Toots Thielemans  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Toots Thielemans (born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, 29 April 1922 – 22 August 2016) was a Belgian jazz musician. He was known for his guitar and harmonica playing, as well as his whistling skills.

A jazz standard by Toots Thielemans is "Bluesette" where he used whistling and guitar in unison. First recorded by Toots in 1962, with lyrics added by Norman Gimbel the song became a major worldwide hit.


Born in Brussels, 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, Pat Metheny, 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.

Thielemans passed away in his sleep on 22 August 2016, at the age of 94.


Major works include:

  • The Sound (Columbia, 1955)
  • Time Out for Toots (Decca, 1958)
  • Man Bites Harmonica! (Riverside, 1958)
  • Soul (1959)
  • The Whistler and His Guitar (1964, ABC-Paramount)
  • Guitar and Strings...and Things (1967, Command)
  • Honeysuckle Rose Aquarela Do Brasil (1969, with Elis Regina, Fontana, Philips)
  • Cinderella Liberty (20th Century Fox, 1973)
  • Only Trust Your Heart (1988, Concord)
  • Footprints (1991, Universal)
  • The Brasil Project (1992, BMG)
  • The Brasil Project Vol. 2 (1993, BMG)
  • Compact Jazz (1993, Verve)
  • East Coast, West Coast (1994, Private Music)
  • Apple Dimple (1994, Denon)
  • Chez Toots (1998, Windham Hill)
  • The Live Takes, Vol. 1 (2000, Quetzal Records)
  • Hard to Say Goodbye: The Very Best of Toots Thielemans (2000, Universal)
  • Toots Thielemans & Kenny Werner (2001, Universal)
  • One More for the Road (2006, Verve)
  • Yesterday and Today (2012, Disques Dreyfus) "a two-CD compendium of highlights from Thielemans' first session in 1946 up to 2001", "a set of 37 previously unavailable recordings selected by friend and fellow musician Cees Schrama from over Thielemans' lengthy career." EAN 8713545212525

As sideman

With Eliane Elias

With Bill Evans

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Urbie Green

With Billy Joel

With Fumio Karashima

  • Rencontre (1999, Emarcy/Polydor Japan)

With Oscar Peterson

With Elis Regina

With George Shearing and Dakota Staton

With Paul Simon

With James Last

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