Octojazzarian profile: toots thielemans
For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.
Our subject this month is harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans.
Toots Thielemans, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
‘Twas a dark and stormy night (forgive me) in Waterbury, CT. All hell was breaking loose, meteorologically. Sheets of rain so steady that you literally could not see across the street. Wind gusts of a velocity which blew the rain such that a brief foray got you soaked. Thunder directly overhead loudly and proudly announced Thor himself was at the rooftops; and the lightning! Whooee! Repeated horizontal flashes lit up the blackened sky.
We were there to attend the Litchfield Jazz Festival some miles into the mountains, and worse, I had an appointment to meet my brother the Sonny Rollins fanatic, who was making a rare appearance and our cells would not cooperate in the cataclysm. [The show went on as scheduled even though the performance tent threatened to go down.]
Meanwhile down the mountain in Waterbury decisions were being made as to whether to drive up or wait it out. That decision was made for us: a bolt hit a transformer and in a display of sparking fireworks the power went out. Outside under the hotel’s marquee, watching the storm stood a familiar figure, Dirk Godts, Toots’ friend, companion and road manager. After warm greetings, he said he’d get Toots who was relaxing in his room prior to his appearance at the Festival the following night. (Toots takes all the relaxation he can muster after a stroke some years ago and his constant asthma.) Never willingly disabled when it comes to telling some good jazz war stories down to the lobby the harmonicist came to sit at the candlelit bar and spin yarns. We were all disappointed but well-rewarded when the lights came on sometime early the next morning. Due to some serious bending of elbows we all had long ago forgotten the time.
This time Dirk and Hugette, Mrs. Toots, were in NYC for a few days at the Iridium where Toots was guesting with the Kenny Werner Trio. “He is such an underrated piano player, isn’t he?” Toots asked rhetorically. “He is so-o-o good.” Good doesn’t cover it. Here’s a pianist who challenges not only his sidemen and his leaders, but himself with European, contemporary, folk and multifarious religious references. Toots just sits on his stool and plays his chromatic mouth organ darting in and out and playing those beautiful sometimes forgotten melodies, bossa novas, medium tempo bebop, waltzes, and favorites, like his “social security number” “Bluesette.” He even played one for me, “Ne Me Quitte Pas” by his Belgian homey Jacques Brel. [Translation: “Don’t Go Away” not “If You Go Away.”]
Due in part to some hand impairment—ironically Toots’ first idol was the hand-damaged gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt—Toots limits himself to harmonica these days. He was a guitarist who doubled when he wrote “Bluesette” and he often whistled the melody while he strummed. His whistling may be heard on an old Old Spice jingle. His harmonica still opens Sesame Street. And he tinkles, as he puts it, on so many recordings led my artists in every genre in the business. His commercials continue to pay royalties.
He opened our telephone conversation with “a station break”: he played the Sesame Street theme. “I started playing some 65 years ago, but it wasn’t always jazz,” he said. “When there were lulls we played other kinds of music, popular music. I even went back to Europe in the ‘60s to play French popular music. [Much earlier] I accompanied Edith Piaf for two weeks in Brussels on guitar as part of the band. I played my first Django guitar with an Armond pick up.” It was during WWII when nothing was getting through let alone records from the U.S.A. “We didn’t have our pick, but we did get some Louis Armstrong. We listened to the BBC, or tried to. The Germans were constantly jamming the broadcasts.”
It wasn’t until after the war that Toots got bitten by the bebop bug. “We got our first wax (78 rpm) and heard the likes of Charlie Parker. I was a bebopper then and I still am.” (His diversity is wide. I first heard him on a bebop LP called Man Bites Harmonica with Pepper Adams. Some years later he recorded the album, Captured Alive with pianist Joanne Brackeen.) But in the forties the time was not ripe, and nobody wanted to hear him play the harmonica. “‘That’s a toy; throw that away. Play the guitar,’ they told me. The harmonica man was Larry Adler, ‘Mr. Harmonica’ they called him. No one else could play it but him. He took all the attention. He didn’t swing but he was a magnificent virtuoso, pop, classical. Sold lots of records.” But Toots stuck with it.
