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Although preceded by Larry Adler (who has actually spent much of his career playing popular and classical music), Toots Thielemans virtually introduced the chromatic harmonica as a jazz instrument. In fact, ever since the mid-'50s, he has had no close competitors. Toots simply plays the harmonica with the dexterity of a saxophonist and has even successfully traded off with the likes of Oscar Peterson.
Toots Thielemans' first instrument was the accordion, which he started when he was three. Although he started playing the harmonica when he was 17, Thielemans' original reputation was made as a guitarist who was influenced by Django Reinhardt. Very much open to bop, Thielemans played in American GI clubs in Europe, visited the U.S. for the first time in 1947, and shared the bandstand with Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival of 1949. He toured Europe as a guitarist with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1950, and the following year moved to the U.S. During 1953-1959, Toots was a member of the George Shearing quintet (mostly as a guitarist) and has freelanced ever since. He first recorded his big hit "Bluesette" (which featured his expert whistling and guitar) in 1961, and ever since has been greatly in demand (particularly for his harmonica and his whistling) on pop records (including many dates with Quincy Jones) and as a jazz soloist. Toots' two-volume Brasil Project was popular in the 1990s and found him smoothly interacting on harmonica with top Brazilian musicians.
Toots Thielemans (born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, 29 April 1922, Brussels, Belgium) is a Belgian jazz musician known for his guitar and harmonica playing as well as his whistling. Thielemans is credited as one of the greatest harmonica players of the 20th century.
He has worked as a bandleader (scoring an international hit in the 1960s with his song "Bluesette") and as a sideman (notably on many projects with composer/arranger Quincy Jones), and has appeared on dozens of film soundtracks. In 2009 he became NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for a jazz musician in the United States.
He may be best known to some as the performer whistling the melody in commercials for Old Spice cologne.
He announced his retirement, at the age of 91, on March 12, 2014."National Endowment for The Arts, Toots Thielemans biography". Nea.gov. 1922-04-29. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "All About Jazz, Toots Thielemans biography". Allaboutjazz.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "NEA, National Endowment for the Arts Announces the 2009 NEA Jazz Masters, June 3, 2008". NEA.gov. 2010-05-30. Archived from the original on 2010-05-30. Retrieved 2012-06-25.
Thielemans started his career as a guitar player. In 1949 he joined a jam session in Paris with Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and others. In 1949 and 1950 he participated in European tours with Benny Goodman, making his first record in Paris with fellow band member, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. In 1951 he became a band member of the singer-songwriter and compatriot Bobbejaan Schoepen (at the time still as a guitarist).
He moved to the US in 1952 where he was a member of Charlie Parker's All-Stars and worked with Miles Davis and Dinah Washington. From 1952 to 1959 he was a member of the George Shearing Quintet, primarily playing guitar but also being featured on harmonica both in performances and on recordings. He has also played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius, Stephane Grappelli, Édith Piaf, J.J. Johnson, Michael Franks, Peggy Lee, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Happenings, Astrud Gilberto, Shirley Horn, Elis Regina, Joe Pass, and others.
A jazz standard by Toots Thielemans is "Bluesette", where he used whistling and guitar in unison. First recorded by him in 1962, with lyrics added by Norman Gimbel, the song became a major worldwide hit.
His harmonica playing can also be heard in film scores such as Midnight Cowboy, Cinderella Liberty, Jean de Florette, Sugarland Express, The Yakuza, Turkish Delight, The Getaway, French Kiss, Dunderklumpen, and in various TV programs, including Sesame Street, the Belgian TV series Witse, and the Dutch TV series Baantjer. He composed the music for the 1974 Swedish film Dunderklumpen! in which he also voiced the animated character Pellegnillot.
His whistling and harmonica playing can be heard on Old Spice radio and TV commercials that have been made over the years. During the 1980s he performed with bassist and composer/bandleader Jaco Pastorius in ensembles ranging from duet to the Word of Mouth Big Band. In 1983 he contributed to Billy Joel's album An Innocent Man, and his trademark harmonica can be heard on "Leave a Tender Moment Alone." A year later, he appeared on the Julian Lennon song "Too Late for Goodbyes" from the album Valotte. In 1984, he recorded the final album of Billy Eckstine (I Am a Singer), featuring ballads and standards arranged and conducted by Angelo DiPippo. In the 1990s Thielemans embarked on theme projects that included world music. In 1998 he released a French flavoured album titled "Chez Toots" that included the Les moulins de mon cœur (The Windmills of Your Mind) featuring guest singer Johnny Mathis. Apart from his popularity as an accomplished musician, he is well liked for his modesty and kind demeanor. In his native Belgium, he is also popular for describing himself as a Brussels "ket", which means "street kid" in old Brussels slang. He received a joint honorary doctorate from the Université libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium) and in 2001 Thielemans was ennobled a baron by King Albert II of Belgium.
In 2005 he was nominated for the title of the Greatest Belgian. In the Flemish version he finished in 20th place, and in the Walloon version he came 44th. In October 2008, he was honored with the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship at the Wayback Machine (archived May 30, 2010).
On 23 January 2009, he joined Philip Catherine on stage at the Liberchies church (Belgium) in memory of the 100th anniversary of Django Reinhardt's birth. In 2012, the Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in New York celebrated his 90th birthday with Herbie Hancock, Eliane Elias, Kenny Werner, Marc Johnson, Oscar Castro-Neves, and Dori Caymmi. He performed for the occasion and left the stage standing among his friends."Festival International De Jazz All Stars in the Charlie Parker discography". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "Billboard, Thielemans biography". Billboard.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "Bobbejaan Schoepen: Belgian musician who worked with Jacques Brel and Josephine Baker - ''The Independent'', 30 July 2010". Independent.co.uk. 2010-07-30. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "Biography Bobbejaan Schoepen". Bobbejaan.be. Retrieved 2012-06-25. Cite error: The named reference allaboutjazz1 was invoked but never defined (see the help page). "Mars Jazz, Excerpted from Windham Hill promo material for Chez Toots". Marsjazz.com. Retrieved 2012-06-25. Valotte (Inner sleeve). Julian Lennon. Charisma, Universal Music Group. 1984. JLLP 1. http://news.yahoo.com/musician-friends-celebrate-thielemans-90-years-025534001.html
Due to health issues that have led to recent show cancellations, Thielemans announced his retirement on March 12, 2014. He cancelled all upcoming concerts and announced the end of his musical career. His manager states Thielemans "wants to enjoy the rest he deserves".http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2014/03/toots-91-calls-it-quits.html http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/Livecenter/1.1906877