Minnesota Music Treasure
Williams started to play the violin at age six, then switched to the clarinet at age 11 to counter the effects of bronchitis, and soon moved on to the saxophone. In his early career, Williams performed in bands behind Ella Fitzgerald, Fletcher Henderson, Mary Lou Williams, and Billy Eckstine at venues such as the Apollo Theater or the Howard Theater. Williams first performed in the Twin Cities with the Navy during World War II, and soon fell in love with the cities. The love for his new home and his devotion to his family were reasons to turn down invitations to play and tour with greats such as Count Basie or Duke Ellington. Instead he taught at the St Paul Public Schools, played with the late Reginald Buckner, and performed over the years at every Twin Cities jazz venue, where he was often back to back with stars such as Sarah Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie, or Johnny Hodges.
During his nine-decade career, Williams has focused on the tenor sax as a solo vehicle and on own compositions that together with the Great American Songbook complete his ample repertoire. His knowledge of the idiom is legendary; fellow musicians marvel at his capability of playing any song in any key.
Williams is the first jazz musician to have his own “Irv Williams Day” granted by the State of Minnesota (1984), has been inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame (2014) and the Mid-America Music Hall of Fame (2015), was pictured on the “Celebrate Minnesota” official state map (1990), is one of three recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the KBEM Winter Jazz Festival (2005), and has received many other notable prizes and recognitions.
What Other People Have Been Saying...
“Notes from Williams’ saxophone seem to float on air rather than fill it.”
– Pioneer Press
“His tone is breathy and warm. Sometimes his playing is like a kiss on your cheek or a gentle hand on the back of your neck. He’s a master of the love song.”
– St. Paul Almanac