. Sometimes he’d go into the commons area at the Episcopal Homes, where he lived, and play his sax.  “He had a next-door neighbor who lived till she was 102,” recalled Jones. “He did an impromptu concert as they carried out her body. That was about two years ago.”  Irv Williams died on December 15, 2019.  Williams is survived by his wife, Mary, nine children, and many grandchildren. 

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