Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans, Harmonica Wizard With Range, Dies at 94

  • He played with Paul Simon, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman
  • Performed on movie soundtracks including ‘Midnight Cowboy’

Jean “Toots” Thielemans, the Belgian-born harmonica virtuoso and composer who worked with scores of musicians ranging from Charlie Parker to Paul Simon and whose haunting performance on the “Midnight Cowboy” theme led to his playing for dozens of movie and television soundtracks, has died. He was 94.

He died Monday, according to his website. No cause was given. He died in Brussels and lived in La Hulpe, a Brussels suburb, according to the New York Times.

Jean "Toots" Thielemans

Photographer: Rob Verhorst/Redferns via Getty Images

Called “one of the greatest musicians of our time” by Quincy Jones, Thielemans stopped performing because of overwork in 2006 on doctor’s orders. Months later he was playing harmonica again at New York’s Blue Note nightclub.

If jazz either makes you old prematurely or preserves you, as musicians say, then Thielemans took the latter path. A stroke curbed his guitar-playing though not his enthusiasm.

“My left hand is not what it should be,” he said. “I know where the good stuff is but it takes too long to get it.”

Embraces Harmonica

Because the stroke didn’t affect his mouth, Thielemans said, the harmonica became his only full-time instrument. To keep in shape, he practiced daily by transposing pieces into various keys “just to shuffle the cards around.”

“It’s fun to improvise,” he told former Bloomberg News critic Mike Zwerin,. “Playing music keeps you feeling young.”
Still, key-changes were easier on guitar than harmonica. “Some notes blowing and some inhaling can be crazy,” he said. “But I have asthma and it helps” as an exercise in breath control, he said.

A partial list of those he played with includes Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Bill Evans, Chet Baker and Natalie Cole, Zwerin added, a diverse group that demonstrated Thielemans’s versatility and talent.

The National Endowment for the Arts gave Thielemans its Jazz Masters award in 2009, calling him “among the greatest jazz harmonica players of the 20th century.”

Early Start

Born April 29, 1922, Jean-Baptiste Thielemans was the son of a Brussels cafe owner. At 3 years old, he played an accordion, amusing patrons at the cafe. He learned the harmonica and guitar as a teenager.

When the Germans occupied Belgium in World War II, his family fled to France, where Thielemans said he became a jazz fan after hearing the music on English radio broadcasts.

His passion for jazz didn’t wane over the decades. As guest of honor at an all-star Carnegie Hall jazz concert in 2006, “no one stole the spotlight from Mr. Thielemans,” a review in the Times said. “He was having giddy fun, and the feeling was contagious.”

Thielemans had an “exuberantly expressive voice on the chromatic harmonica, pioneering its use as a solo instrument,” according to the Times story.

Toured Europe

He first played jazz guitar in the style of his idol, the gypsy master Django Reinhardt. In the late 1940s, Thielemans toured Europe in groups led by Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Thielemans moved to the U.S. in 1952 and met the pianist George Shearing, who needed a guitarist for a Carnegie Hall date. Thielemans filled in, then played in a Shearing-led quintet for the next six years.

He composed “Bluesette,” an up-tempo waltz that joyfully ascends the chromatic scale and sounds like a harmonica player’s invention. Thielemans said it came to him in 1961 while fooling with guitar chords in a Brussels dressing room before a concert.

Among the many movie soundtracks Thielemans recorded were scores for “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969, “The Getaway” in 1972, “Cinderella Liberty” in 1973 and “Jean de Florette” in 1986 as well as the opening theme of “Sesame Street.”

He also whistled on a widely heard advertisement for Old Spice after shave.

“I’ve always been on a kind of tightrope between commercial stuff and real music,” he said. “Between making music for money and music that I enjoy.”

Whatever the impetus, Zwerin wrote, Thielemans’s “unshakable lyricism always finds its way directly to your heart.”

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