You never know where or from whence a break will come. “I recorded “Star Dust,” an amateur recording, in a garage somewhere. Don’t ask me how, but Benny Goodman heard it. He looked me up and I played it with him at the London Palladium in 1947. The 1950 BG Septet did a tour with Roy Eldridge (trumpet), Zoot Sims (tenor sax), Dick Hyman (piano), Ed Shaughnessy (drums), British-er Charlie Short (bass), and me. I played the Charlie Christian stuff, “Air Mail Special,” like that.” But he also got to play the “Star Dust” that Benny loved as well as “How High the Moon,” both on harmonica.
During the fifties it was too expensive to get to the States so Toots stayed in Europe where he saw the bands of Don Redman and Peanuts Holland, and Don Byas. “Listening to him I learned how to play ballads,” he remembered. He even got close to his idol. “I got to see and hear Django, but I never played with him,” he lamented. Sounds like the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Low Down.
While Toots was still tootin’ he was constantly being told to “put away that toy and play a real instrument. “The harmonica was a showpiece instrument,” he explained. Television and the Catskill Mountain resorts played big parts in the development of the popularity of his toy. Bands of harmonicas like Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats (“Peg o’ My Heart”) appeared regularly on The Ed Sullivan Show; ditto Borah Minevich and the Harmonica Rascals fresh from the Jewish Alps where their antics included a dwarf (don’t ask). “They were professional and they played classical music.” But they had to have a gimmick. Then there was Larry Adler. Toots sent a note to be read at Adler’s funeral which read, in part, “Thank you Larry. You opened the door for many harmonica players including myself.’ I should have added, ‘I’m lucky I fell under the spell of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; you gave me that chance.’”
It was a very important, world-renowned stint with George Shearing that sprang Toots Thielemans as we know him today. He spoke reverentially. “Not only did he give my harmonica playing space it was my first opportunity to show off my musicianship.” Clarinetist Tony Scott introduced him to Shearing in 1952, when he first came Stateside. “I was looking for and playing $10 Monday night sessions at Birdland [the original at Broadway near 52nd St.]. Tony had heard me in Europe and knew me as a guitarist. He told me that Shearing was looking for a guitarist.” Toots was to replace Dick Garcia. Scott took him backstage at Carnegie Hall where Shearing was doing a concert and said, ‘Here’s your next guitarist, but listen to this.’ I played “Body and Soul”this time, not “Star Dust,” on the harmonica. He told me that if I can play the book I got the job. I auditioned at a club called the Rendezvous where we were visited by one of George’s fans, Ava Gardner.” Unbeknownst to Toots, Shearing was looking for a “new sound” and Toots’ harmonica was it.
The chromatic harmonica which Toots plays is different from the blues harp which players in that idiom use. “Theirs is a diatonic harmonica and is much more popular than mine,” he explained. In the sixties there were only Stevie Wonder and me using [the chromatic]. In the fifties Adler, the Harmonicats and Borah Minevitch all used chromatic. It’s a three octave instrument with the range of a flute. You have to be crazy to want to play it.” [He demonstrated.] There are two interesting things about his instrument. “There’s this button on the side which allows me to bend the notes.” (Think Louis Armstrong’s first half-valving innovations.) “And it’s a good breathing exercise especially for people with asthma. Some notes you blow and others you inhale. (Another demonstration.) “You can’t blow long notes but taking short breaths in and out is good for you.”
Regrets: “For a long time making a living was something very necessary. I’m sorry I took those weddings and bar mitzvahs, the club dates and I didn’t stick it out in jazz even when times got rough. I did the commercials, the studios. What is pretentiously called ‘The Great American Songbook,’ the Broadway tunes. All the other guys were playing a Monk, then a Metheny. Yes, I have a house which I didn’t get from playing jazz. I even made lots of money from a little tune I wrote called “Lady Fingers.” It appeared on the Herb Alpert album which featured “A Taste of Honey.” The album sold millions and I got a taste. But I wasn’t playing the music I loved.”
And then he wrote Bluesette which became his signature. He gets to sign autographs in Europe, Asia and North and South America because of that tune. He’s been feted so many times in Scandinavia that he speaks their languages. He’s a Baron in Belgium and he is a 2008 NEA Jazz Masters designee. He’s popular in Sweden for a cartoon he plays on; in Holland for music for a soft core porn flick. As we closed with his playing and my whistling accompaniment to Sesame Street, he sent “regards to your ’internauts.’”