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HomeFH OrignalsAn Appreciation of Toots Thielemans Or In Praise of Toots Thielemans

An Appreciation of Toots Thielemans Or In Praise of Toots Thielemans

Toots Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium on January 25, 1922. His father played the saxophone and clarinet in dance bands and his mother sang in cabarets, so music was always playing in the family home when he was growing up. By the time he turned seven years old, Toots was playing the harmonica and at age 10 he started to play the saxophone himself. In 1936, at age 14, Toots joined his first big band, The Harlem Swingsters and began learning how to play jazz music.

Toots Thielemans , I Love You

While jazz musician Toots Thielemans was still alive, he’d sometimes be asked if he knew how much his music has meant to so many people. Yes, he’d respond with a grin, but I don’t know who they are. One person who does know is guitarist Bill Frisell. You may have heard that Frisell’s long-time admiration for Thielemans led him to compose what became one of his signature songs, Miss O’Dell, as a tribute to his childhood hero and former neighbor. But it wasn’t just respect that led Frisell—or anyone else—to acknowledge the impact of Thielemans’ music; it was love.

One of ten children born to musicians in Belgium, Thielemans learned his craft early on and became a professional musician while still a teenager. He found work playing guitar and clarinet in dance bands around Europe, where he gigged often with bebop pianist Fats Sadi. This meant that he was traveling between Belgium and Paris regularly in an era when travel was both difficult and expensive—and also an effective way to avoid being conscripted into military service. It wasn’t until he turned thirty that life began to take him on more permanent journeys.

The Musical Life of Toots Thielemans

From humble beginnings to worldwide fame and adoration, Toots Thielemans has always lived a musical life. He spent his early childhood traveling Europe with his father, a professional saxophonist and composer, who sought musical opportunities in France, Germany, Austria and Italy. The father played clarinet but also branched out into flute and harmonica; it was on these instruments that young Tootsy learned how to play. Later on he became interested in guitar, which led him to discover jazz. His remarkable talent earned him a scholarship at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied piano from 1942 to 1946 and at Julliard School of Music from 1946 to 1948.

But it wasn’t until he met Benny Goodman in 1954 that his career really took off. It was then that he became a permanent member of The Tonight Show Band, for which he composed dozens of tunes. One of these, a harmonica solo, titled Bluesette (1959), would become a hit and one of his most popular compositions. The song features only two chords and is remarkably easy to play. This makes it perfect for beginners looking to add to their repertoire or even jazz purists who want something off-the-beaten path but recognizable and memorable. Remember that key part near the end?

If you want to incorporate bluesette into your repertoire, it’s a great idea to first listen to lots of versions by different artists. For example, Jazz legend Chet Atkins released an album in 1966 called The Guitar Sounds of Chet Atkins, which included Bluesette along with twelve other tunes. Compare and contrast his version with how many others you can find on YouTube or other streaming services so that you learn not only how to play it but also how different artists interpret it.
Another great way to pick up Bluesette is via sheet music. You’ll find dozens of arrangements available online and some even feature video tutorials with clear, step-by-step instructions.

Toots’ Thielemans Life and Career

Born to a poor family in Belgium, Thielemans has always been known as a musician’s musician. His career spans nearly seven decades and throughout he has collaborated with some of jazz music’s most notable artists. Most notably was his tenure in Oscar Peterson Trio which lasted for seven years and earned them a grammy for their album Night Train. Throughout his career, he released over 100 albums and worked with renowned artists such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles. To date, he has won 16 Grammys in all categories ranging from blues to jazz to world music.

Toots was born on April 23, 1922 in Brussels, Belgium and would go on to become one of Belgium’s most legendary jazz musicians. He began playing guitar at age seven after discovering jazz through a local music store. Though he grew up surrounded by music and had already begun to play professionally with many local groups by age 13, his career did not take off until 1956 when he arrived in New York City. He stayed there for three years before returning to his home country.

Although he has been called a virtuoso, Toots’ talent lies in his ability to combine genres in ways that are new and innovative. Though his career is primarily based on jazz, he has also been an innovator within other genres such as bossa nova, tango and klezmer music. He is known for his unique interpretation of music with everything from his harmonica solos to use of saxophones. His work is also notable for it’s cultural influence as well as commercial success.

As stated by Cuneyt Aker, editor for All About Jazz It’s safe to say that none of today’s top blues-jazz-funk harmonica players would exist were it not for Toots.

As a Jazz Ambassador, he has also toured abroad extensively throughout his career and is often credited with broadening appreciation and popularity of jazz music in different parts of Europe and Asia. He continued to tour until he was 84 years old when doctors advised him to slow down as a result of complications from heart surgery. He passed away in April 2016 at age 92 after suffering from pneumonia.

Why Thielemans Matters

Few jazz musicians can claim to have bridged as many musical genres as Belgian harmonica player and composer Toots Thielemans. He spent his first years honing his craft in Belgium, but within a few years was playing alongside American jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; soon thereafter he began working with Oscar Peterson, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman—the list goes on. The mid-20th century saw him recording extensively with bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim as well as pop giants like Frank Sinatra, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Sting and more; later in life he collaborated with artists like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis.

He’s not just a skilled musician. He also played an integral role in popularizing his native instrument, collaborating with harmonica manufacturers to develop what are now standard models. Alongside numerous albums recorded under his own name, he composed music for dozens of movies, among them Toots Mondial and The Silencers. His life was marked by tragedy as well; he lost two wives and a son to illness and spent much of his adult life deeply affected by depression.

Even though his life was tragic, he is still known as one of jazz’s great practitioners. He received a number of honors and accolades from within and outside his homeland, including UNESCO’s 1996 Prix Amical du Jazz, Belgium’s Great Knight Order of Leopold II in 2006 and induction into Down Beat Magazine’s Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008. His list of notable collaborations is also far too extensive to cover here; suffice it to say that for more than six decades, he was present at some very important moments in music history. Few have left such an indelible mark on their craft; even fewer have done so with such charm and grace. Hs was also Honored by Belgian royalty.

Toots Thielemans – Bluesette

Conclusion – Why Listen to This Guy?

One would think that a famous, elder statesman in his eighties would be well past worrying about his legacy. But that’s not how it is with Toots. When I saw him play in Montreux on July 2, 2010 at an outdoor concert on Lake Geneva celebrating Albert King’s music, it was obvious he still cared deeply about his art and wanted to make sure he left something behind that mattered. Despite being two or three years shy of 90, he has never stopped playing or developing as a musician. He told me recently that if you stop learning and growing as an artist then you should give up and become a painter.



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