Toots and Jazz – Howard Levy

I was lucky to meet Toots and play with him on two occasions – once around 1980 at a club in Chicago, and then at the Harmonica Summit in 2000 in Minneapolis.

When we met in Chicago, I told him how I chose to play Jazz on diatonic because I loved the bluesiness of the instrument and wanted to play everything on it. I told him that I visualize the keyboard when I play diatonic harmonica. Toots told me that he did the same – he called it keyboard vision from starting music by playing the accordion. I felt a real kinship with him.

He invited me to play a tune in the second set – he had heard of me and I think that he was a little curious. I was very excited and a little nervous so I picked Autumn Leaves, the simplest Jazz tune I could think of. The audience liked my playing. He then played a fantastic version of Speak Low. His knowledge of harmony gave me something to aim for- not just as a harmonica player but as a musician.

In 2000 Toots shared many stories of his early days playing sessions in NYC. When musicians showed a lack of respect for the harmonica. he showed them a stub from a royalty check from Bluesette with him. I loved this story. It showed his fierce, determined side and his great sense of humour and irony.

Toots was a total original. He didn’t imitate other harmonica players. He was inspired by all the great Jazz musicians – guitarists, pianists, trumpeters, horn players etc. and he played with many of them including his explorations of Brazilian music with Elis Regina and Oscar Castro Nueves. He combined these high- level musical collaborations and his encyclopedic musical knowledge into a powerful and emotionally compelling style that appealed equally to casual listeners and the most advanced Jazz players.

Toots was truly beloved by the harmonica world. His personal warmth was genuine. His playing was inspiring and directly touched people’s hearts. He also endeared himself to millions of children by playing the Sesame Street theme song. Many other people enjoyed his playing on film music without ever knowing it was him.

And finally – Bluesette. This innocent, seeming little tune that he wrote around 1960 is actually a 24 bar blues, and he put the clue right there in the title. It took me about 20 years of playing it to realize that. It uses descending be-bop 2-5 progressions a la Charlie Parker, but goes several steps further than the convention of going down to the 4th, continuing down the whole tone scale all the way to the key of the b2 before the final turnaround. It’s also a European-sounding waltz – graceful, humorous, elegant, harmonically advanced and bluesy all at once.
Just like Toots.

This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.