The title of “jazz legend” is thrown around a bit loosely these days, but there’s no doubt that Toots Thielemans clearly qualifies for that accolade. Born in 1922 in Brussels, Belgium, Jean Baptiste Thielemans has worked as a professional musician for almost six decades. He’s played with the likes of Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, George Shearing, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Pat Metheny, Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius and a host of others during that time. Although he got his professional start as a guitarist, Thielemans stylish, emotive work on harmonica pioneered its use as a jazz instrument. In addition, his distinctive harmonica sound has permeated popular culture – from the theme to the TV series Sesame Street and movie soundtracks such as Midnight Cowboy.
Thielemans has won dozens of “best of” awards in Downbeat and other jazz magazines – where his work on harmonica is usually categorized as “Best Miscellaneous Instrument.” But as the late trumpeter Clifford brown once told him, “Toots, the way you play the harmonica, they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument!”
In the following telephone conversation from his Brussels home, Thielemans reminisces about his early exposure to jazz and journeying to New York City to become part of the bebop revolution, touches on highlights from his lengthy career – and talks about his musical relationship with Kenny Werner.
Terry Perkins: How did you first get interested in playing the harmonica?
Toots Thielemans: I bought my first harmonica when I was 18 years old on Brussels. I had just finished my six years in secondary school and I had seen Larry Adler – who was pioneering the harmonica – in movies. So that gave me the idea to buy one. But I just wanted it to play popular songs as a hobby. At that time I didn’t know about jazz.
TP: When did you first discover jazz?
TT: It was 1942 during the German occupation. I can’t say whether I discovered jazz or jazz discovered me! Ask many musicians and they won’t know what to answer. Let’s put it this way – I caught the jazz virus. It happened when I bought a record by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers from the late 1930s. That’s how far back I go. During the German occupation, we only had access to recordings done before 1940. So then I wanted to play jazz, but the musicians in Belgium told me to throw that toy away – meaning the harmonica – and get a real instrument.
TP: And that’s when you began playing guitar?
TT: Yes. Accidentally through a friend I got a guitar. And in those days, the inspiration for jazz guitar – especially in Europe – was Django Reinhardt and his recordings with Stephane Grappelli at the Hot Club in Paris. I had an old windup phonograph – I still have it – that I used to play his records. I took three guitar lessons, and then listened to those records over and over to teach myself how to play.
TP: When did you start playing music professionally?
TT: I had been planning on being a mathematics teacher, but after I played professionally for the first time at the end of the occupation in 1944, earning my first $10 playing guitar in a tearoom, I decided to concentrate on music. Then when the bebop explosion happened at the end of the War, I knew I wanted to go to the United States and be a part of that.
TP: Your first visit to America was in 1947, right?
TT: I came as a tourist with my uncle – my father’s brother. As it happened, my last two days in New York City before I cam back to Brussels I had the chance to play on 52nd Street, which was the center for jazz. Bill Gottlieb, the famous jazz photographer had happened to hear me sitting in during a jam session in Miami, where my uncle and I first went on our trip. When we got to New York City, we met up with him and he introduced me to Howard McGhee – who was a fine trumpet player who was leading an all-star group at the Three Deuces – sharing the bill with pianist Lennie Tristano and his trio. Some of the other musicians in Howard’s band were Hank Jones, Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson. Bill told them, “I’ve got this guy from Belgium who plays harmonica.” Their reaction was, “Oh...” But I was accepted and got to sit in. An agent named Billy Shaw happened to be there as well, and after I got back to Brussels I would send him homemade recordings. He passed one of them along to Benny Goodman, it wound up on his turntable, and that’s how I got the chance to tour with the Goodman band in Europe in 1950. But I couldn’t continue with the band back to the States, because I still didn’t have a visa.
TP: In 1949 you also had the chance to meet Charlie Parker and Miles Davis at a festival in Paris, didn’t you?