Special Sections » Rochester International Jazz Festival

From Brussels with love

Toots Thielemans embraces America's art form


At the age of 84 Toots Thielemans has lived through much of the history of jazz. You can hear it in his playing. From plaintive blues, through swinging rhythms, to the be-bop boldness of his improvisations, Thielemans has absorbed it all. The Belgium native speaks six languages, but none are as powerful as his seventh: harmonica.

Thielemans will be sharing the stage with keyboard virtuoso Kenny Werner at the Eastman Theatre during the Rochester International Jazz Festival.

In a wide-ranging discussion with City Newspaper, Thielemans sometimes breaks into song to illustrate a point. He speaks with humility about the ironies and world-shaking contingencies that shaped his life and career.

"I wouldn't be the same person if it were not for that blue note that came from Africa via America," says Thielemans. "Imagine if there had been no slavery. No Louis Armstrong, no Billie Holiday, no Lester Young, no Charlie Parker. They would be Africans. They were contaminated by Western music. It's dangerous to speak like that but it's true."

Thielemans' first role model was an accordion player who passed the hat for change every Sunday in the Brussels café operated by Thielemans' parents. In his crib, 3-year-old Jean (his real name) mimicked the squeezebox motions with a shoebox until his father bought him a cardboard accordion. Later, the records of pioneering harmonica player Larry Adler inspired him to buy his first harmonica.

It was another earth-shaking event, the German invasion of Belgium during World War II, that exposed Thielemans to American jazz. At the time he was 18, studying mathematics and planning to become a teacher. He was horrified to see his Jewish schoolmates going into hiding or being picked up and sent to labor camps.

One byproduct of the war was an influx of jazz into Belgium. Music by Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington and others became available. Thielemans couldn't resist a nearby record store where he recalls the proprietor saying, "'Jean, you must buy this record: Louis Armstrong et les Mills Brothers.'"

He won a guitar by betting a friend that he could figure out a Fats Waller tune in 10 minutes. When he bought some 78rpm records by Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt he began his real studies.

"You know the phonograph you have to wind up and change the needle? I still have it in our house in Brussels," says Thielemans. He taught himself to read music from a Duke Ellington folio that included "Sophisticated Lady," "It Don't Mean a Thing," "The Mooch" and "Drop Me Off in Harlem."

"To me it was exotic," says Thielemans. "In my little room in Belgium. I learned the guitar from the 78s of Django and the grammar of jazz from the piano folio of Duke. Then Django played in Brussels. It was amazing. I put the harmonica away and tried to become a guitarist. I became a decent one, too."

After liberation came the explosion of be-bop. Thielemans started to play in officers' clubs and make a little money. As for his education: "A combination --- I got sick and music taking over --- I flunked at university the first year."

During the war Thielemans visited an uncle in Miami. Jazz photographer Bill Gottlieb heard him jamming and took him to 52nd Street in New York, where he sat in on guitar with J.J. Johnson, Hank Jones and Howard McGhee. The great bebop agent, Billy Shaw, was there. Thielemans recounts their conversation:

"'Hey, you're good. Where you from?'

'I'm from Brussels.'

'I know, that's in Copenhagen.'"

Back in Belgium, Thielemans sent Shaw some records he had made. One of them ended up on the record player of Benny Goodman, leading to a European tour with Goodman's septet in 1950.

After moving to the United States in 1952 Thielemans lived another dream, playing with Charlie Parker's All Stars in Philadelphia. "The All Stars were Miles, Milt Jackson and me. [Parker] was very hospitable to me, he even asked me to share his dressing room. Here I am sharing the dressing room with my guru. Right after that I got a steady job with George Shearing. Five years, the only steady job I ever had."

Although he was a good guitarist, Thielemans began to attract attention with his more unique instrument, the harmonica. He made a Columbia recording in 1954 and there was no turning back.

