Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Thielemans, Toots (Jean-Baptiste Fréderic Isador)

Jean “Toots” Thielemans created a space for the chromatic harmonica in modern jazz with his sweet tone and harmonically sensitive improvisations. He shifted from guitar to harmonica early in his career, then played alongside Benny Goodman, George Shearing and Charlie Parker. The composer of the jazz standard “Bluesette,” he also wrote the theme to Sesame Street, and has been a longtime advocate of Brazilian music.

                        Toots Thielemans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isador Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium on April 29, 1922. At age three, he was already playing an accordion, and later played in his parent’s café. In 1939, he bought a harmonica, which he mainly played as a hobby while he attended college at Brussels University, hoping to pursue a career as a math teacher. However, bouts of asthma led him to cease his university studies. He suffered from an extended bout with pneumonia, during which he learned to play guitar while bedridden, and he also absorbed the music of Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman.

In 1941, his family fled Belgium, which had been occupied by Germany, only to return after France also became occupied. When Belgium was liberated in 1944, he gigged at American Army bases throughout Europe. During these years, he received some work alongside violinist Stephane Grappelli and singers Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf, among others. At some point along this musical road, Thielemans took the name “Toots” after Swing Era alto saxophonist Toots Mondello and orchestra leader Toots Camarata.

In 1947, Thielemans made a trip to the U.S. and met various prominent jazz artists, thanks to an introduction to the famed modern jazz center of 52nd Street by jazz photographer William Gottlieb. Thielemans played with and learned from members of Howard McGhee’s All Stars, Lennie Tristano, and others. Musician manager Billy Shaw heard Thielemans perform and took an immediate interest in him.

Already a working jazzman in Europe, Thielemans became even more active when he returned to Belgium. In 1949, the Paris Jazz Festival hosted a large variety of leading American musicians, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and others. Thielemans was able to play guitar alongside these forerunners in the Festival International de Jazz All-Stars at Salle Pleyel.

Later, an acetate recording of Thielemans playing with a string quartet wound up in the hands of Benny Goodman, and the clarinetist contacted him for a gig at London’s Palladium in 1949. A six-week European tour resulted, with Thielemans playing guitar in Goodman’s group.

1950 was a big year for Thielemans. His engagement with Benny Goodman helped him develop as a sideman, and he had another chance encounter in Sweden with Charlie Parker in November. The saxophonist was in the country for a one-week tour, and close to the end of his trip, a late-night jam at the Nalen dancehall resulted in some musical exchanges between the two.

In 1952, Thielemans secured sponsorship from Goodman’s secretary to emigrate to the United States. Early on, Thielemans paid his rent by working for Sabina, Belgium's national airline, and worked nights at spots like the Downbeat Club to network with New York’s finest modern jazzmen.

He met up again with Charlie Parker and played with him in Philadelphia as a part of the Charlie Parker All Stars, which also included Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, and Jimmy Cobb. His big break, however came when pianist George Shearing added him as the guitarist in his quintet, but also let him stretch out on harmonica. Thielemans remained with Shearing through most of the 1950s.

The chromatic harmonica was rarely heard in popular music settings at that time, with the exception of Larry Adler, a classical harmonica virtuoso who skillfully adapted the instrument to popular music idioms. Thielemans, however, would build on the introduction Adler gave to the chromatic harmonica by becoming a highly skilled modern jazz musician during the height of bebop’s popularity.

A live recording by Shearing entitled In the Night featured the quintet alongside vocalist Dakota Staton. Thieleman's performance with Shearing at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island can be heard in the documentary film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, including on a track called “George in Brazil."

A series of leader dates for various record labels in the 1950s helped Thielemans garner acclaim for his harmonica playing. A 1955 session for Columbia produced the album The Sound, and in 1957 and 1958, Thielemans led two recording sessions for Riverside featuring baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Art Taylor. Playing harmonica on all but two tracks, Thielemans earned praise with the resulting album titled Man Bites Harmonica, which includes the tracks “East of the Sun” and “Don't Blame Me," which showcase his talents on the instrument.

Thielemans left Shearing in 1959 to work as a bandleader, fronting small groups at New York clubs like Basin Street East, and he began to spend more time outside of the U.S. He appeared as a member of Raymond Scott’s Secret 7 on the album The Unexpected, which featured an unidentified lineup of drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Milt Hinton, guitarist Kenny Burrell, Eddie Costa, Sam Taylor, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Wild Bill Davis.

Thielemans also worked frequently in Sweden, and appeared on bandleader Harry Arnold’s album titled Harry Arnold Guest Book, which also featured Nat Adderley, Lucky Thompson, and Coleman Hawkins. Additionally, he would record in Sweden with Jan Johansson, Arne Domnérus, and Reinhold Svensson.

In 1962, Thielemans wrote “Bluesette” in Sweden, and the song became a hit, earning him enough to buy a home in Yonkers, New York with the royalties. He would often later refer to “Bluesette” as his “social security number.” The first recording of the tune was made in Sweden, where Thielemans whistled and played guitar in unison. Subsequently, he received frequent calls by jingle writers for commercials that would employ this effect. His playing and whistling on a jingle for “Old Spice” deodorant in the 1960s became a lucrative hallmark of his career.

