'Toots' Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Great, Passes At 94
August 25, 2016 at 11:58 AM (PT)
JEAN-BAPTISTE "TOOTS' THIELEMANS, whose harmonica mastery led to collaborations with jazz greats OSCAR PETERSON and DIZZY GILLESPIE and whose plaintive tones ranged from the "Midnight Cowboy' soundtrack to "Sesame Street," died AUGUST 22nd in BELGIUM, at age 94, from complications after a fall.
THIELEMANS favored the larger chromatic harmonica, with a spring-loaded slide that allowed the performer to play every note in every key — sharps and flats included — on a three-octave scale.
His sound was at once "wistful and wiry, full of complicated runs and languid tones," what he called "that little space between a smile and a tear.”
TOOTS was also an accomplished guitarist and a jazz whistler — he often played his most famous composition, “Bluesette,” on the guitar while whistling the melody one octave higher. JOHN LENNON reportedly switched to a solid-body RICKENBACKER 325 guitar after seeing THIELEMANS play the instrument during a tour of GERMANY with the GEORGE SHARING QUINTET, where he played from 1952 to 1959.
But it was on the chromatic harmonica that TOOTS made his mark. Said jazz critic GARY GIDDENS: "He has a level of virtuosity that you don’t have to make excuses for, you don’t have to put an asterisk on TOOTS... you don’t have to say, ‘He’s great — for a harmonica player.’ He can sit up there with DIZZY and doesn’t have to take an apology because of the instrument. That’s the genius of the whole thing.”
THIELEMAN'S' arrangement of “Stardust,” the 1927 HOAGY CARMICHAEL jazz standard, recorded on an acetate disc in a garage studio in his hometown of BRUSSELS, that attracted BENNY GOODMAN. TOOTS played guitar in GOODMAN’s sextet for a EUROPEAN tour in 1950, playing one solo number on harmonica each night. Not long after, he settled permanently in the U.S.
He cemented his jazz harmonica reputation with a 1979 duo album, “Affinity,” with pianist BILL EVANS. Two years later, after having a stroke just shy of his 60th birthday, THIELEMANS lost the use his left hand, which cut his guitar playing down to just one or two numbers per show but also brought a new skill to his phrasing.
“I actually play the main line of a tune now. I say more with less," he told a DUTCH journalist.
JEAN-BAPTISTE FREDERIC ISIDOR THIELEMANS was born on APRIL 29th, 1922, a working-class BRUSSELS neighborhood, where his parents ran a cafe.
Self-taught on accordion, he bought his first harmonica while he was a teenager after watching a JAMES CAGNEY movie in which a prisoner was playing the harmonica while awaiting the electric chair. He picked up the guitar at 21 during the GERMAN occupation of BELGIUM, when a musician friend stopped by with a black market instrument, unable to perfect a certain jazz lick in FATS WALLER's "Hold Tight."
“I knew the song, but I’d never touched a guitar. I said that if he’d give me five minutes, I’d play ‘Hold Tight’ on one string. I played it, and he gave me the guitar.”
THIELEMANS had been enrolled as a math major at UNIVERSITE LIBRE DE BRUXELLES, but never graduated after discovering his musical talents.
When the war ended, THIELEMANS played jazz at the officer’s clubs that sprung up in BELGIUM after the liberation, where he picked up on recordings by LOUIS ARMSTRONG and ART TATUM. He also studied bebop saxophonist CHARLIE PARKER, and took his nickname, according to one version of the story, from sax player TOOTS MONDELLO and trumpeter TOOTS CAMARATA.
In 1947, when he was 25, TOOTS visited an uncle in MIAMI, and at a jam session there, met BILL GOTTLIEB, the famed jazz photographer, who introduced him to members of a group fronted by HOWARD McGHEE, a trumpet player and composer. By then, TOOTS had already played with PARKER at a PARIS jazz festival and jammed with him in SWEDEN.
“In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door, was the third and the fourth bar of ‘I Can’t Get Started,’,” he told DOWNBEAT in a 2006 interview. “I played it [and] the whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures.”
THIELEMANS then became a member of the SHEARING QUINTET before embarking on a successful freelance career as a guitarist, and, increasingly, a chromatic harmonica player.
TOOTS also recorded or toured with QUINCY JONES, DINAH WASHINGTON and PAUL SIMON, among others. The lyrics of his composition “Bluesette” were penned by “Girl from Ipanema” lyricist NORMAN GIMBEL, and it was recorded by SARAH VAUGHAN in 1964.
THIELEMANS became an AMERICAN citizen in 1957, regaining his BELGIAN citizenship in 2001, when KING ALBERT II named him a baron.
TOOTS made his final recording in 2012 during his 90th birthday tour and gave his last performance in 2014, when he played at the JAZZ MIDDELHEIM festival in ANTWERP, BELGIUM.