Jean Toots Thielemans: 29 April 1922 to 22 August 2016
I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more. Quincy Jones
Toots was a transcendental musician – if he had picked up any other instrument he would have been just as great. What was remarkable was that he was able to express the full range of musical ideas through the chromatic harmonica. He was playing music through the harmonica rather than playing the harmonica. Howard Levy
I feel best in that little space between a smile and a tear. Toots
Toots was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1922. He started playing a cheap accordion when he was three, but he took up the harmonica at sixteen after seeing Larry Adler in a film and realising what a harmonica could do. During the Second World War he heard a 78 recording of Louis Armstrong and his destiny was sealed.
His friends told him to get a real instrument. He was studying mathematics but he decided to become a jazz musician. He got to hear the local bands like Django Reinhardt and bought a guitar. He taught himself to play and soon got a reputation as a jazz player and after the war he joined a local band, Le Jazz Hot, where he got his nickname, Toots. He learned harmony through the guitar, which stood him in good stead when he played harmonica. Toots sat in at some New York jazz clubs when he made his first visit to the US in 1947, and he played with Charlie Parker in Paris.
In 1950, Benny Goodman asked him to join in his European tour which began at the Palladium in London in 1950. Toots moved to New York in 1951 and soon landed the guitarist’s seat in the George Shearing Quartet. He stayed for 6 years playing mainly guitar with some harmonica. In between gigs he was sitting in with some of the top bebop musicians. Toots recorded his first American jazz LPs in 1955/7, and the chromatic harmonica would never be the same again.
In 1957 Toots became an American citizen and he would divide his time between his Long Island and Brussels houses for the rest of his life. Toots also developed the art of whistling when playing guitar, and the original recording of his most famous composition, Bluesette, was done this way in 1962.
In the 60s Toots became a session musician and he began to be in demand for film music, something which lasted for most of his life. Toots moved more toward jazz in the 70s with appearances with Oscar Peterson, Jaco Pastorius and his landmark recording, Affinity, with Bill Evans in 1978.
Toots sufferred a stroke in 1982 which resticted his guitar playing. He had always suffered from athsma and he began to play more ballads. This suited his new style which used fewer notes, with the emphasis on melody and playing the lyrics of songs. In the latter years of his life, Toots toured with his quartet, usually with Kenny Werner or Fred Hersch on piano. He liked Brazilian music and produced two enjoyable CDs, The Brazilian Project.
Toots used Herbie Hancock as a pianist before Herbie was picked up by Miles Davis. Herbie returned the favour by setting up the two NY concerts which were held for Toots in Carnegie Hall, The Magic of Toots (2006) and The Lincoln Center, Toots 90th Birthday (2012) Toots developed a special musical friendship with Quincy Jones and they recorded film soundtracks and performed in festivals together on many occasions.
Toots was in great demand to play with top singers like Paul Simon, Ella Fitzgerald, Natalie Cole, and Billy Joel. He was the harmonica soloist for many filmscores such as, Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, Cinderella Liberty, Turks Fruit, and Jean de Florette. Toots was cutting back on the demands of touring in his 80s and he finally retired in 2013 aged 91.
Hohner produced two harmonicas for Toots, the Hard Bopper and the Mellow Tone. Both are 3 octave and they are only available in C. The King of Belgium honoured Toots with the title Baron.in 2001. There are many videos on YouTube for anyone wanting to hear Toots. Toots recorded many LPs and CDs and these are available from record shops and online stores. These include two which provide a selection of Toots’ output from the late 40s to the present time, such as the Verve Jazz Masters 59 -Toots Thielemans, and Yesterday & Today from Universal Music BV.
This appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harmonica World as part of a special tribute to Toots.
Here are some great links to concerts and interviews with Toots on National Public radio in NY.