Jean-Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans, the legendary jazz harmonica player, died in his sleep in Brussels. He was 94.
This is tragic:
He began his professional career as a guitar player (and added the ability to whistle a line above it), but inspired by the mid-20th-century innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he returned to the chromatic harmonica and developed a bebop-influenced technique on it. He performed and recorded widely with his bebop heroes and many other stars of postwar jazz, and his tune “Bluesette” quickly became a jazz standard. His work also graces many film and television scores.[…]
He had heard jazz, and it became his passion, playing along to radio broadcasts of swing bands and, later, bebop. However, the harmonica was and is still best-known as a blues or folk instrument — or a toy — and he faced an uphill battle for acceptance.
“And the musicians say, ‘Hey, you could be a good musician, you know,’ ” Thielemans said on a 1997 episode of NPR’s Jazz Profiles. ” ‘But throw this away, get a real instrument.’ So that’s how I became a guitar player.”
In 1948, he visited the U.S. for the first time and sat in on a few jam sessions. He caught the ear of an agent for star clarinetist Benny Goodman, who invited Thielemans to join Goodman on a European tour.
From there, Thielemans was off and running. He moved to the U.S. and joined pianist George Shearing’s popular quintet for five years, and he freelanced with many jazz greats. He described his style for Jazz Profiles:
“It’s like a painting with a lot of pastel colors,” he said. “It’s not red, it’s not black — it’s some of those tones in between. … So between plus, between minus, between happy and not-so-happy.” He demonstrated on the song “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” “A tear comes quickly to me, or a smile, you know. That’s where my music is, I guess.”
As the 1960s dawned, he added another trick to his bag. Inspired by singing bassist Slam Stewart, he started whistling in unison with his guitar. It’s showcased on the original recording of his tune “Bluesette,” which soon became an international hit.
Let us pray for Thielemans’ family during this difficult time. Rest in peace.