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The Most Unlikely Jazz Star of Them All
The greatest harmonica player of all time was born 100 years ago today, and his life story is as inspiring as his music
If asked to pick the least likely jazz star in the music’s history, I wouldn’t need to mull it over for long.
Even Toots Thielemans’s name is a jazz oddity. I’m not talking about his cumbersome birth name—the future jazz hero was christened Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans back on April 29, 1922. Just try imagining that on a Blue Note album cover. But the nickname Toots was hardly an improvement.
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Jazz musicians are supposed to have tough, gritty monikers. They borrow from wild animals, like Willie ‘The Lion” Smith, or actual battlefield weapons, such as Cannonball Adderley. It’s no coincidence that the best jazz sobriquets sound like the names of boxing moves—they didn’t call those jam sessions “cutting contests” for nothing. Hence a litany of soloists known as Punch, Slam, Jabbo, Spike, Pops, and Snap Crackle.
“Toots Thielemans hardly looked the part of a jazz musician. You might assume he had just made the last cut in an audition for Santa Claus. He was like an ideal grandpa. You would love to have him tell you a bedtime story.”
Even the insulting nicknames, of which there are plenty—Fats, Shorty, Shifty, Sharkey—fit the bill, provided they convey a dangerous underworld pose. When they described Miles Davis as the “Prince of Darkness,” which is about as Luciferian as they come, he happily featured it as a song title. Miles understood that your jazz identity ought to inspire a wary respect, perhaps bordering on fear.
Sad to say, Toots doesn’t even get you in the door of the jazz club, let alone up on the bandstand. And growing up in Brussels didn’t help his street cred much—that Belgian city is famous for many things, from chocolates to international diplomacy, but none of them have much connection to jazz. I even tried it on a test subject:
Ted: When I say Brussels, the first thing you think of is. . . .
Spouse: Uh, sprouts?
So there were two marks against Thielemans from the start.
But his appearance was as unlikely as his name and origins. After I shared the Google doodle of Thielemans, given homepage placement by the search engine on his centenary today, one respondent insisted that I had uploaded a picture of Colonel Sanders by mistake.
When I attended my first Toots Thielemans performance, at the Oakland jazz club Yoshi’s back in the 1980s, I wasn’t ready for the mismatch between the music he made—smokey, cool, romantic—and the person making it. You need to recall that there was no Internet or YouTube back then, and we often didn’t know what a jazz musician looked like until we attended a live performance.
I was especially excited because I had been playing chromatic harmonica, Thielmans’s main instrument, since my late teens, and he was my role model. In fact, the competition wasn’t even close. He was so much better than any harmonica player I’d ever heard that my learning regimen had consisted almost entirely of studying his recordings, sometimes taking them down to half-speed on my turntable so I could catch the nuances of his playing.
But it was curious how rarely I’d seen photos of this famous jazz star. Even his own album covers kept him hidden from view. You might assume that he is the debonair gentleman on the front of The Romantic Sounds of Toots Thielmans, but guess again. He doesn’t look anything like that.
When Toots Thielemans appeared on the bandstand that evening, I was charmed—but he hardly looked the part of a jazz musician. You might assume he had just made the last cut in an audition for Santa Claus. He was like an ideal grandpa. You would love to have him tell you a bedtime story. But you just weren’t going to put him on the cover of the Rolling Stone, or even Jazz Times, for that matter
Even so, seeing him in performance was a revelation. You could tell immediately how much Toots Thielemans loved the music, how emotionally committed he was to the performance. And these traits stood out all the more because of the absolute virtuosity of his music-making.
There had been harmonica virtuosos before, but they had mostly been novelty acts. Larry Adler (1914-2001) had previously stood out as the acknowledged technical master of the instrument, but his performances were focused on showy numbers designed to impress listeners with his skills. Thielemans was nothing like that, his solos were always expressive and moving, but he cared so little about calling attention to himself that he was in constant demand for film soundtracks, commercials, studio sessions, and other anonymous contexts where the primary goal is making music not standing out from the crowd. In a way it’s fitting that millions of people have enjoyed his most frequently heard performance, on the theme song for Sesame Street, without ever knowing his name.
