April 29, 1922 – August 22, 2016
Toots Thielemans was one of those remarkably rare birds – a multi-insturmentalist of note, he survived numerous musical changes and challenges switching from his initial love of guitar to become enormously admired and respected worldwide as a chromatic harmonica player without peer.
When he passed, aged 94, he had already outlived, and some might say out-classed, many of his musical contemporaries, colleagues and collaborators.
Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isodor Thielemans was born in the Belgian capital, Brussels, where he also ended his life.
In the course of a career spanning almost seventy years, he contributed to the work of many hugely successful, hi-flying musical giants. Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Pat Metheny all benefitted from his expert input. He always managed to keep his feet in a number of differing music camps, never stumbling or slipping as he provided the atmospheric harmonica featured in the movie Midnight Cowboy, Sugarland Express, Jean de Florette and even the theme music for the US kids TV series Sesame Street.
Thielemans’ first professional steps were playing with Benny Goodman in post-war Europe, before he moved out to the USA in 1951, where he took citizenship a few years later. While in Paris, in the late 1940s, he joined the famed jam band sessions with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sydney Bechet and Max Roach, a jazz-style that suited his own free-flowing, free-wheeling approach first influenced by the jazz-guitar great, Django Reinhardt. In 1962 he recorded his own composition, ‘Bluesette’, a track featuring his guitar-work and melodious whistling technique and one which was destined to became his trademark title and a surprisingly popular hit, that propelled him into the international limelight.
John Lennon is said to have spotted Thielemans toting a Rickenbacker guitar and immediately went out and bought one himself, a brand Lennon used up until his own death, and a move that undoubtedly made the brand a world-famous name and a must-have accessory for countless budding musicians.
In the new millennium, he was rewarded by a Belgian Baronecy, awarded by the Belgian King as a lifetime award in recognition of his services to both the land of his birth and the music he so patently loved. Baron Thielemans gave his last, farewell concert when aged 90, and was also included in an all-star tribute concert at New York’s Carneigie Hall in 2006 when he was joined by renowned jazz-pianist Herbie Hancock and others. A rare recipient of the US National Endowment for the Arts award, he received the highest accolade possible for a jazzman when decreed a “Jazz Master.” In his homeland, Belgium, he was widely admired and known for his humility, generosity and warm-hearted kindness to others. In many ways, Toots Thielemans was a genuine all-rounder, a decent guy who lived the life he loved for almost a full century with a modesty that belied his talent, fame and musical importance.