If you’ve listened to previous episodes of The O.K. Show, you’ll know that I am very interested in how artists’ health affects their ability to make music. We’ve talked about mental health, disease, depression and grief—all such serious topics at the core of some of today’s most moving songwriting. Today, I’m taking things a different approach by talking to the elder statesman of the Twin Cities jazz community, the 96-year-old saxophonist Irv Williams. Though he has had his share of health issues over the years, has managed to stay active, persevere and remain prolific well into his ninth decade—and I couldn’t wait to ask him how he’s done it.
Irv’s list of accomplishments is lengthy. In addition to his 11 albums, he was the first jazz musician to be awarded his own Irv Williams Day by the State of MN back in 1984. He’s received the KBEM Lifetime Achievement Award, he’s been 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.
When he celebrated his 96th birthday in August, the Dakota Jazz Club was overflowing with fellow musicians and friends who came to see him play and wish him well. And when I paid him a visit for this interview, we were interrupted many times by phone calls from artists who were checking in on him and neighbors who couldn’t help but stop to say hello. Within minutes of meeting him, it was easy to understand why everyone wanted to talk to Irv. Not only is he a living legend, but he just so happens to be one of the sweetest, most endearing gentlemen I’d ever had the chance to interview.
Andrea Swensson: What brought you to Minnesota?
Irv Williams: The Navy, during the war years.
Describe the Minneapolis scene in the ‘40s. What was going on at that time?
They didn’t have much music that I liked. I was all tri-jazz, which is trombone, clarinet and trumpet and a 3-part rhythm section—standup bass and drums—and what it really was was swing, which most of the white bands were doing. We were off from that a long time ago. I was doing what we call modern swing music. A guy named Fletcher Henderson had a band in New York, and he opened up his arrangements for solos, and none of the other bands would do that. So he opened it up for solos for maybe a tenor player and maybe a trombone or a trumpet, and of course that made the numbers a lot longer. Everybody started doing that. Benny Goodman got the credit for it. But it should have been—and I worked for Fletcher’s brother, Horace Henderson, also—they were in Chicago and they were doing that kind of arranging for big bands.
Did you have a mentor that you looked up to when you were learning more about jazz?
I had so many role models because I had so many guys. I was in favor of going to hear trumpet players. I didn’t care about sax players or clarinet players. All my friends were trumpet players. One just died: Clark Terry. We were school chums and everything. He played with the Tonight Show band—one of the first black guys to get on the Tonight Show. So he passed away and it really hurt. It really did.
What has kept you faithful to jazz for your career? What keeps you coming back to that art form?
I love it and I play it pretty well, and that’s the reason why. I never ventured into rock and roll. I played in St. Louis with a well-known rock and roll guy—somebody recommended me that he needed a saxophone player. His saxophone player was sick or something like that, so he asked me to come down and play in his band. I went down and he wasn’t happy at all. He says, “You better get back to jazz because you’re not gonna work this out.”
You just turned 96. You’ve been playing saxophone for longer than most people have been alive. What do you think you would tell a young musician starting out now? What advice do you have, looking back on your long career?
I have gotten into a lot of trouble telling the truth. The jazz music schools are expensive. I was a guest at one and the guy asked me what do you think about the scene today? So I told him. I said jazz is basically asleep. It’ll never die, but it’s asleep. And people will find out later about it and it will get popular again. It’s happened through the lifespan of the music. I said I’ve been very lucky, but I’m in the top echelon of the business. What I did, I got a day job and played at night as much as I could. And eventually I met people that were helping me get work and stuff like that, and now I don’t have to worry about work because I can play music all the time.
They asked me about school. I said I can’t see any reason that you shouldn’t get something out of it. Any knowledge is worth having. But as far as work is concerned, it depends upon the individual and what’s going on and how lucky you are. It’s not a business where you can go from one place to another, or go out of town and play and then come back and play. There’s just not that many people doing it anymore. And I gave him an example of when I left the Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, they changed managers. This is ’72, something like that. When they changed managers they did a different thing. The music would have to pay for itself. Before, they were spending the money and letting people come and dance and buy food and stuff like that, but it was always a loss. So I told him I don’t see any future for jazz. But as far as education is concerned, any knowledge is worth what you put into it. Those guys were just angry at me. But I’ve had people angry at me before, so I tell the truth. I don’t care.
From a creative standpoint as a musician, what has kept you pushing forward throughout your life? What keeps you motivated?
The main thing for me is changing how the guys played. I wanted to play differently and possibly, if I could, go outside the chords. And I don’t do it enough that it would mask the melody, but it’s my style. That’s what jazz is all about. Take a tune and change it. Now they’re writing all their own stuff, but during that period of time we’d take the Great American Songbook and mess it up. We’d play a little bit of everything, and it was very enjoyable. It’s like discovering gold.
The O.K. Show, Episode One: A candid discussion on mental health with Charlie Van Stee
The O.K. Show, Episode Two: Mary Beth Mueller and her one-woman crusade against cancer
The O.K. Show, Episode Three: Adam Levy’s devastating loss and beautiful new solo album