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Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94

Aug 22, 2016
Originally published on August 23, 2016 5:10 am

Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, the Belgian-American musician who cut a singular path as a jazz harmonica player, died in his sleep Monday in his hometown of Brussels. He was 94.

He began his professional career as a guitar player (and added the ability to whistle a line above it), but inspired by the mid-20th-century innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he returned to the chromatic harmonica and developed a bebop-influenced technique on it. He performed and recorded widely with his bebop heroes and many other stars of postwar jazz, and his tune "Bluesette" quickly became a jazz standard. His work also graces many film and television scores.

Thielemans' first instrument was actually the accordion; he was a child entertainer in the Brussels sidewalk cafe run by his parents. As a teenager, he took up harmonica and guitar, but he still didn't dream of music as a career.

"Being a musician was not really a profession, so you needed to try to get a diploma," he told Marian McPartland for a 2005 episode of Piano Jazz. He pursued a degree in mathematics instead. "But Louis Armstrong changed all that."

He had heard jazz, and it became his passion, playing along to radio broadcasts of swing bands and, later, bebop. However, the harmonica was and is still best-known as a blues or folk instrument — or a toy — and he faced an uphill battle for acceptance.

"And the musicians say, 'Hey, you could be a good musician, you know,' " Thielemans said on a 1997 episode of NPR's Jazz Profiles. " 'But throw this away, get a real instrument.' So that's how I became a guitar player."

In 1948, he visited the U.S. for the first time and sat in on a few jam sessions. He caught the ear of an agent for star clarinetist Benny Goodman, who invited Thielemans to join Goodman on a European tour.

From there, Thielemans was off and running. He moved to the U.S. and joined pianist George Shearing's popular quintet for five years, and he freelanced with many jazz greats. He described his style for Jazz Profiles:

"It's like a painting with a lot of pastel colors," he said. "It's not red, it's not black — it's some of those tones in between. ... So between plus, between minus, between happy and not-so-happy." He demonstrated on the song "You Don't Know What Love Is." "A tear comes quickly to me, or a smile, you know. That's where my music is, I guess."

As the 1960s dawned, he added another trick to his bag. Inspired by singing bassist Slam Stewart, he started whistling in unison with his guitar. It's showcased on the original recording of his tune "Bluesette," which soon became an international hit.

The device caught the ears of fans — and more. Thielemans became a first-call studio musician for top arrangers like Quincy Jones. His harmonica graced the theme song for Sesame Street and the score for the movie Midnight Cowboy. And that's his whistling in the commercial jingle for Old Spice toiletries.

Jazz remained his first love; even toward the end of his career, he would begin every morning with practice on the complex changes to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Harmonica player Howard Levy says Thielemans kept pushing himself to expand his musical vocabulary in an emotionally compelling way.

"Toots was a transcendent musician," Levy says. "If he had picked up any other instrument he would have been just as great. ... He was really playing music through the harmonica rather than playing the harmonica."

He suffered a stroke in his 60s, which limited his facility for playing the guitar, but he continued touring. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in the U.S., and a baron by the king of Belgium. And he only retired from performing at the age of 92.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The harmonica is best known as a blues or folk instrument, not so much for improvising jazz until Toots Thielemans came along.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONGS, "THREE AND ONE")

SIEGEL: Thielemans also lent his distinctive sound to film and TV scores. Millions have heard him on the "Sesame Street" theme and on pop songs by Billy Joel and Paul Simon. Toots Thielemans died today in the city where he was born, Brussels, Belgium. He was 94. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: It was not easy for Toots Thielemans to get people to take his little instrument seriously, says Howard Levy, another harmonica virtuoso who got to know Thielemans.

HOWARD LEVY: He had to really fight for some respect because people would always make jokes like, if I'd known you were coming, I would have brought my kazoo - that kind of stuff. He really created a tremendous amount of respect for the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "FUNDAMENTAL FREQUENCY")

COLE: Harmonica was not Toots Thielemans' first instrument. That was accordion, which he played as a kid in his parents' Brussels cafe. But as he told Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz in 2005...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOOTS THIELEMANS: Being a musician was not really a profession, so you needed to try to get a diploma. And I wasn't bad, not outstanding, but not bad in mathematics so I was aiming for a degree in mathematics. Louis Armstrong changed all that (laughter).

COLE: He heard jazz, and that was it. He picked up harmonica as a teenager and then guitar and caught the attention of Benny Goodman in 1950.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Jean Thielemans at the harmonica.

(APPLAUSE)

COLE: From there, Thielemans was off and running. He moved to the United States and joined pianist George Shearing's popular quintet. As the 1960s dawned, Thielemans added another color to his palette, whistling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

COLE: "Bluesette" became an international hit with Thielemans' whistling and playing guitar in unison even as he seems to improvise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

COLE: This device not only caught the ears of fans but advertisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wake up. Wake up with Old Spice.

COLE: Thielemans became a first-call studio musician for top arrangers like Quincy Jones. His harmonica graced the "Sesame Street" theme and the score for "Midnight Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BARRY SONG, "MIDNIGHT COWBOY")

COLE: But jazz was Thielemans' first love. And Howard Levy says he kept pushing himself right to the end of his career.

LEVY: Toots was a transcendent musician. If he had picked up any other instrument, he would have been just as great. But what was remarkable about him was that he was able to express the full range of emotional and musical ideas through the chromatic harmonica. He was really playing music through the harmonic rather than playing the harmonica.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONGS, "FOOTPRINTS")

COLE: And Toots Thielemans kept playing, despite a stroke when he was in his 60s, only retiring at the age of 92. Tom Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.