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The Harmonica-Playing Baron Of Belgium

Toots Thielemans performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in July 2005. He's celebrating his 90th birthday with a series of concerts throughout his native Belgium.
Rick Nederstigt
AFP/Getty Images
Toots Thielemans performs at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in July 2005. He's celebrating his 90th birthday with a series of concerts throughout his native Belgium.

People throughout Belgium are currently celebrating the harmonica player and guitarist Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, born in Brussels on April 29, 1922. That puts the NEA Jazz Master, also made a Baron by the King of Belgium in 2001, just a few days past 90.

The night after his birthday, Thielemans set out on an eight-concert tour across his homeland. In Ghent, Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine joined him as a special guest. In Brussels, his long-time pianist Kenny Werner and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves came from the U.S. and Brazil, respectively. In Hasselt, Thielemans — who had broken his foot — performed from a wheelchair. And last night and tonight, May 17 and 18, the two final concerts take place in Liège and then Dinant. It's all taking place in a country where everyone can pronounce the name "Thielemans." (Try "teel-mahnz.")

Invited by the Belgian Tourist Office, I attended his May 9 performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a.k.a. BOZAR (get it?), in Brussels. The interviews and meet-and-greets were canceled, but the concert was sold out and a great success.

Thielemans entered to roaring applause. His band members helped him cross the stage to perch on a high chair so his feet could dangle and clap together. He looks frail, but his breath support and musicality seem little diminished. Just the sound of his Hohner harmonica brings joy and sadness together, and sweetly so.

The graffiti-tagged mural near the childhood home of Toots Thielemans in Brussels.
Becca Pulliam / WBGO
The graffiti-tagged mural near the childhood home of Toots Thielemans in Brussels.

Prior to the show, we journalists were taken on a "Toots Walk" through central Brussels to see his birthplace. There's a whimsical mural that tells you when you're near his childhood home on Rue Haute (High Street).

The Baron calls himself un vrai Bruxellois (a true man of Brussels). His father was a carpenter; his parents ran a pub. They rented rooms to construction workers during the 1920s building boom.

Down the street, a larger but now-demolished building housed the workers' center. Historian Roland Jacobs told us that Thielemans remembers being hoisted on his father's shoulders at socialist-leaning political meetings.

His first instrument was the accordion. Then, in an ornate movie palace (still standing, though no longer a cinema) on the same street, Thielemans first heard the harmonica on a film soundtrack. His early inspiration on the guitar, in the early 1940s, was Django Reinhardt. As for his singular technique of whistling an octave above his guitar, it's said that comes from Slam Stewart (1914-87), the humming virtuoso bassist.

Toots Thielemans did it all — the guitar, the whistling, the harmonica. (He struggled with asthma to do so.) Now, he sticks to the instrument he can carry in his pocket. As he said from the stage in English, "I try to sing almost bel canto with this toothbrush!"

From the early 1950s, Thielemans lived and worked in the U.S., where he became a citizen in 1957. Two early thrills were jamming with Miles Davis in Paris in 1949 and — a few years later — working a week in Philadelphia in the Charlie Parker All Stars, again with Davis. (Toots recalled in a recent article in Le Vif that Parker protected him from Davis. But when Davis remarked that Toots was Caucasian, Toots himself responded, no, "I come from Belgium.")

At BOZAR, four of Toots' first five tunes were recorded by Miles Davis in a short span: "On Green Dolphin Street" (1958), "All Blues" (early 1959), "I Loves You, Porgy" and "Summertime" (both 1958, for Porgy and Bess). "Days of Wine and Roses" was the other number.

In these tunes, Toots' quartet of pianist Karel Boehlee, bassist Hein Van de Geyn and drummer Hans Van Oosterhout were elegant and swinging, much in the tradition of the 1982 Toots Thielemans album Live in the Netherlands with Joe Pass on guitar and Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson on bass. Toots was flying then. And, though he's streamlined his playing, 30 years later he still sounds tuneful, optimistic, willing to soar.

When Werner and Castro-Neves came to the stage — excitement! embraces! — they brought shades of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Hollywood as they played "How High the Moon" (a samba, thanks to Castro-Neves), "All the Way" (Werner on synthesizer, interpolating "My Way"), and the theme to Midnight Cowboy, an eight-note melody that circles and haunts. Indeed, Thielemans played it on the soundtrack.

Toots' commercial work paid well. He made a Chrysler ad with Louis Armstrong (who called Toots "Bop Chops"), whistled the iconic Old Spice jingle, and played harmonica on the theme song for Sesame Street. Our Toots Walk tour guide quoted him as having said, "When I'm on tour, I can pay for the gasoline for the car. When I make advertising, I can buy the car."

Back on stage, he celebrated his love of Brazilian music with an Ivan Lins piece. It segued into "Manha da Carnival," the theme from the 1959 film Black Orpheus. Applause met "Manha" at the beginning, and rose in a great crescendo at the end.

It was then that I began to feel the emotion of the occasion.

Toots Thielemans' most famous song is "Bluesette." As he told my WBGO colleague Michael Bourne in a 1993 DownBeat story:

"I was playing a concert with [the Parisian violinist] Stephane Grappelli in Brussels in 1962. I was in the same dressing room as Stephane and I was tuning my guitar, and somehow this little song came out. I was humming it and Stephane said, 'That's nice. What is it?' I just said he inspired me, but he said, 'Ecrivez tout de suite! Write it down right away!' I called it 'Bluette' for this little blue flower in Belgium, but when I played it on a show in Sweden, the producer said, 'Isn't that a blues? Why don't you put the 's' in there?' I owe the 's' to him."

Bourne told me another story. Toots' first gig outside Belgium came in Sweden, and he learned Swedish to play in a cabaret. He said the woman introducing him presented him to the crowd as "Tits Tooliemans." I can imagine Toots giggling.

For his 90th birthday concert in Brussels, "Bluesette" — the waltz named for a flower — came near the end of the show, delivered with a deep, stirring, almost frightening samba beat.

Toots Thielemans loves musicians. The more they challenge him, the better. He's said in response to Kenny Werner's more "out" harmonies, "Keep throwing me in the pool. But don't let me drown."

He had a close friendship with the wild and woolly electric bassist Jaco Pastorius (1951-87). In a story in his new Toots 90 coffee-table book, he writes:

I met Jaco [Pastorius] at the end of 1979 at the Berlin Jazz Festival. He was playing solo bass. He had just recently left Weather Report. I was playing at the festival, too. During a press conference, a journalist asked Pastorius, 'If you were to form a duo now, who would it be with?' And Jaco glanced at the festival programme and said: 'With Toots Thillman [sic]. Yes, bring me Toots!'

Pastorius said that ever since his childhood, when Thielemans was a member of the George Shearing Quartet, he'd been familiar with Toots' music. So here's a song for Toots Thielemans' 90th birthday, from NPR's Jazz Alive! archive. At the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival in New York, Toots joins Jaco and the Word of Mouth Band for Jaco's waltz, "Liberty City."

Becca Pulliam of WBGO is the producer of JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Copyright 2012 WBGO

Becca Pulliam