Proving you are never too old or too experienced for a debut performance, local sax legend Irv Williams, now 96, makes his first appearance in the Dunsmore Room of Crooners Lounge on April 19 (7 pm), surrounded by a band of veteran stars a couple generations his junior. Joining Irv for this special evening of glowing, intimate bebop will be trombone master Dave Graf, elegant pianist Phil Aaron, and always-tasty bassist Gordon Johnson.
Raised in Cincinnati and Little Rock, Irv Williams started out on violin, switched to clarinet at age 11 to counter the effects of bronchitis, and soon moved on to saxophone. Early in his career, he played in bands behind Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Eckstine at such venues as the Apollo Theater and the Howard Theater. Irv 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 where he taught in the St Paul Public Schools and played with the late Reginald Buckner. And 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 one of three recipients of Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Irv hinted at retirement in his liner notes for That’s All (2004), but clearly that was premature. Three CDs later, and then 88, he issued a more dramatic hint with the release of Finality (Ding Dong Music, 2008). But apparently the title only referred to Irv’s feelings about recording sessions, not performing opportunities. In Spring 2011, Irv seemed more determined that we let him rest his chops, proclaiming the release of yet another CD (Duke’s Mixture) at the Dakota Jazz Club to be his “Retirement Party.” Shortly thereafter, he was back playing for the Dakota’s Friday Happy Hour with Peter Schimke. Then came the May 2012 “Retirement Party” at the Dakota, followed by more happy hours, and a special guest performance in spring 2013 with Estaire Godinez at the Museum of Russian Art. And still he held weekly happy hours at the Dakota, which in early 2014 saw a cast change — a trio with guitarist Steve Blons and bassist Billy Peterson.
In a conversation with videographer/producer/ Wells Piano co-owner Jason Rupert, Irv (at 94) discussed the possibility of archiving all of his recordings. It was a great idea that got sidetracked when Irv decided to record yet another CD, yielding Then Was Then, Now Is Now (Wells Pianos), released in summer 2014. A year later, the archival project had one more addition, aptly titled Pinnacle, a trio set with Blons and Peterson with excerpts from the late Leigh Kamman’s last interview with Irv. Now 96, Irv seems busier than ever, continuing happy hour Fridays at the Dakota (usually in duo with Blons), appearing in his first “Featured Artist” gig at Jazz Central earlier this year, as guest artist last weekend in KBEM’s “Weaving of Traditions” show, and now in the Dunsmore Room.
Throughout his eight-plus 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 “sweetness” will be a perfect fit for the intimacy and “listening room” culture of the Dunsmore Room.
The Dunsmore Room in Crooners Lounge is located at 6161 Highway 65 NE, just north of I-694 on Moore Lake in Fridley, about 20 minutes northeast of downtown Minneapolis. Reservations strongly recommended via Brown Paper Tickets on the Crooners website, www.croonersloungemn.com. Ticket $10; optional dinner show with ticket, $35. Enjoy the music, talk between sets!