Aside from his virtuosic playing, Thielemans wrote one of the greatest jazz standards, "Bluesette." "It was fate; in France they say fatalité," he explains. In 1962, in Brussels, I wound up sharing the dressing room with [jazz violinist] StephaneGrappelli. I tuned my guitar, I swear to you, and the chords of "Bluesette" come out. Stephane says, 'It's beautiful, Toots.' I said, 'Stephane, you inspire me, you don't realize.'

"I called it 'Bluet,' the French name for the corn flower in the summer," Thielemans continues. "I go back to Sweden with that song. The 's' was added by a producer there. He said, 'It's blues, no?' I tried it on harmonica; it was not the right feeling. I did it with the guitar and whistle and take four was the good one." (Thielemans sings his brilliant improvised melody that distinguished that seminal track.)

You don't have to be a jazz aficionado to know the music of Toots Thielemans. His harmonica enhanced the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy and his whistle livened up the memorable Old Spice commercials. Generations of children have grown up hearing his harmonica on the Sesame Street theme song.

Lately, the accolades are piling up. In January Thielemans was awarded the "Diploma de Excelência" by Brazilian Minister of Culture (and jazz artist) Gilberto Gil. And in March he was honored at a Carnegie Hall concert where luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Joe Lovano paid tribute to him. Thielemans' joined the performers on harmonica.

"It's a very fragile instrument - little reeds --- but what the harmonica can do, it can almost speak. When I play a Jacques Brel song, I play the words. A saxophone cannot do that," he says.

In recent years inner ear problems have hampered his whistling skills and a stroke has slowed down his left hand, but Thielemans is still going strong.

"I'm not complaining --- I'm still here," he says.

Still here, indeed. Every year, Thielemans is a shoe-in to be at or near the top of the Down Beat Critics and Reader's Polls under "Miscellaneous Instrument." Perhaps legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown said it best: "The way you play the harmonica, they shouldn't call it a miscellaneous instrument."

Thielemans takes it a step further: "I play a miscellaneous instrument, but I'm not a miscellaneous musician. It's not because you play a Stradivarius that you're a great musician."

The Toots Thielemans/Kenny Werner Duo and the McCoy Tyner Trio play at the Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street, on Wednesday, June 14, at 8 p.m., as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. $27.50-$50. www.rochesterjazz.com.

In This Guide...

  • Rochester International Jazz Festival 2006

    Welcome to Jazz Fest
    The 2006 Rochester International Jazz Festival is heavy on greats who are carrying on legacies. McCoy Tyner emerged from John Coltrane's classic quartet.

  • Godfather of the revolutions

    James Brown's primal scream still echoes, and always will
    Rock 'n' roll's primal scream can be traced back to James Brown. It came from within this man. And at 73 years old it's still in his soul, in his throat, and in your face.

  • Jazz Fest Schedule

    Friday, June 9 Eastman Theatre

  • Perpetual motion

    Out of the gate running, McCoy Tyner never stopped
    Talk about starting at the top. McCoy Tyner was barely 20 in 1960 when he was tapped by John Coltrane to become part of arguably the greatest quartet in jazz history.

  • City Newspaper's Jazz Blogs

    Starting Saturday, June 10, check in every day to see our writers' takes on the previous night's shows at the 5th Annual Rochester International Jazz Festival. With more than 600 musicians performing in 170 concerts, they'll have plenty to dish about.

  • Spotlight on

    Asylum Street Spankers Austin, Texas' The Asylum Street Spankers are Tin Pan Alley ragged and beat poet sharp. They're Dixieland with a pre-war jazz jump.

  • Keys to greatness

    Robert Glasper debuts on a legendary label
    Up-and-coming pianist Glasper is one of the few true jazz artists signed to Blue Note in recent years.

  • The cats on stage

    Our guide to picking and choosing at the RIJF
    To take full advantage of all the RIJF has to offer, you have some planning to do. Read this section for short descriptions of nearly every act in the festival.

  • Taking flight

    Phil Woods rides on the wings of Charlie Parker with "Bird Lives"
    When Phil Woods steps onto the Eastman Theater stage at the Rochester International Jazz Festival he will be carrying on a tradition that has enriched his career for six decades. As a young man Woods idolized Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.