Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Jean Babtiste “Toots” Thielemans (1922 – 2016) - # 1

Georg Lankester gives his account of the career of Toots Thielemans. The article is in two parts, below follows the first part, the second is accessible here.

An exceptional Jazz musician and a genius on the harmonica  - Part 1

Toots Thielemans
On August 22nd 2016 this famous Belgian artist passed away at the advanced age of 94 years. With his decease the Jazz world looses a great musician and a sympathic human being. By all means a reason  to memorize his long career with plenty of  highlights.

Jean took the nickname “Toots”over from saxophonist Nunzio Toots Mondello and trumpet player Tutti Toots Carmalita. Only the harmonica virtuoso, however, would spread this nickname all over the world, no doubt about it.

An early musical start 

Jean Babtiste Thielemans was born on April 29, 1922 in Brussels and already began to play accordion when he was three years old. He used a simple homemade instrument which was replaced by a genuine accordion a few years later. It was only in 1939 that he switched to the harmonica !

At that time Jean studied mathematics, but he spent more and more time playing on his new instrument which attracted him strongly.

However, he also took interest in the guitar after having heard Django Reinhardt playing with the ‘Hot Club quintet’. After the Liberation he also bought a guitar and listening to other guitar players, he exercised day after day until he could reproduce a solo of the American player Al Casey note by note. “Toots” did so in order to break away from the gypsy style. By the way: Casey’s guitar solo can be found on an Esquire record called “All American Jazz  Concert”.

Longing for America 

Just after World War II Jean is playing for American soldiers in Belgium and in some surrounding countries. In 1947 he visits the USA where, in New York, he is soon joining Jazz musicians in the 52nd Street. That’s the place where he discovers the new bebop style and also becomes friends with Charlie Parker. Later, in 1949, they  won (together) a prize during the International Jazz Festival of Paris.
Benny Goodman and Toots switched instruments for the photo
Not long afterwards he was engaged by Benny Goodman, ‘The King of Swing’ with whom he made a tour through Europe in ‘50/51, an interesting experience.

Early 1951”Toots”- for a short time - also joined the orchestra featuring the popular Belgian artist Bobbejaan Schoepen. Later that year he emigrated to the States and settled in New York. With lack of a musicians’ license he played for fun, taking part in the so-called “Birdland Sessions” where he met many other bebop players.
George Shearing and Toots
Quite soon he was engaged by Dinah Washington and several months later asked to join the quartet of piano player George Shearing, which shows his musical versality. In a Begian documentary “Toots” told that he there had to work hard and earned very little. Every month he sent some money to his wife in NY; only after one year saving they could afford to make a trip to Belgium.

A surprising composition 

At the beginning of the Sixties Jean formed his own group and made several tours in Europa. He setlled for a short time in Sandinavia where he played together with violinist Svend  Asmussen  and bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. His friendship with Asmussen would always remain.
Printed music of Bluesette (click to enlarge)
And then in 1962 he composed and recorded “Bluesette”, as he said, a combination of Blues and Musette. Of this composition more than 100 different versions were recorded and it made him instantly a star. - Here is the original recording from 1962

Blowing the harmonica, whistling while playing guitar, he surprised people all over the world. “Toots” remembered that once playing this song with Stéphane Grappelli, the latter was excited about the theme and improvised on it with enthousiasm and in the right style.

Due to this success “Toots” was re-discovered in the US and soon back there performing as an independant musician with more and more interest in creating new kinds of music.

To be continued

Georg Lankester

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