Above: Minnesota saxophone legend Irv Williams in 2010, at the age of 90. (David Brewster/Star Tribune)
It feels like the longest wait in Irv Williams’ 97-year old life: The time between getting dressed up and the moment he actually climbs onstage.
“Feels like a hundred-thousand minutes,” Williams said with a rueful chuckle. But once someone — usually guitarist Steve Blons — picks him up from the Episcopal Homes, where he lives in St. Paul, the time has a way of melting away.
Construction on Nicollet Mall has reduced the size of the crowds for Williams' Friday happy hour shows at the Dakota. But as the years go by, Williams' annual birthday concert has become a hot ticket. There's sure to be a large, enthusiastic audience when the saxophonist celebrates his 98th birthday there this Sunday.
And Irv is sure to amaze with long, sustained notes. He's sure to charm with his signature slide back and forth from one key to another. And he's sure to make the audience swoon with the easy, lilting swing of his trademark breathy ballads.
“Every time I have ever played," he said at home the other day, "I sincerely tried to turn everyone on.”
Those in attendance Sunday will hear the oldest working musician in jazz today, someone with direct connection with the foundational figures of the music. Williams once played with Louis Armstrong, and turned down offers to tour with both Duke Ellington and Count Basie after moving to Minnesota in 1942. Coleman Hawkins, widely credited with playing the first saxophone solo in jazz history, personally taught Williams the circular breathing technique that enables him to sustain those long notes.
“Irv is a showman and he creates one melodic phrase after another,” said Blons, who will be play with Williams' quintet on Sunday. “You can see him fighting his diminished capabilities sometimes, but he is always thinking like a jazz musician even when he can’t execute things exactly the way he wants.”
At this point, the sheer weight of his instrument can be a problem for Williams, even as he balances it on his hip while playing. Describing the frustration of it, he said: “It’s getting about time for me to say ‘bye,’ you know? It certainly is.”
And yet two minutes later, he said he would prefer a schedule of six nights a week to keep his chops honed.
“Every other week he’ll tell me that this is his last gig," said Blons. "I tell people not to wait too long. At the same time, I would never bet against him.”
So, Irv, when you do finally pass on, how would you like to be remembered?
“Oh, that’s a tough one,” he answered.
He thought for a minute. Then he replied, with a mischievous grin: “That he was on time. Always on time.”
Irv Williams 98th Birthday Concert
7 p.m. Sun., Dakota, Minneapolis; $15 dakotacooks.com