Jazz harmonica legend Toots Thielemans, the man behind the popular Sesame Street theme song, passed away in his sleep on Monday in Brussels at the age of 94, leaving behind a long, fruitful career in jazz music.
Peter Keepnews of the New York Times described the jazz harmonica legend that Thielemans was as “one of the only musicians to have a successful career as a jazz harmonica player.”
“That Mr. Thielemans played jazz on the harmonica was unusual enough,” Keepnews said. “Even more unusual was how he first gained international attention: by playing guitar and whistling in unison.”
In 1961, Thielemans popularized the harmonica even more with his signature jaunty jazz waltz “Bluesette” when it became an international hit.
According to Keepnews, the distinctive sound created by the jazz harmonica legend, which eventually catapulted him to fame, “also became a jazz standard, recorded by numerous instrumentalists, among them Chet Atkins, Tito Puente and Mr. Thielemans himself, who went on to record it several more times. It was also recorded, with lyrics by Norman Gimbel, by Sarah Vaughan and other singers.”
Asthma, from which he suffered for much of his life and career, did not hinder Thielemans in giving the world great music that passed through his custom-made chromatic harmonica, which, according to Lorne Cook and Charles Gans of the Associated Press, was “different from the diatonic harmonica used by blues players – which has a slide making it possible to play three octaves in all keys.”
“It’s such a freak of an instrument,” said the jazz harmonica legend in an Associated Press interview in 1992, as quoted by Cook and Gans. “There’s technical obstacles to how fast and legato you can play… What I’ve spent my time on is to try to find things that are playable on the instrument. This is not a good instrument but I blow my brains out on it.”
Born as Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans on April 29, 1922, in a working class of Brussels’ Marolles district in 1922, it was to his fellow Belgians’ delight that what came to be known as a jazz harmonica legend took pride of his humble origin.
As from where Thielemans got his nickname Toots, he could not exactly recall, “sometimes saying he chose the name himself and at others saying it was given to him,” as Keepnews noted, “whatever the truth, the name was apparently borrowed from two American jazz musicians, Nuncio Mondello and Salvador Camarata, who both went by Toots.”
According to the Brussels-based Agence France-Presse, Thielemans owed his legendary career in jazz to a European tour in 1950 when he joined the American swing musician Benny Goodman. Shortly thereafter, in 1952, he moved to the United States where he had the privilege to team up with American artists Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra.
Also playing key roles in Thielemans’ career were Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Nick Cave.
“He brought a rather banal instrument intended for campsites to almost sacred heights,” said jazz historian Marc Danval, as quoted by Agence France-Presse.
In 2001, the jazz harmonica legend from Brussels’ rather obscure district of Marolles was honored to be made a baron by Belgian King Albert II, “sealing his status as one of the country’s best-known figures on a par with Tour de France great Eddy Merckx,” according to Agence France-Presse.
A self-made musician who discovered jazz in the wake of the German occupation in 1940, Thieleman taught himself to play the guitar, “mostly by listening to records of the legendary Belgian-born Gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt.” He would later take the harmonica, which to him was like “discovering an old friend,” Cook and Gans said.
After careful consideration, Thielemans decided to put an end to his musical career in 2014, as he then felt no longer “strong enough to play a full concert, up to the high standard he [wished] to perform,” as posted on his official website.
Having heard the news of the baron’s death, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was as quick to tweet, which was translated into English by Agence France-Presse.
“We have lost a great musician, a heart-warming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans.”
Thielemans was scheduled to hold a jazz festival from September 9 to 11 in La Hulpe, about 16 miles away from his home in Brussels, which sadly will no longer happen.
[Photo by Mark Renders/Getty Images]