Thielemans never set out to be a harmonica player. He started out playing the accordion as a youngster, but was soon fascinated by the sound of jazz, which became all the more alluring after the German occupation of Belgium during World War II. Jazz was the sound of freedom and underground opposition to the Nazi regime. Under the influence of fellow Belgian Django Reinhardt, Thielemans focused on guitar—which he taught himself while studying math in college.
In the late 1940s, Thielemans had the opportunity to jam with some of the finest American jazz musicians—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, and others. He still was little known in the jazz world, but that would soon change. Benny Goodman hired him in 1949, and in 1952 Thielemans moved to the United States. Five years later, he became a US citizen.
He was still better known as a guitarist at this time—and was so influential, that a young John Lennon decided he needed an American guitar after hearing Thielemans playing on a Rickenbacker during a 1960s performance with George Shearing in Hamburg. (Years later, Thielemans recorded with John’s son Julian Lennon, and it’s somehow fitting to hear his harmonica work on the haunting song “Too Late for Goodbyes.”)
Adding to the confusion, Thielemans had a third musical talent, besides guitar and harmonica. He is one of the most famous whistlers of the 20th century. As a child, I heard him whistling the famous jingle for Old Spice—although I had no idea who he was at the time. This skill contributed to Thielemans’s first crossover hit, the song “Bluesette,” which he performed by whistling the melody in unison with his guitar lines. This is still his best known work, and there was no harmonica in sight.
These other talents were never completely forgotten, but Thielemans simply became so famous for his harmonica work that it eclipsed all those other skills. He consistently won the Downbeat poll in the ‘miscellaneous instruments’ category, finishing repeatedly in the top spot over a period of five decades. Everyone from Paul Simon to Quincy Jones was soon calling on him, and almost always for the harmonica.
He was a tremendous soloist—despite his convivial appearance, you might even describe him as fearless. What other harmonica player of that era would even consider tackling Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” or play it with such ease? But I especially enjoyed hearing him work alongside famous singers, which required a different type of bravery. You might think that the last thing Ella Fitzgerald or Shirley Horn needs is a harmonica accompanist, but when you hear him collaborating with the top vocal stars of his day, you are struck by how masterfully he supports and amplifies the emotional ambiance of their artistry.
His solo on Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of “Dindi” was one I studied and emulated. His backing to her vocal is exquisite, and his solo (at the 2:40 mark) is even better.
I never heard Thielemans play anything that wasn’t perfectly matched to the song and setting. But I especially cherish the two albums he made with the leading Brazilian musicians of his day. On track after track he matches up with the legends of bossa nova and MPB, playing with such sympathetic give-and-take that you could easily believe he had grown up on the beaches of Rio, not the streets of Brussels.
Most musicians slowly fade from view in theirs 70s and 80s, but Thielemans merely became more famous, more in-demand, and more beloved as he aged. He had always possessed a kindly avuncular appearance and demeanor—almost as if he had been destined from the start to assume the role of tribal elder in the music community. And numerous organizations wanted to give him an award to celebrate this status—and share in the warmth of his presence and music.
In the United States, Thielemans was honored as a NEA Jazz Master, and when his friends and fans celebrated his 90th birthday it took place at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Oscar Castro-Neves showing up for the event. In France, they named him a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. When he performed at the Polar Music Award ceremony in Sweden, Stevie Wonder joined him onstage for a duet. In his native Belgium, he received honorary degrees, and a host of other distinctions, even getting dubbed Baron Thielemans for life by King Albert II in 2001.
Thielemans continued to perform until 2014, finally retiring shortly before his 92nd birthday, but even then he made one last encore before his death in 2016.
At an Antwerp jazz festival in August 2014, he appeared on stage unannounced. The audience thought he might just be showing up to take a bow, but Thielemans had his harmonica in his hand. And he played his final swan song, choosing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” for that last moment of public music-making.
I wish he were here to celebrate the centenary. But the party will go on nonetheless. There’s a whole website devoted to the occasion, and events will continue until the end of the year.
Let me close by telling you that, when he ascended to nobility in Belgium, the new harmonica-playing Baron needed to pick a motto. He chose: “Be yourself, no more no less.” Toots Thielemans may have been an unlikely jazz star, maybe even the most incongruous of them all, but no one in the idiom has lived up to that admonishment with more dedication, persistence, or sheer delight.