Remember the haunting harmonica in Midnight Cowboy or the solo piece that ended Sesame Street? From the profound to the whimsical, Toots Thielemans has shared his amazing talent as a guitarist, whistler and harmonica player for over 60 years and is still going strong!
JazzMonthly. Com is pleased to feature Toots Thielemans as our Cover Story for July for his outstanding contributions as an artist who has composed and performed music that has shaped and reshaped Jazz, as we know it. As Quincy Jones has said of him, “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”.
Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1922, Jean Baptiste Thielemans demonstrated his precocious musical talent at an early age and began playing the accordion as a three-year-old. As a teenager studying Science, he later started playing the harmonica as a hobby. Influenced by Larry Adler, Toots enjoyed discovering how to improvise with the harmonica. He later heard Django Rheinhardt and won his first guitar on a bet. When asked how he got the nickname of “Toots”, he recalls it this way: “ It happened way back in Belgium, in 1946. We had a little amateur band, called Le Jazz Hot, and I was the up-and-coming fellow playing the guitar in Belgium. You know, I was playing like Django Rheinhardt, Charlie Christian—a combination of whatever was played then; it was just before the advent of bebop, I would say. But my name, Jean Thielemans—that doesn’t swing at all. Names on the scene at that time were Toots Mondello, who was with Benny Goodman, and the arranger Toots Camarata; so they said: “That’s it—Toots.” I said: “Okay, why not?“— it started like that, and it stuck. It’s been a lucky label, I guess, through the years.”
His road to recognition began in the late 1940’s when he worked with Benny Goodman during Goodman’s “bebop” phase. Hi first professional international engagement was at the London Palladium in 1949. Toots played a harmonization on “Stardust” that Goodman loved. In 1952, he came to the United States to play guitar for George Schering. At the time, musicians from Europe weren’t as successful in the U.S. as U.S. musicians were in Europe. But Toots’ extraordinary talent, especially with the harmonica, really set him apart. Toots recalled in an interview, “ I just wanted to play the thing, you know, and I looked for what I wanted. There’s no real school on the instrument. I didn’t even practice scales; I just practiced chord progressions. What can I do on a C7? Okay—what can I do on an Ab? And play the blues, or play all the songs that came in front of me (or) try to, anyway.