Another great harmonicist, well-known and loved by many, is Toots Thielemans. Toots was a quick learner and a crazy good musician. Over his life, he never stopped learning, and as a result, never failed to wow all who saw him perform.
The Life and History of Toots Thielemans
Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidore Thielemans was born on April 29, 1922, in the Marolles in Brussels, Toots–a surname which came to him from saxophonist Toots Mondello and composer Toots Camarata–was directly in contact with the world of music. His parents ran a café in the oldest part of Brussels and regularly organized accordion concerts there.
In 1927, his parents left the neighborhood to take over a haberdashery, lingerie, and work clothes in Molenbeek, town square: “Au Palais du Cache-Poussière”. Jean-Baptiste attended primary school in Molenbeek, and secondary school at the Koekelberg Athenaeum before enrolling in mathematics at ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles).
How Was He Discovered?
In 1929, he discovered Larry Adler and Max Geldray in Ray Ventura’s orchestra. He then bought his first harmonica. It was intended to be an instrument to help him, through its “blow-suck” action, to better control asthma. His asthma affected him all his life, but never stopped him from enjoying music.
Harmonica was not the only instrument he played early on. There was a stretch of time when he played the diatonic accordion. Later in 1939, he switched from diatonic to chromatic accordion.
At the dawn of war, he failed his first year at university, but he already had other career plans. He played what he listened to on the radio, and he discovered Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller on a rewind phono.
How Toots Became a Guitarist
In 1941, he was in bed, ill, when his friend Gilbert came to visit him with a guitar. Jean wanted to try it and Gilbert made a stupid bet: “If you can play this, I’ll give you my guitar!” After a few minutes, Jean-Baptiste, the accordionist-harmonica player became a guitarist
In 1946, he was a member of Robert De Kers’ orchestra, then he played in those of Yvon Debie and Rudy Bruder. He was recognized as a good guitarist and as a phenomenon on the chromatic harmonica, with which he improvised in the spirit of Charlie Parker.
Toots the Traveling Man
In 1947, he made his first trip to New York, accompanying his uncle who went there for his business. In New York, he toured clubs, jamme harmonica in the 52th Street and met Billy Taylor, Howard McGhee, and Lennie Tristano. Benny Goodman’s impresario Billy Shaw noticed him playing Chuck Wayne’s guitar in Miami. He recommended him to the clarinetist, who offered him an opportunity a few months later to join him in New York. But the visa and the green card were not that easy to obtain.
In the meantime, Toots returned to Belgium. He had to wait another four years before being able to emigrate. Recognized as one of the most creative Belgian jazzmen, he took part at the Nice Festival in 1948, with Jean Leclère. At the 1949 Paris festival, he played at the Salle Pleyel and met his idol, Charlie Parker. He found Bird again during his stay in Sweden from 1950 to 1952.
Toots always kept an accordion, and he never separated from his harmonicas, but at the time he was well known for his guitar. Fellow musicians even made fun of him when he started playing the harmonica: They say “It’s a toy, throw it away!” And they were wrong because that’s the sound that will make it immortal, with its essential long notes, modulations, alterations, and resonances.
Marriage and Other Big Milestones
On August 22, 1949, he married Netty then left for a tour of Italy with Flavio Ambrosetti. In Rome, he met Benny Goodman who remembered enjoying the recordings Billy Shaw played him. He offered to meet him at the Palladium in London. Toots integrated the sextet of the clarinetist which he accompanied in Denmark and Sweden.
Toots played a good number of concerts in Belgium, but it was in the United States, that he broke through. This is because he played alongside one of the virtuosos of the alto saxophone: Charlie Parker
However, it was Benny Goodman, a famous New York clarinetist, that offered him his first international breakthrough by making him participate in his European tour. In 1962 he composed “Bluesette”, a piece to which he largely owes his international fame. Toots was also a soloist on the harmonica for some cinema films such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Jean de Florette”.
He played with the greatest
He became a reference to the harmonica world and a monument in the world of jazz, he played with Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Larry Schneider, Oscar Peterson, and many others. In 2001, he received the honors of King Albert II of Belgium when the latter conferred the title of baron on him. In 2009, he received the greatest distinction for an American jazzman: the jazz master award.
In March 2014, the nonagenarian harmonica player decided to put an end to his career. Toots Thielemans gave his last concert in 2014 at the Antwerp Jazz Middelheim festival, of which he was the godfather. The artist explained that he no longer felt fit enough to ensure full concerts.
On April 29 ( his birthday), he also appeared with BJ Scott and Philip Catherine at the Toots space in La Hulpe to present the second edition of the Toots Jazz Festival, scheduled for September 9 to 11, 2016 on the town square of La Hulpe.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Toots was received at the royal palace by King Albert II, Queen Paola, and the Prime Minister at the time, Elio Di Rupo.
The Death of Toots Thielemans
The legendary Belgian guitarist-harmonica player died in his sleep on Monday, August 22, 2016, at the Braine-l’Alleud hospital where he was admitted following a fall that led to a surgery on his shoulder and pneumonia. He died peacefully. His death moved the world of jazz and the world of music in general.
He was widely regarded as one of the world’s top harmonica players and was well known for appearing on the Sesame Street and Midnight Cowboy themes. It is to the Hohner Harmonica that he owes his universal fame. With this little instrument from which he draws warm, incomparable sounds, he records the soundtrack of many films, from Midnight Cowboy to Jean de Florette ”.
Few European musicians have reached the international dimension of Toots Thielemans. We can describe him as: an extraordinary musician, a man of great simplicity and great benevolence, especially towards the young musicians he has inspired.