The Belgian harmonica player Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans, universally, affectionately known since the 1940’s as Toots, and who last played in public in 2013, died yesterday at the age of 94, as his official website confirms.
He worked with many of the very greats of jazz from Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans and Pat Metheny. He also played with Stevie Wonder, was on albums by Billy Joel, Paul Simon and played the theme on the film Midnight Cowboy. He acquired American citizenship in the 1950s, and was made an NEA Jazz Master in 2008. He was very proud to have been made a Baron by King Albert of Belgium in 2001, and to have given a concert for his 90th in the Royal Palace in Laeken. There will be a celebration of his life and music on the Grand’Place in Brussels at 6pm today.
Wally Houser has commented by email:
I was sorry to learn of the death of Toots Thielemans whom I knew from his many Ronnie Scott bookings if not well then on first name terms.
I think my greatest memory of him was when one night he played Sophisticated Lady . Not the easiest tune. He played the melody on the harmonica and fingered the chords on the guitar which was strummed by his bass player. It sounds a bit of a mish mash but it was incredibly beautiful.
When Toots came to play at Ronnie Scott's for two weeks in April 1978 I interviewed him at his hotel for Jazz Forum magazine, to which I then contributed regularly. It was a most memorable and enjoyable conversation for me. We got on well and, after he realised that I knew a lot about his career, he really wanted to talk. His wife Nette had died not long before and he was lonely and in need of someone who cared about his memories. We spent several hours as he reminisced, reflected on life, and joked a lot. As I was about to leave he thrust a more than half-full bottle of brandy into my hand. 'You take it,' he said, 'I'm moving on and won't need it now.' I never saw him again in person but that morning and the interview, later published, are very happy memories.