Following in the footsteps of his childhood idol, Larry Adler, the pioneering harmonica player Toots Thielemans has elevated his "miscellaneous instrument" into an art form. Not only has he established the harmonica as a jazz instrument, playing it with the fluidity and speed of a saxophone, but also adapted it to pop and world music. With a career spanning more than half a century, the artist, also a guitarist and accomplished whistler, has gained widespread success while maintaining the respect of jazz purists.
Born in Belgium at the dawn of the Jazz Age, Jean "Toots" Thielemans first started playing the accordion at age three. When he was 17, he picked up the harmonica as a hobby. After seeing Django Reinhardt in concert in 1941, Thielemans added the guitar to his list of instruments. The young musician began frequenting jazz clubs on American bases during the Second World War, where he discovered the revolutionary sound of Charlie Parker, another early influence.
In 1947, he visited the United States for the first time and emigrated there five years later. The musician realized a dream when he joined Charlie Parker's All-Stars on stage in Paris, playing with the likes of Miles Davis and Dinah Washington. He made his European breakthrough accompanying the Benny Goodman Sextet on its European tour in 1950.
Settling into life in America, the harmonica player became a member of the George Shearing Quintet in 1953 and stayed for six years. His first full-length American release, The Sound, introduced stateside audiences to the masterful jazz musician. In 1962, while temporarily based in Sweden, Thielemans recorded Bluesette, his first big hit and an enduring classic. Soon after, Quincy Jones recruited him to play on soundtracks for films such as Midnight Cowboy and The Getaway.
Sounding a new note
In 1983, Thielemans crossed over into pop, contributing to albums by Billy Joel and, the following year, Julian Lennon. The harmonica virtuoso returned to his jazz roots with his first visit to the Festival in 1986.
He embarked on an international collaboration in 1992 with The Brasil Project, an album that united the artist with some of the country's top musicians. The recording was such a success that it was followed by a second volume the next year. Thielemans continued to navigate new soundscapes on the album East Coast West Coast before swinging by the Festival in 1995.
His return was marked by a very special concert, which brought together the two giants of jazz harmonica: Thielemans and his childhood idol, Larry Adler. The latter, who rarely appeared outside his native England, treated festival-goers to a selection of Gershwin standards. Three years later, Thielemans made his third appearance at the Festival, this time taking the stage alongside jazz guitarist John Scofield. Alone on stage, he offered an exceptional interpretation of Ne me quitte pas by Jacques Brel, with whom he used to go to school. Audiences didn't have to wait long for an encore performance: he returned the following year.
The 80-year-old showed no signs of slowing down on his visit to the Festival in 2002, offering two concerts for the 23rd edition. That year, Thielemans joined in the 80th birthday celebrations of another jazz legend: Dave Brubeck.
In 2005, the revered harmonica player performed with some of the Festival's other esteemed regulars: guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Kenny Werner and trumpeter Paolo Fresu. In 2009, at the age of 87, Thielemans was honoured with a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters.
Considered among the jazz world’s greatest harmonica masters and a true pioneer, the musician died on August 22, 2016, at the age of 94.