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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 on 29 April 1922, Brussels, Belgium) is a Belgian jazz musician. He is known for his guitar and harmonica playing, as well as his whistling skills.
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 Stockholm 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, he was still performing strictly 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. He worked both as a bandleader and as a sideman, notably on many projects with composer/arranger Quincy Jones. He has performed on many film soundtracks, such as Midnight Cowboy, Cinderella Liberty, Jean de Florette, The Sugarland Express, The Yakuza, Turkish Delight, the 1972 version of The Getaway, French Kiss, Dunderklumpen!, and in various TV programs, including Sesame Street, whose closing credits (which did not list him accordingly) featured his performance, on harmonica, of the show's theme, 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 provided the voice of 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." (The two later collaborated on this selection in concert, and this was recorded on video.) 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 2009, he became an NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for a jazz musician in the United States.
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. "Bobbejaan Schoepen: Belgian musician who worked with Jacques Brel and Josephine Baker". The Independent. 30 July 2010. Retrieved 2012-06-25. "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. "Toots Thielemans On Piano Jazz". National Public Radio. 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2015-01-16. "Musician friends celebrate Thielemans' 90 years". Yahoo News. 2012-09-29. Retrieved 2014-08-19.
Because of health issues that led to show cancellations, Thielemans announced his retirement on 12 March 2014, cancelling all scheduled concerts. His manager stated that Thielemans "wants to enjoy the rest he deserves." However, he did make one more stage appearance, unannounced, in August 2014, at the Jazz Middelheim Festival in Antwerp.Anouk van Kampen (2014-03-12). "Toots Thielemans stopt ermee en annuleert alle concerten". NRC Handelsblad. Retrieved 2015-01-16. Kevin Calluy, Alexander Verstraete, Frederik Defossez (2014-03-12). "Toots Thielemans beëindigt muzikale carrière". De Redactie. Retrieved 2014-08-19. "Jazz Middelheim ook zonder Toots publiekstrekker". Nieuwesblad. 2014-08-16. Retrieved 2015-01-16.