Thielemans also learned to play diatonic harmonicas so he could play on folk and blues recording sessions. Also during this period, Thielemans employed Herbie Hancock, then a newcomer to the New York jazz scene and not yet working with Miles Davis. Hancock is quoted remembering that he had to play more from his “Bill Evans bag” in order to accompany the harmonically advanced playing of Thielemans.

Thielemans' interest in Brazilian music deepened in the 1960s through his friendship with Mauricio Einhorn, A Brazilian harmonica player who sent him records in the samba, choro,and bossa nova styles. In 1969, he recorded a memorable album in Sweden with vocalist Elis Regina called Aquarela do Brasil. He has retained this interest and involvement in Brazilian music, and has collaborated with, among others, Milton Nascimento, Oscar Castro-Neves, Airto Moreira, Ivan Lins, and others, and in the early nineties he recorded a successful two-volume Brazil Project with many of his Brazilian friends, which includes the Milton Nascimento song “Travessia.”

Thielemans played harmonica on the soundtrack to the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, as well as numerous soundtracks by Quincy Jones such as Banning, Brother John, The Getaway, and The Wiz. He worked with John Williams on Sugarland Express, and has since appeared on numerous other soundtracks to major motion pictures from Hollywood and Europe. His signature harmonica sound is known to children worldwide thanks to the children’s show Sesame Street, for which he wrote and performed the theme.

Thielemans' successful forays into pop and commercial music in the 1970s were in part inspired by his inability to maintain his career by playing straight-ahead jazz. Fortunately, Helen Keane, the manager for jazz pianist Bill Evans, contacted him when Evans was looking for a collaborator on an album for Warner Brothers, which was released as Affinity when released in 1978.

Thielemans used this jumping-off point to pursue further featured solo spots like his collaboration with pianist Oscar Peterson at the 1975 Montreux Jazz Festival, which resulted in the album The Oscar Peterson Big Six at Montreux on Pablo Records. The Montreux collaborations continued in 1980 with Mongo Santamaria and Dizzy Gillespie, producing the albums Summertime and Dizzy Gillespie Digital at Montreux, 1980. Clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera also played with Thielemans in 1984 at a Montreux performance. A highlight of Thieleman’s resurgence in jazz can be heard when he collaborated with electric bassist Jaco Pastorius on the Word of Mouth and Invitation albums of the early 1980s, the former featuring the track “Liberty City.”

Thielemans returned to leading a small group in the 1980s, which included pianist Fred Hersch, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Joey Baron. This group recorded the live album Do Not Leave Me, which includes the track “Blue N’ Green/All Blues," which was released in 1986. As a follow-up, the band, including bassist Harvie S on some tracks, released Only Trust Your Heart in 1988.

Thielemans has also been a frequent member of all-star sessions, resulting in numerous Japanese and Belgian recordings, such as Toots Thielemans in Tokyo, which includes “Georgia on My Mind,” and an album released in 1994 entitled East Coast West Coast, which features the tracks “Waltz for Debby,” “Take Five.”

Starting in the mid-1990s, Thielemans fostered a musical relationship with pianist Kenny Werner. The duo have recorded numerous albums together, most notably Toots Thielemans & Kenny Werner from Belgium in 2002. A consistent recipient of “best artist on a miscellaneous instrument” poll awards from numerous publications, in 2009, received the NEA Jazz Master award, the highest honor given to jazz musicians and professionals in the United States.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

Man Bites Harmonica (1957, Riverside)

Toots Thielemans: The Silver Collection (1974)

Images (originally released as Captured Alive, 1974, Choice)

Do Not Leave Me (1986, Stash)

Only Trust Your Heart (1990, Concord)

For My Lady w/ Shirley Horn Trio (1991, Polygram)

The Brazil Project (1992, Private Music)

The Brazil Project, Vol. 2 (1993, Private Music)

The Live Takes Vol. 1 (1999, Quetzal)

One More for the Road (2006, Universal/Verve)

As a sideman:

with George Shearing:

Body and Soul (1953, MGM)

On Stage! (1958, Capitol)

On the Sunny Side of the Strip (reissue 1993, GNP Crescendo)

Lullabies of Birdland: A Musical Autobiography (2004, Concord)

with Quincy Jones:

Smackwater Jack (1971, A&M)

The Dude (A&M, 1981)

Q’s Jook Joint (1994, Dreamworks)

From Q With Love (2001, Quest/Warner Bros)

Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones (2001, Rhino/WEA)

with Oscar Peterson:

The Oscar Peterson Big Six at Montreux (1975, Pablo)

with Dizzy Gillespie:Dizzy Gillespie Digital at Montreux, 1980 (1980, Pablo)

Summertime (1980, Pablo)

with Jaco Pastorius:

Word of Mouth (1981, Warner Bros.)

Invitation (1983, Warner Bros)

Other sideman appearances:

Thielemans/Pass/Pedersen – Live in the Netherlands (1997, Pablo/OJC)

Toots Thielemans & Kenny Werner (2002, Universal)

Playful Heart by Oscar Castro-Neves (2003, Mack Avenue)

Thielemans on DVD:

Toots Thielemans in New Orleans (2001, Image)

Quincy Jones - In the Pocket (2002, Winsor)

Bluesette (2005, FS World Jazz)

Jazz Master Class from NYU (2006, Hal Leonard)

Contributor: David Tenenholtz