Someone else carried Irv Williams’ tenor saxophone onto the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club Tuesday evening, but otherwise the star attraction didn’t need any help. No cane, walker or hand-holder to assist this 99-year-old.
It was a birthday party for the St. Paul jazz great known as Mr. Smooth.
Dakota proprietor Lowell Pickett led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” and Mr. Smooth blew out the candle. Yes, a singular candle for a singular musical figure.
The evening was also a fundraiser for the new Irv Williams Fellowship for high school jazz musicians at MacPhail Center for Music. Back in the day, Williams played with a who's who in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson and Dizzy Gillespie and he taught at St. Paul Central High School.
“Thank you for being here,” Williams said with a smile on Tuesday. “I’m delighted to be here. We’re going to play a little music for you right now.”
For years, Williams has been playing Happy Hour on Fridays at the Dakota. He’s missed Fridays during the last few months but he was in fine spirits, form and humor on Tuesday.
After the first selection, the seated sax man looked out at the crowd and explained, “When I run out of breath, I’ll bring the horn down to you.”
Williams never ran out of breath. His wind was strong, his phrasing articulate, his timing spot-on. Accompanied by a guitarist and upright bassist, the saxophonist was his usually smooth self. He can still swing with authority and deliver ballads with emotion.
And he executed one of his signature moves a couple of times: At the end of a tune after the other two players stopped, he played an extra honking note in a playful way.
Mr. Smooth has a sense of humor with his music and his conversation.
And there was a bonus: While the trio offered a jaunty instrumental version of “Summer Wind,” Dakota staffers passed out slices of the birthday cake to club-goers.
After an 8-tune, 45-minute set, Williams said he’d take an intermission. However, Pickett had booked another band, Pete Whitman and Mississippi, so Williams called it a night.
But Pickett had one question for the unstoppable sax man before he exited: “This is going to be an annual event, right?”