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Interviews

Pruning the Tree: Seven Decades of Jazz with Toots Thielemans

By Published: April 13, 2004

TT: I was representing Belgium with a trio and somehow I was in the same festival with Charlie Parker, who was playing with Kenny Dorham and Al Haig, and Miles, who was with James Moody, Tad Dameron and Kenny Clarke! I ended up staying and playing in Paris after that until I played with Benny Goodman the next year. I was finally able to get my visa and come to America in 1952.

TP: You joined pianist George Shearing’s quintet soon after you arrived. How did Shearing end up hiring you?

TT: That’s a good story! In those days, I was trying hard to meet the jazz musicians in New York and it was hard to open doors. There were a few bars that were meeting places for musicians, like Junior’s, which was right across from Birdland, and Jin & Andy’s. In those days there were a lot of recording sessions, and guys would be doing three hours for Sinatra, another hour for a commercial, and meeting at these places in between. I was at a bar across from the Metropole, where Gene Krupa was playing, and Tony Scott, who was a clarinet and saxophonist, came in. I had already played a couple of Monday night sessions at Birdland – sitting in with Lockjaw Davis – and Tony must have heard me. In his very exuberant way, he told me he liked my harmonica playing, and asked me if I played the guitar too.

Tony was sort a jazz chamber of commerce back then, always trying to help a little cat from Minnesota – or Europe – trying to find a place to play in New York City. He said, “You got your harmonica with you? Come with me,” and we walked up to Carnegie Hall. George Shearing’s group was playing there on a double bill, opening for Billy Eckstine. Tony practically broke down the stage door, telling them he had to see George Shearing. Anyway, we got in; he took me to see George and introduced me, telling George, “Wait till you hear this guy!” I played “Body and soul right there in his dressing room, and when I was finished, Tony told him, “This guy plays the guitar too, George!” Tony knew that George’s guitarist Dick Garcia, was going into the army. A week after that meeting, Shearing was playing the Rendezvous Club in Philadelphia, and I was playing with Charlie Parker’s All-Stars, opening for Dinah Washington in Philadelphia at the same time. During one of the breaks, I took my guitar over to the club to audition for George. He hired me and I played with him for six years.

TP: You also have had a long relationship with Quincy Jones over the years, playing on many of his recordings.

TT: I met Quincy when I was still with Shearing, and he was playing third trumpet with Lionel Hampton. We became friends, and more than ten years later when Quincy was doing his first movie soundtrack in Hollywood, he asked me to come out and play on it. Later, in the mid- sixties when he started doing solo albums for Creed Taylor, he called me again to record with Ray Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock. By that time I had already recorded Bluesette, which was me whistling and playing guitar at the same time. Back then, I really didn’t want to travel so much. So that meant I had to do commercials, play bar mitzvahs and do things like the Dick Cavett TV show. I ended up doing really well in the studio, but I was doing everything but jazz. I told him that I hadn’t played jazz in a year and I didn’t think I could do it anymore. Basically, he told me I had to be at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey at 9 o’clock. So he got me back into jazz, and he still calls me for sessions today.

TP: In the 1990s, you recorded The Brasil Project , two volumes of music featuring you with musicians such as Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil. What is there about Brazilian music that attracts you?

TT: I first went to Brazil in 1972 to work with the singer, Elias Regina. But I’ve always felt that in the harmonies of Brazilian music – especially bossa nova – there are great similarities to bebop. And on Jobim compositions like “One Note Samba” and “Wave,” the melodies are based on bebop chords. Brazilian composers like Jobim and Lins are melodic geniuses – they write melody that lasts. Charlie parker and the other beboppers wrote themes, but nobody outside of a jazz scat singer sings those. So that evolution in jazz harmony and melody is what attracted me to Brazilian music.

TP: You’ve played with Kenny Werner since 1995. How did that musical relationship evolve?

TT: The singer Judy Niemack was in the States to do a recording and Kenny was the producer. She asked me to come and play on a session. That was my first contact with Kenny, and I made sure to get his phone number. I had been working a lot with pianist Fred Hersch – for many years I didn’t make a move without Fred. But he was getting his own group together, and I started working with Kenny.



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