Harmonica player, guitarist, composer
Toots Thielemans is the undisputed master of the harmonica. “The instrument is so small. It’s so close to your person, so close to the tone. You blow here and the tone comes out two inches away so it’s really a part of your body. It’s such a close friend. It’s so essential, it’s like being a part of your very soul,” he told Jan Holland in an interview for Venice magazine. Further revealing how deeply devoted he is to his music, he explained to Michael Bourne in Down Beat: “It’s fate that I became a musician. I studied math. I was supposed to become an engineer or professor. If it hadn’t been for jazz, I’d still be in Belgium.”
Toots was born Jean-Baptiste Thielemans in Brussels, Belgium, on April 29, 1922, and was playing the accordion by the age of three. While in his teens, before he even knew what jazz was, he bought his first harmonica. Prior to World War II, Thielemans had seen movies with legendary harmonica player Larry Adler “playing light classical things.” He listened to American swing records with his friends, who later named him “Toots” because they felt that “Jean just didn’t swing.” They encouraged him to play his harmonica with their band, and when they saw how gifted he was they suggested that he try a real instrument, like the guitar.
Thielemans told Bourne that he came to learn the guitar by chance. He had been sick, and a friend came to visit him, bringing along a black-market guitar. “We were listening to Fats Waller records like ‘Hold Tight.’ There’s the quintessence of the jazz scale and everything you need in the blues in that song. 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.”
A natural in his field, Thielemans never really studied music. He had been raised on the Swing Era stylings of Gypsy guitar genius Django Reinhardt. Jamming with other Belgian jazzers like saxophonist Bobby Jasper and guitarist Rene Thomas, he learned his craft “on the job.” Thielemans gravitated to the American bebop sound in the 1940s. After World War II ended, he worked as an accompanist to headliners like Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet in Brussels. By the 1950s he was playing all over Europe with Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, and Zoot Sims.
In 1951 Thielemans immigrated to the United States. He had jammed with Charlie Parker while in Sweden, and for one memorable week in 1952 he joined Bird’s All-Stars at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. “I had met Bird in Europe before coming to the United States,” he told Holland in Venice. “When I got here, I played a little with him. I really wasn’t ready for that. Miles Davis was with him. He teased me, had fun with me. Here I was,
Born Jean-Baptiste Thielemans, April 29, 1922, in Brussels, Belgium; changed first name to “Toots” as a teenager; immigrated to United States, 1951; married wife, Huguette.
Began playing the accordion at the age of three; bought first harmonica when he was in his teens. Self-taught guitarist, working as an accompanist to headliners like Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet in Brussels after World War II; became well-known composer and self-accompanist, whistling and playing guitar on his international hit “Bluesette.” Played with jazz greats Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, and George Shearing; recorded two-volume Brasil Project, 1992-93. Appeared as a featured soloist on albums, commercials, and motion picture soundtracks; played harmonica solo for PBS-TV’s Sesame Street theme.
Awards: Hohner (harmonica manufacturer) created a special chromatic harmonica named for Thielemans.
Addresses: Record company —Private Music, 9014 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
just come to this country, and was sharing a dressing room with Bird.”
From the latter part of 1952 to mid-1959, Thielemans played with pianist George Shearing. It was the only steady job he ever had. It was during this time that he became friends with Bill Evans and Quincy Jones, recording some of his favorite tunes with them.
By the early 1960s, Thielemans had become increasingly popular in the studios as a harmonica player and whistler. A big fan of Slam Stewart, who hummed with the bow on the bass, Thielemans thought it might be fun to do something like that with his guitar. So he whistled a note and paralleled it one octave lower on the guitar. Before long, he was whistling for companies like Firestone, Singer, Dogburgers, and Old Spice, with its memorable “fresh as a breeze” theme. Over the years, his harmonica playing has been featured on many movie soundtracks including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, and Intersection; he also played the featured solo in the theme for PBS-TV’s classic children’s show Sesame Street.
In 1963 Thielemans broke though to a worldwide audience with his composition “Bluesette.” He told Bourne in Down Beat about how the tune was written: “I was playing a concert with [violinist] Stephane Grappelli in Brussels in 1962. I was in the same dressing room as Stephane and I was tuning my guitar and somehow this little song came out. I was humming it and Stephane said, ‘That’s nice. What is it?’ I just said he inspired me, but he said ‘Ecrivez tout de suite! Write it down right away!’ I called it ‘Bluette’ for this little blue flower in Belgium, but when I played it on a show in Sweden, the producer said ‘Isn’t that a blues? Why don’t you put the ‘s’ in there?’ I owe the‘s’ to him.” Another popular—but not as frequently recorded—composition of his is “Ladyfingers,” which was featured on Herb Alpert’s hit album Whipped Cream and Other Delights.
Thielemans’s interest in international music expanded over the next decade. He had first been introduced to Brazilian music in the early 1960s through Stan Getz and was given the chance to participate in a Brazilian music session in 1972. When the opportunity arose to do an album with singer Elis Regina—she is often dubbed “Brazil’s Billie Holiday”—Thielemans was ready to immerse himself in the undertaking.
Working on the album paved the way for his entry onto the Brazilian music scene; since then, the music of the country has been his passion. “It’s more than a flirt what I feel for Brazilian music. This idea [for the Brasil Project albums] came from Miles Goodman and Oscar Castro Neves. They said all these Brazilian guys love me. They all know [the] album I did in 1972 with Elis Regina.” So together with the Brazilian players, the dream session was realized with two consecutive releases, volumes one and two of The Brasil Project in 1992 and 1993, respectively.
Toots Thielemans has been featured on recordings with contemporary artists such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, and Ella Fitzgerald. And although he is an adept guitarist and an exceptional whistler, his harmonica playing is unrivaled. As he told Jim Macnie of Musician magazine, “Some people will agree that a harmonica player can be a good musician. But many will also tell you that they just don’t like the way it sounds. Anybody who listens closely should appreciate it, however, because music transcends the instrument it’s played on—whether it’s a harmonica or a broomstick.”
Man Bites Harmonica, Original Jazz Classics, 1958.
(With Elis Regina) Aquarela de Brasil, Phonogram, 1972.
Do Not Leave Me (live in Belgium), Milan, 1988.
Only Trust Your Heart, Concord Jazz, 1988.
Do Not Leave Me (American version), Stash, 1989.
Footprints, Polygram, 1991.
(With the Shirley Horn Trio) For My Lady, Polygram, 1991.
The Brasil Project: Volume 1, Private Music, 1992.
The Brasil Project: Volume 2, Private Music, 1993.
Apple Dimple, Denon.
Compact Jazz, Verve.
In Tokyo (live), Denon.
Live in the Netherlands, Pablo Records.
The Soul of Toots, Columbia.
Yesterday and Today, Gazell.
Billboard, September 25, 1993.
Crescendo, March 1978; April 1978.
Down Beat, November 1971; August 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, August 27, 1993.
Jazz Hot, May 1972.
Jazziz, August/September 1993.
Jazz Times, December 1990.
LA Jazz Scene, September 1993.
LA Weekly, November 12, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1993.
Musician, March 1992.
New York Times, September 24, 1993.
Philadelphia Daily News, August 24, 1993.
Public News Houston, September 15, 1993.
Pulse!, May 1993.
Variety, December 6, 1972.
Venice, January 1994.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from Private Records publicity materials, 1994.
"Thielemans, Toots." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/thielemans-toots
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