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Minnesota jazz saxophonist Irv 'Mr. Smooth' Williams dies at age 100

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Irv Williams performance
Saxophonist Irv Williams performs at a celebration at the St. Paul Hotel honoring the late broadcaster Leigh Kamman on Jan. 25, 2015.
David Cazares | MPR News 2015

Twin Cities jazz saxophone legend Irv Williams, whose career lasted more than eight decades and whose playing style earned him the nickname "Mr. Smooth," has died at age 100.

Williams died Saturday while in hospice care in St. Paul, the Pioneer Press reported.

Williams was raised in Arkansas, where he got his first paying saxophone gig at age 15, he told MPR in a 2005 interview.

"I got 75 cents. And I've been making money off it ever since," he said.

He arrived in the Twin Cities while in the Navy during World War II — and stayed, becoming an integral part of the Twin Cities jazz scene.

He had a national reputation and crossed paths with some of the biggest stars in jazz, but opted to put his family and local fans first by staying in the Twin Cities.

"I asked him, why didn't he tour more often, or wasn't he interested in playing in other places?" recalled Janis Lane-Ewart, a former jazz program host and currently the development officer for radio station Jazz 88. "And he noted to me that he was really very connected to his community ... (and) he found great joy in performing for the audiences in the Twin Cities.

"He didn't find the — what I call the musician's life of traveling around and being here one night and three days somewhere else — that didn't appeal to him. He really was very family-oriented."

Irv Williams
Irv Williams, seen here at age 96, died at the age of 100 on Saturday. He was inducted into the Minnesota Jazz Hall of Fame, and the saxophone he played for 35 years of his long-running career is on display at Minnesota History Center.
Nate Ryan | MPR 2015

Lane-Ewart said many musicians, after a performance, want to take a break backstage. But "Irv Williams was always right there and very accessible to audience members, and would give of his time. Like, seconds after he put the horn down and the clapping stopped, there would be people wanting to say hello or asking for his autograph — and he was comfortable with that."

His music was accessible, too. He told MPR in 2005 that his focus was on the audience, and not trying to impress other musicians. And there was his “Mr. Smooth” style.

"I have a different way of phrasing," he said. "I just use a lot of air and don't breathe as much as other guys do, you know. So it's more seamless than otherwise. And I enjoy doing it."

"Once he began playing, you were totally enveloped in the musical story that he was sharing," Lane-Ewart recalled. "His style was not braggadocio. It was more like storytelling through his instrument."

For years, Williams was a regular at the Dakota jazz club in Minneapolis, where he performed on his 99th birthday. Dakota co-owner Lowell Pickett told the Star Tribune that Williams was "what we should all be: kind, good, smart, with a wry sense of humor. He enhanced this community by being here."

Williams wasn’t able to attend a public 100th birthday party at the Dakota earlier this year, but his daughter Sandra Jones told the Pioneer Press that Williams played saxophone at a gathering for family and friends.

Over the years he was honored with "Irv Williams Day" proclamations by the city of Minneapolis and the state of Minnesota.

At the time of his 2005 interview with MPR, Williams was battling cancer and glaucoma. But he said he never thought about giving up his saxophone.

"I mean, why am I taking all these shots and everything, you know?" he said. "To be with my family as long as possible and to play music as long as possible, so that's what I'm going to do. And when the good Lord says, 'well son, that's enough' — and then I'm gone."