Home » Jazz Articles » Profile » Toots Sweet


Toots Sweet


Sign in to view read count
When most people think of the harmonica, they usually picture Ackroyd and Belushi soulin' it up in black suits, southern fried wah-wah blues or a scene from within a jail cell at state prison. Now that's not jazz. But, one man managed to create something unique with the harmonica that no one could ever imagine in the complex world of Be Bop. That man is "Toots" Thielemans.

Toots' kaleidoscopic form can take you on a dreamy ride to faraway places, be it Paris, Brazil, New York or Brussels. Wherever you choose, it stirs your soul. His Be Bop can be playful and witty, but with a beautiful ballad, his haunting harmonica can bring you to tears in a heartbeat. It is said his music is somewhere between a smile and a tear and is to the harmonica, what Segovia's music is to the violin.

"It's like a painting with a lot of pastel colors," Toots says. "It's not red, it's not black. It's some of those tones in between. An A Minor 7th chord or Major 7th chord are not major or minor. They're in between. So between major and minor, between happy and not so happy, these are the notes," Toots explains. An example of this can be found on his arrangement of "You Don't Know What Love Is."

Incredibly, no one can reinvent the masterpiece of Be Bop played on harmonica. It belongs to Toots alone. All others are mere reproductions. "Because the phrasing of the instrument is difficult, trying to duplicate a Charlie Parker piece verbatim is impossible," says Toots. "Like C followed by D, you cannot bind them. You hear the break between each note," Toots says. "You have to absorb all the notes mentally, then squeeze them and put them into a harmonica blender and see what comes out," he laughs.

You need only hear Toots speak to understand why his harmonic timbre is so stirring. It is the sweetness, the tenderness of the spoken man that translates his deepness, his fullness for life into a weeping sorrowful melody, a warm Bossa or a sassy Be Bop.

As early as age three, Toots showed his love of music by playing a homemade accordion in his parents' Belgian pub. Larry Alder's pop harmonica was the inspiration that made Toots start to play the harmonica at age seventeen. Musicians told Toots to throw away the harmonica and play a "real" instrument if he wanted to be a good jazz musician. So, when a friend gave Toots a guitar, he put his harmonica away in his dresser drawer.

Listening to British radio broadcasts of the swing big bands, Toots was captivated with the intensity of Django Reinhardt. Toots said he never went to music school and what he learned was from the "horse's mouth, so to speak." Many jazz legends never took any formal training. Some couldn't even tell you in what key they were playing. Like Chet Baker, it was their passion for the art that compelled them to become self-taught geniuses of jazz.

During the World War II, American music was blacked out from coming into Europe. When Toots heard Dizzy Gillespie on the radio he was not unlike many European musicians who flipped for the new Be Bop sound. Toots' said his first Be Bop record he bought was a 78rpm with Dizzy on one side and Milt Jackson on the other. "Those were very fascinating years," said Toots. During that time, Toots played in many American GI clubs in Europe and in 1949, he shared the bandstand with Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival.

He began to develop his own Be Bop style on the guitar, but the day he put his old harmonica to his lips and played a few Charlie Parker licks, that was it! He never put his harmonica away again. Although his original reputation was made as a guitarist, it is his harmonica and whistling that have made him a legend in his own time.

Toots first came to the United States in the late forties. He met many jazz legends in New York and never missed an opportunity to play. When Benny Goodman heard Toots' arrangement of "Stardust," Benny asked Toots to join his tour in Europe in 1950. Toots was really making his mark, but to further develop his art, he wanted to go back to the United States where the jazz inspiration was foremost. "I had to wait six months before I could get a steady job, he said. "I went around to all the jazz clubs. There were those Monday nights at Birdland. I got up and checked myself out," Toots laughed.

When Toots played with his friend Charlie Parker in Philadelphia, he didn't know that George Shearing was in the audience. As things and time would have it, in 1953 George asked Toots to join his Quintet playing guitar and harmonica. "The Shearing sound was a beautiful sound," said Toots. "The vibraphone played the melody on top, the guitar played the same melody in unison an octave apart, and George made the block chords to make it a total sound with some very elegant harmony." After six years of the Shearing touch, Toots left the band in 1959 to do his own thing.

In the late 50's, Toots also became known for his whistling. Slam Stewart was an excellent swing bassist who was best known for his unique solo style of bowing the bass and humming the melody simultaneously an octave apart. Toots thought he might try the same thing while playing his guitar, only whistling instead of humming. You can hear one of his first examples of this interplay with Toots and the Shirley Horn Trio recording of "I'm Beginning to See the Light."

Toots recorded his most popular composition, "Bluesette," in 1960. It became his signature piece and in addition to the fame it brought him, it brought him consistent royalties. Toots considers it his social security check. The piece has such wide appeal that whenever Toots performs his Bluesette in concert, everyone in the audience whistles along.

