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 Tuesday, 24 November 2015
Still Blowing, Sax and Candles: Irv Williams Celebrates 90 PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 10 August 2009

Irv WIlliams©Andrea Canter

A few years ago, tenor saxophone legend Irv Williams hinted at retirement in his liner notes for That’s All, but clearly that was premature. Three CDs later, the then 88-year-old known fondly as “Mr. Smooth” issued a more dramatic hint with the release of Finality (Ding Dong Music).  But apparently the title only referred to Irv’s feelings about recording sessions, not performing opportunities. Still a weekly Happy Hour staple at the Dakota in Minneapolis and Il Vesco Vino in St. Paul, Irv and his quartet were on the main stage of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June. This weekend (Friday at the Artists Quarter, Monday at the Dakota), Irv celebrates 90. We have no doubt he has the capacity to blow out every candle. 

Irv Williams©Andrea Canter
Raised in Cincinnati and Little Rock, Irv Williams first performed in the Twin Cities as a clarinet and sax player with the Navy during Word War II. Turning down invitations to play with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, he stayed in the Twin Cities, although his vita includes stints with Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Eckstein. Here at home, Williams has played at every jazz venue, past and present, including the old Flame Bar where he was often back to back with such stars as Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, and Johnny Hodges. The first jazz musician to have his own “Irv Williams Day” granted by the State of Minnesota (1984), he has been inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame and was pictured on the “Celebrate Minnesota” official state map in 1990. At the KBEM Winter Jazz Festival in 2005, Irv was onne of three recipients of Lifetime Achievement Awards. Throughout his nearly seven-decade career, Williams has focused on the Great American Songbook and the tenor sax as a solo vehicle. His knowledge of the idiom is legendary and fellow musicians marvel at his ability to play any song in any key. Noted Matt Peiken (St. Paul Pioneer Press), “Veteran saxophonist Irv Williams has always been about sweetness not power, and he's still gigging strong.” That was four years ago, and Irv is gigging and blowing as sweetly as ever. 

Irv Williams and Peter Schimke©Andrea Canter
Recording is hardly a new activity for Irv Williams. Since his 84th birthday, he’s been as prolific as any artist on the planet with back-to-back quintet releases, That’s All (2004) and Dedicated to You (2005), followed in late 2006 by one of his most acclaimed, Duo, with piano partner Peter Schimke. Returning to the quintet format in 2008, Finality included a cast of veteran Williams’ cohorts—pianist Peter Schimke, bassist Gordy Johnson, guitarist Loren Walstad and drummer Kenny Horst, with a guest appearance by tenor saxophonist Gus Sandberg. The Minneapolis Star Tribune named Finality one of the best local recordings of 2008. 

This will not be the first Irv Williams Birthday Weekend in the Twin Cities—it’s become an annual event--but it might be the most inspiring yet. With his quartet (the usual suspects are Peter Schimke, Billy Peterson and Kenny Horst) and a likely long list of special guests, these celebrations are well deserved, and sure to be a whole lot of fun. As note in the Pioneer Press, Irv is either “the coolest old guy or the oldest cool guy in St. Paul.” 

Irv Williams’ 90th birthday celebrations take place at the Artists Quarter on Friday, August 14th and on Monday, August 17th. The Artists Quarter is located at 408 St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul, lower level of the Hamm Building. Sets begin at 9 pm; visit The Dakota is located at 1010 Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. Sets begin at 7 pm;  

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