Harmonica Virtuoso Toots Thielemans Dies at 94


Toots Thielemans (1922–2016)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

Toots Thielemans, whose exceptional skill on the chromatic harmonica helped popularize the instrument in the jazz world, died Aug. 22 in Brussels. He was 94.

He was born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidore Thielemans in Belgium in 1922. Among the most famous of Thielemans’ compositions is the jazz standard “Bluesette.”

Two examples of his work that have been widely heard via television are his harmonica on the theme song for the children’s TV series Sesame Street and his whistling in a TV advertisement for Old Spice cologne.

Throughout his prolific career, Thielemans toured and recorded with artists from a wide range of genres, including jazz legends Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, fusion icon Jaco Pastorius, and pop idols Paul Simon and Billy Joel.

Among his many accolades were numerous wins in DownBeat polls, most recently topping the Miscellaneous Instrument category in the 2012 and 2011 editions of the DownBeat Readers Poll.

The NEA issued a statement that said, in part:

It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of harmonica player, guitarist and whistler Jean-Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans, recipient of a 2009 NEA Jazz Master fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in jazz.

Thielemans has been credited by jazz aficionados as being among the greatest jazz harmonica players of the 20th century, improvising on an instrument more known in folk and blues music. We join the jazz community in mourning his death while celebrating his life and many contributions to jazz.

Thielemans learned to play the accordion at the age of 3, took up chromatic harmonica at 17, and taught himself to play the guitar. Influenced by Django Reinhardt and Charlie Parker, he became interested in jazz. In 1950, Thielemans toured Europe as a guitarist with the Benny Goodman Sextet.

He immigrated to the United States in 1952, getting a chance to play with Charlie Parker’s All-Stars. His performance so impressed George Shearing that he invited Thielemans into his band, where he stayed until 1959.

[Around 1962], Thielemans composed and recorded “Bluesette,” which led to his being greatly in demand—particularly for his harmonica and his whistling. Thielemans began freelancing, playing, and recording with Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Astrud Gilberto and Elis Regina, among others.

He also made prominent appearances on movie soundtracks, notably on The Pawnbroker, Midnight Cowboy and The Sugarland Express.

Thielemans appeared as a leader of swing and bop quartets on recordings and at international festivals. He received many awards and titles, including the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and honorary doctorates from both universities in the city of Brussels. In 2001, Belguim’s King Albert II bestowed on him the title of baron … .

In a 2008 interview with Thielemans for the NEA, he talked about the genesis of his popular song “Bluesette”:

“I didn’t write it; it happened to me. You don’t write a song like ‘Bluesette.’ Twelve bars. That is the nucleus of the song and that’s what I wrote down on a piece of paper not to forget it. I was sharing a dressing room in 1962 at the Brussels University, where I flopped so famously in mathematics and my dressing roommate was Stéphane Grappelli … . And then I played [the song] on the guitar. I warmed up on the chords of ‘Bluesette’ and I whistled it. And I just wrote it down. And then I called it ‘Blue-ette.’ That’s the name of a flower in the fields, le bluette, the blue cornflower here. Then in Sweden, I needed a song, I needed a number for a show … . I had a piece of paper with the beginning of ‘Bluesette.’ I wrote [the chords] quickly for the piano player. ‘What do you call that?’ ‘Blue-ette.’ ‘That’s the blues, ain’t it? Put the ‘s’ in there.’ See, this is fate, really. There’s always somebody to help you. Stéphane inspiring me.”

For more information on Thielemans, see his biography at the NEA website.

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