In the '60's Quincy Jones heard Toots' harmonica and whistling.

He had to have Toots record with him. Quincy's musical scene in the 60Žs was an emotional one and what better accompaniment than to have Toots on his recordings. Quincy made three albums with Toots between 1969 and 1970, the best one being "Walking in Space."

Not hindered by conformity, Toots reached out to the world with his harmonica. Picture a toddler running to the television when he hears the theme from Sesame Street or the avid moviegoer who will always recognize the haunting harmonica on the theme from Midnight Cowboy. From toddler to jazz veteran, many have been touched by Toots' unique gift.

Toots became very successful in the commercial arena and was much sought after. He was a studio pro. However, after much commercial success, Toots became disillusioned with what he called his lack of creativity and felt he had become a fad. Of course, Toots admits he is very self-critical, but others, even those outside the jazz scene, saw Toots for the gifted musician he truly is.

Lionel Richie said, "When I first met Quincy, he kept telling me if I ever needed a harmonica player, Toots was like, off the planet! When I needed a harmonica player, I called Toots up on the phone and he flew over to Los Angeles. I almost felt guilty because I wished I had more for him to play. He walked into the room, pulled out his harmonica and the first take is what you hear on the record. He is unbelievable, a very special guy. What amazed me was he told me his age, but it seemed as though I was talking to a very young teenager. His energy was just unbelievable and the smile on his face from beginning to end was magical."

This is not a singular statement. Time and time again, fellow musicians praise Toots for his professionalism, personal emotional sound and youthful outlook. Kenny Warner said, "He is very much a feeling musician. He doesn't relate to things technically. If he doesn't feel it immediately, then he loses interest. I think Miles was like that too. There are certain people in the world who have a magic in the way they play, and that's because they are not feeling the music technically. Toots is very much a heartfelt person. He makes us feel like he loves us. He connects with people that way and connects with music that way, through love."

Bill Evans heard Toots' gift for melody and lyrical sound. Bill said, "Toots, we must play together!" After the session was finished and Toots heard the final takes he said, "Bill, I played too much on this record. It is your record." To that Bill replied, "What, you don't want to play? I want people to know that you can play like that. Wait a minute, we'll double your fee!" The pairing of Bill and Toots on the Affinity album was emotional chemistry, but Bill Evans wasn't the only one to feel it.

Mad boy bassist, Jaco Pastorius, and Toots met at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1979 and the chemistry ignited there also. Jaco had a fundamental logic, sense of harmony and elegance that Toots shared. They toured throughout Europe, Japan and the United States and in 1981, the release of Word of Mouth was issued.

Toots traveled to Rio to record with Brazilian singer, Elis Regina. To his surprise, he found that everyone in Brazil knew of his music. He formed a special talent for the romantic Brazilian jazz sound and twenty years later, he returned to Brazil to record The Brazil Project Vol. I & Vol. II. His improvisational recording with a dozen other prominent Brazilian artists was a passionate affair indeed.

He continued successful tours and recordings throughout the United States and Europe until tragedy struck. Toots had a major stroke. His ability to play the guitar and harmonica looked grim for several years. Guitarist Philip Catherine said, "I was very close to Toots after he had his stroke and he had so much courage." Toots never let misfortune mar his ability to do the thing he loved most. Fortunately, he recovered out of sheer determination. He admits he can't play guitar like he once did, but says with a smile, "I can still play the good ones."

At a concert and celebration of Toots' 75th birthday in Brussels, Belgium in 1998, many artists joined to pay tribute to this gentle jazzman before an audience of 8,000 people.

Toots remains active and still has a busy schedule of dates throughout Europe.

I had an opportunity of seeing him three months ago at a private concert given at the Genappe Country Club just outside Brussels. Filled with emotion from his performance, I was at a loss for words backstage when introduced to him. I just wanted to give him a hug and asked him if it would be okay with him. He said, "I can do better than that!" He stood up and gave me a big hug and a sweet little kiss. That's Toots! He never misses the opportunity of making people feel the love that inspires him both musically and personally.

The list of albums and CDs Toots has produced or played on with other artists from 1955 to present is impressive. Some of Toots' best collections are Man Bites Harmonica, Captured Alive, Images, Live Volume II, Only Trust Your Heart, Brazil Project Volume II and Chez Toots.

His brilliance continues toward the twenty-first century as a living legacy to the man in suspenders. It's simply Toots Sweet!

Sources: Nancy Wilson, Jazz Profiles, National Public Radio, 1998 DeGroots Jazzline, RCL Jazz 102.6 FM, Hasselt, Belgium: The Life and Music of Jean "Toots" Thielemans, 1997.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Toots Thielemans website.

< Previous
The Green Gate



For the Love of Jazz
Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.