Toots Thielemans life and biography

Toots Thielemans picture, image, poster

Toots Thielemans biography

Date of birth : 1922-04-29
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Brussels, Belgium
Nationality : Belgian
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-02-22
Credited as : jazz musician, harmonica player, became NEA Jazz Master in 2009

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Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, known as Toots Thielemans, is a Belgian jazz musician well known for his guitar and harmonica playing as well as his whistling. Thielemans is credited as one of the greatest harmonica players of the 20th century. In 2009 he became NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for a jazz musician in the United States.

Toots Thielemans is the undisputed master of the harmonica. "The instrument is so small. It's so close to your person, so close to the tone. You blow here and the tone comes out two inches away so it's really a part of your body. It's such a close friend. It's so essential, it's like being a part of your very soul," he told Jan Holland in an interview for Venice magazine. Further revealing how deeply devoted he is to his music, he explained to Michael Bourne in Down Beat: "It's fate that I became a musician. I studied math. I was supposed to become an engineer or professor. If it hadn't been for jazz, I'd still be in Belgium."

Toots was born Jean-Baptiste Thielemans in Brussels, Belgium, on April 29, 1922, and was playing the accordion by the age of three. While in his teens, before he even knew what jazz was, he bought his first harmonica. Prior to World War II, Thielemans had seen movies with legendary harmonica player Larry Adler "playing light classical things." He listened to American swing records with his friends, who later named him "Toots" because they felt that "Jean just didn't swing." They encouraged him to play his harmonica with their band, and when they saw how gifted he was they suggested that he try a real instrument, like the guitar.

Thielemans told Bourne that he came to learn the guitar by chance. He had been sick, and a friend came to visit him, bringing along a black-market guitar. "We were listening to Fats Waller records like 'Hold Tight.' There's the quintessence of the jazz scale and everything you need in the blues in that song. I knew the song but I'd never touched a guitar. I said that if he'd give me five minutes, I'd play 'Hold Tight' on one string. I played it, and he gave me the guitar."

A natural in his field, Thielemans never really studied music. He had been raised on the Swing Era stylings of Gypsy guitar genius Django Reinhardt. Jamming with other Belgian jazzers like saxophonist Bobby Jasper and guitarist Rene Thomas, he learned his craft "on the job." Thielemans gravitated to the American bebop sound in the 1940s. After World War II ended, he worked as an accompanist to headliners like Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet in Brussels. By the 1950s he was playing all over Europe with Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, and Zoot Sims.

In 1951 Thielemans immigrated to the United States. He had jammed with Charlie Parker while in Sweden, and for one memorable week in 1952 he joined Bird' All-Stars at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. "I had met Bird in Europe before coming to the United States," he told Holland in Venice. "When I got here, I played a little with him. I really wasn't ready for that. Miles Davis was with him. He teased me, had fun with me. Here I was, just come to this country, and was sharing a dressing room with Bird."

From the latter part of 1952 to mid-1959, Thielemans played with pianist George Shearing. It was the only steady job he ever had. It was during this time that he became friends with Bill Evans and Quincy Jones, recording some of his favorite tunes with them.

By the early 1960s, Thielemans had become increasingly popular in the studios as a harmonica player and whistler. A big fan of Slam Stewart, who hummed with the bow on the bass, Thielemans thought it might be fun to do something like that with his guitar. So he whistled a note and paralleled it one octave lower on the guitar. Before long, he was whistling for companies like Firestone, Singer, Dogburgers, and Old Spice, with its memorable "fresh as a breeze" theme. Over the years, his harmonica playing has been featured on many movie soundtracks including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, and Intersection; he also played the featured solo in the theme for PBS-TV's classic children's show Sesame Street.

In 1963 Thielemans broke though to a worldwide audience with his composition "Bluesette." He told Bourne in Down Beat about how the tune was written: "I was playing a concert with [violinist] Stephane Grappelli in Brussels in 1962. I was in the same dressing room as Stephane and I was tuning my guitar and somehow this little song came out. I was humming it and Stephane said, 'That's nice. What is it?' I just said he inspired me, but he said 'Ecrivez tout de suite! Write it down right away!' I called it 'Bluette' for this little blue flower in Belgium, but when I played it on a show in Sweden, the producer said 'Isn't that a blues? Why don't you put the 's' in there?' I owe the 's' to him." Another popular--but not as frequently recorded--composition of his is "Ladyfingers," which was featured on Herb Alpert's hit album Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

Thielemans's interest in international music expanded over the next decade. He had first been introduced to Brazilian music in the early 1960s through Stan Getz and was given the chance to participate in a Brazilian music session in 1972. When the opportunity arose to do an album with singer Elis Regina--she is often dubbed "Brazil's Billie Holiday"--Thielemans was ready to immerse himself in the undertaking.

Working on the album paved the way for his entry onto the Brazilian music scene; since then, the music of the country has been his passion. "It's more than a flirt what I feel for Brazilian music. This idea [for the Brasil Project albums] came from Miles Goodman and Oscar Castro Neves. They said all these Brazilian guys love me. They all know [the] album I did in 1972 with Elis Regina." So together with the Brazilian players, the dream session was realized with two consecutive releases, volumes one and two of The Brasil Project in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

Toots Thielemans has been featured on recordings with contemporary artists such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, and Ella Fitzgerald. And although he is an adept guitarist and an exceptional whistler, his harmonica playing is unrivaled. As he told Jim Macnie of Musician magazine, "Some people will agree that a harmonica player can be a good musician. But many will also tell you that they just don't like the way it sounds. Anybody who listens closely should appreciate it, however, because music transcends the instrument it's played on--whether it's a harmonica or a broomstick."

In 2005 he was nominated for the title of The Greatest Belgian. In the Flemish version he ended 20th place, in the Walloon version he ended 44th place. In October 2008, he was honored with the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. On 23 January 2009, he joined Philip Catherine on stage at the Liberchies church (Belgium) in memory of the 100th anniversary of Django Reinhardt's birth.

-The Sound (1955, Columbia)
-Man Bites Harmonica (1958, Riverside Records)
-The Whistler and His Guitar (1964, ABC-Paramount)
-Only Trust Your Heart (1988, Concord Records)
-Footprints (1991, Universal)
-The Brasil Project (1992, BMG)
-The Brasil Project vol 2. (1993, BMG)
-Compact Jazz (1993, Verve)
-East Coast, West Coast (1994, Private Music)
-Apple Dimple (1994, Denon)
-Aquarela do Brasil (1995, Universal)
-Chez Toots (1998, Windham Hill)
-The Live Takes, volume 1 (2000, Quetzal records)
-Hard to Say Goodbye, the very best of Toots Thielemans (2000, Universal)
-Toots Thielemans & Kenny Werner (2001, Universal)
-One More for the Road (2006, Verve)
-Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival, 1980, (1980, Pablo Records)

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