Aug 22, 2016: Toots Thielemans, Harmonica Master, Dies

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Toots Thielemans FB 2011

Toots Thielemans in a photo posted on his Facebook page in 2011

More often than not, Toots Thielemans has been described as the greatest harmonica player in the world. In a career, spent mostly in jazz, that stretched to the 1940s, Thielemans proved both virtuosic and highly adaptable. His music was used in Sesame Street and in movies like Midnight Cowboy and The Sugarland Express. He added his sound to recordings by Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Ella Fitzgerald on the jazz side, and Billy Joel and Paul Simon on the classic rock side. Under his own name, he made records for more than 50 years.

Toots Thielemans died August 22, 2016, in Belgium, at age 94. He had been hospitalized for a month after a fall.

Watch Toots Thielemans perform one of his signature tunes, “Bluesette”

He was from Belgium originally, born Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans on April 29, 1922. His first instrument was the accordion, then the guitar. By the time he picked up a harmonica—and acquired his familiar nickname—he was well into jazz and, following the end of World War II, he came to the United States to further his musical career. A short while later, Thielemans was hired as a member of Benny Goodman’s band and, by the early ’50s, Thielemans was playing with bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. Still playing the guitar in addition to harmonica—and, as if a harmonica wasn’t odd enough in jazz, incorporating whistling into his performances—Thielemans joined up with pianist George Shearing in the ’50s.

It was during this period that Thielemans may have provided his greatest contribution to rock music, albeit unwittingly. For whatever reason, John Lennon (who always said he was no jazz fan) had gone to see the Shearing quintet perform in 1959. Lennon noticed the guitarist—who turned out to be Thielemans—playing a guitar that he decided he must own. While in Hamburg, Germany, the next year, Lennon spied the guitar, a Rickenbacker Capri 325, in a shop and acquired it, thus introducing the nascent Beatles to one of the guitars that would become a signature feature of their gear lineup.

Thielemans performing at the Blue Note in Tokyo in a 2012 photo on his Facebook page

Thielemans performing at the Blue Note in Tokyo in a 2012 photo on his Facebook page

Thielemans recorded his first album as a leader, The Sound, in 1955 for Columbia Records, and averaged a few releases per decade while continuing to assist others as a sideman. Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and bass innovator Jaco Pastorius were among those who utilized Thielemans, but rock artists were also enthralled by his talent: Simon hired him for the track “Night Game” on Still Crazy After All These Years and Joel used him on “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” on his An Innocent Man album. Another was Julian Lennon, who incorporated Thielemans’ harp into his hit “Too Late for Goodbyes.”

Thielemans was given an NEA Jazz Master award by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009.

Bonus video: Toots Thielemans joins Sting on “Shape Of My Heart” in 1993

Related: 20 great rock songs featuring harmonica

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Jeff Tamarkin
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