Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, whose illustrious career included playing with jazz greats like Miles Davis and whose solos have figured on numerous film scores, has died. He was 94.
A passing glance at the six-decade career of Jean Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans, suggests a quirky contrarian more than a sophisticated musical virtuoso. Thielemans became famous as a master of two techniques that have otherwise made hardly a mark on jazz history – whistling, and playing the harmonica. The Belgian was no novelty turn, however, but a remarkable musician who adapted the advanced harmonies, hairtrigger accents and nimble melodies of the bebop idiom to a 19th-century Austrian instrument originally intended for the more leisurely rhythms of folk music, and who matched his jazz virtuosity with considerable emotional expressiveness and warmth.
Thielemans recorded with some of the most popular – and technically demanding – artists in jazz, including the bass-guitar virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, the piano maestros Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner, the innovative pop-jazz bandleader Quincy Jones, and the guitar star Pat Metheny. That richly accordion-toned, wittily pitch-bending and sometimes ravishingly romantic harmonica sound (he played a custom-built chromatic instrument that allowed him to roam through three octaves) featured on the soundtracks of movies including Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Sugarland Express (1974) – and brought a steady stream of studio work, including the Sesame Street theme tune, high-profile commercials, and appearances on albums by Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Johnny Mathis, among others.
Born in the Marolles district of Brussels, Thielemans played the accordion from the age of three (eventually as an entertainer in his parents’ cafe) and the harmonica as a teenager, discovering jazz at 18 after hearing Louis Armstrong on record. In the early 1940s, inspired by his fellow Belgian Django Reinhardt, Thielemans also took up the guitar (adopting the nickname “Toots” in this period), performed with Edith Piaf, toured with the American swing giant Benny Goodman’s European band in 1950, and then moved to the US to perform with a Charlie Parker bebop band that included Miles Davis, and become a member of Shearing’s popular quintet. He led the expressive and intelligent Man Bites Harmonica! session in 1951, in classy American company that included the saxophonist Pepper Adams and the pianist Kenny Drew.
In this period, Thielemans also shuttled between the US and Sweden, and in Stockholm in 1961 recorded his much-covered jazz waltz Bluesette – a lilting, ostensibly unjazzy, but subtly blues-inflected theme originally delivered by the composer’s guitar line and pure-toned whistling in unison, a personal sound that became a brand.
Thielemans frequently worked with Jones (then a regular visitor to Sweden) and in the 1970s issued a stream of inventively contemporary albums including the dynamic Images with the pianist Joanne Brackeen. He partnered Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and the popular Cuban Latin-jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera at the Montreux jazz festival in the 70s and early 80s, played with the pianist Bill Evans’s trio on Affinity in 1979 (one of his favourite sessions) and also made a superb bop-oriented 1980 live album with Peterson’s sidemen Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on guitar and bass.
Subsequently, Thielemans led both European and American quartets – the latter featuring the elite Evans-inspired piano trio of Fred Hersch, the bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. That group featured on the Belgian’s 1988 Concord recording Only Trust Your Heart, a jewel of a session contemporary enough to include Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and creative enough to impart characteristic twists to Thelonious Monk’s classic Little Rootie Tootie. In 1992 Thielemans performed on Metheny’s intimate Secret Story, and on The Brasil Project with Brazilian stars including Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil.
Still possessed of his old wit and lyrical elegance into the 21st century, Thielemans made a sequence of fine recordings with a sensitive group including the Dutch bassist Hein Van de Geyn and the pianist Karel Boehlee. In 2009, the US National Endowment for the Arts made him a Jazz Master. His 90th birthday guests at Lincoln Center in 2012 included Herbie Hancock and the Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias, and he continued to play in public until declining health led to his retirement two years later.
Thielemans hung up his harmonica in 2014 as health problems linked to his age made it more difficult for him to take to the stage.
Thielemans died in his sleep in a Belgian hospital on Monday, his manager said. He was hospitalized last month after a fall, but had been in good spirits after an operation on his shoulder.
“He was so happy. He was doing well,” manager Veerle Van de Poel said.
“We were very surprised” by his passing, she said. “He was sleeping, and he did not wake this morning.”
Born in Brussels on April 29, in 1922, Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans started playing the harmonica as a hobby and got “contaminated” by the jazz virus during the German occupation, according to his website.
His first international breakthrough came in 1950 when he joined Benny Goodman on a European concert tour. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1952, joining Charlie Parker’s All Stars. He also played with other jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald, and mainstream stars like Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Billy Joel.
His harmonica solos figure on many film scores, including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway and Sugarland Express, and also on the theme music to the children’s TV series Sesame Street.
Thielemans, who also played guitar, was honored by Belgium’s royal family in 2001, when King Albert II gave him the title of baron.
Belgium’s royal family said it was “deeply moved by (the) passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen.”
“We have lost a great musician, a heartwarming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted.
On the liner notes of one album, Quincy Jones said he believes “without hesitation that 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.”
A jazz festival held in his name was due to take place from Sept. 9-11 in the town of La Hulpe, about 16 miles southeast of Brussels, where Thielemans lived.