Toots Thielemans

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, how’s that for a moniker?

Better known as Toots Thielmans, he was born April 29, 1922 in Brussels, Belgium.

Toots was a jazz musician/composer and was known for his virtuoso harmonica playing, especially with Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and Kenny Werner. Toots retired in 2014.

He played accordion at the age of 3 and started playing harmonica as a hobby.  During the German occupation he got hooked on Jazz or as he says himself, “contaminated” by the jazz virus.  His first idol was Django Reinhardt and very early he was influenced by Charlie Parker.  He got his nickname “Toots” after Toots Mondello and Toots Camarata.  First international break through was when he joined Benny Goodman on a European Concert tour in 1950.  Immigrating to the USA in 1952, he became a member of the Charlie Parker’s All Stars in Philadelphia and worked for 6 years with the George Shearing Quintet.

His life in jazz reads like a Who’s Who. Thielemans started his career as a guitar player. In 1949 he joined a jam session in Paris with Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and others.  In 1950 he made his first record in Stockholm with fellow band member, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims.  In 1951 he became a band member of the singer-songwriter and compatriot Bobbejaan Schoepen.  (At the time, he was still performing strictly as a guitarist.)

He moved to the US in 1952 where he was a member of Charlie Parker’s All-Stars and worked with Miles Davis and Dinah Washington. From 1952 to 1959 he was a member of the George Shearing Quintet, primarily playing guitar but also being featured on harmonica both in performances and on recordings.  He has also played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius,  Stephane Grapelli, Edith Piaf, J J Johnson, Michael Franks, Peggy Lee, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Happenings, Astrud Gilberto, Shirley Horn, Elis Regina, Joe Pass, and others.

Toots originated a new sound by whistling and playing the guitar in unisono which he did for commercials.  The best known is Old Spice.  In 1962 he composed  Bluesette.  He was asked as harmonica soloist for many film scores such as, Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, Cinderella Liberty, Turks Fruit, Jean de Florette… Toots played concerts and made recordings with musicians like George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Natalie Cole, Pat Metheny, Paul Simon, and Billy Joel… You can hear him as a soloist on the TV theme of Sesame Street.  Until two years ago he was the perennial winner of Down Beat readers and critics poll in the category “miscellaneous instruments”.

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