Irv Willians in 2010/ Star Tribune photo by David Brewster

Irv Williams in 2010/ Star Tribune photo by David Brewster

He toured with Ella Fitzgerald, recorded with Dinah Washington and declined invitations to join bands led by both Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Saxophonist Irv Williams had world-class talent but preferred to stay in the Twin Cities and raise his children.

So long to the lush life, hello to the family life.

The saxophonist backed famous names like Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine and Andy Williams when they came to town. He also played his own gigs, well into his late 90s, and recorded several albums throughout his career. He taught music at St. Paul Central High School to students who probably didn’t realize that their instructor had gigged back in the day with a who’s who of jazz including Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan.

“He was such a fixture here,” said guitarist Steve Blons, who played with Williams as did Blons’ father, clarinetist Harry Blons. “He could have had a national reputation if he wanted to go for it.”

Williams, known as Mr. Smooth, died Saturday at the Episcopal Homes in St. Paul. He was 100.

In August, he was too tired to make it to his 100th birthday celebration at the Dakota, but he not only showed up to his 99th there last year, he surprisingly played a generous eight-tune, 45-minute set with his combo.

“When I run out of breath, I’ll bring the horn down to you,” he joked to the full house after the first selection. But his wind remained strong, his phrasing articulate, his timing spot-on. Accompanied by a guitarist and upright bassist, he proved that he could still swing with authority and deliver ballads with emotion.

“He didn’t lose his human and artistic vitality,” said Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett. “If you closed your eyes, you couldn’t imagine that tone and control was coming from a man who was nearly 100. His musical ideas were always so fresh.”

Pickett remembered Williams as “what we should all be: kind, good, smart, with a wry sense of humor. He enhanced this community by being here. He had this graciousness. There was no meanness to him but he wasn’t a pushover. He said always ask for forgiveness. He didn’t mean it in a religious sense but in the human sense.”

Growing up in Little Rock, Ark., Williams played violin, forming a duo with his piano-playing sister for performances in churches.

"I was 10, but I looked like I was 7," he told the star Tribune in 2005. "I could play all these songs by ear. But when I carried my violin case around, I got razzed: `Sissy! Why don't you get a good instrument.'-"

When he was 11 and suffering from bronchitis, his father, a doctor, got him a clarinet to strengthen his lungs. He soon switched to tenor saxophone, his instrument of choice. At his father's insistence, he studied pre-med in college in Nashville but quit after two years to become a jazz musician in St. Louis.

In those days, musicians learned by experience. "Other than that, I've never had a saxophone lesson," he said.

During World War II, Williams was in the Navy’s jazz band based at the Twin Cities airport. He married and stayed in Minnesota but occasionally went on tour, playing important venues such as the Apollo in New York and the Howard Theater in D.C.

He had offers to stay on the road and possibly become a prominent name in jazz, but nine children over two marriages kept him anchored in the Twin Cities.

"People say, `You missed the boat,' " he told the Star Tribune in 2005. "But I didn't miss the boat. I've still got my family, my kids."

He gigged all over the Twin Cities from strip clubs and the Top of the Hilton in St. Paul to jazz joints like Freddie’s in Minneapolis. When money was short, he even ran a dry-cleaning business.

Sandra Jones, his oldest child, remembers his sense of humor. “When he was supposed to be putting us to bed, he’d tell wild stories, something like we heard years later as ‘fractured fairytales’ on ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle.’ ”

In 1994, he was the first jazz musician to be honored by the state of Minnesota with Irv Williams Day. The next year, he was named as a Jazz Master by Arts Midwest. Last year, an Irv Williams Fellowship for young musicians was established at MacPhail School of Music.

Neither prostate cancer nor a hip replacement in his 80s could slow down Mr. Smooth. 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 for nearly a decade until late 2017.

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.”

Williams is survived by his wife, Mary, nine children and many grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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