…between a smile and a tear…
Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016) was almost single-handedly responsible for establishing the humble chromatic harmonica as a viable jazz voice. The instrument was only created in its present form in 1924, so had a lot of ground to make up to catch up with its illustrious jazz competitors in the brass and woodwind families. With the help of pioneers such as Thielemans this conceptual leap was made to the point where jazz harmonica is now no longer considered an anomaly.
Thielemans was born in Brussels and initially played accordion and guitar. He was heavily influenced by guitarist Django Rheinhardt whose playing, he later admitted, was capable of moving him to tears. However the love of Toots’ musical life was the harmonica, whose sound he first encountered when seeing Larry Adler perform in a film, and Toots soon mastered the complexities of blowing and sucking into this uncompromising instrument. Toots’ first major engagement was working with Benny Goodman’s band in Europe as a guitarist, but as the years went by the sound of Toots’ harmonica was the sound people remembered. Toots’ technique was astounding, matching bebop saxophone and trumpet players note-for-note, but it was his romanticism and lyricism which left an indelible mark on musicians and listeners alike.
This powerful emotion in Toots’ harmonica playing led to landmark recording sessions in the commercial world, including the powerful theme to Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy and the mournful opening titles of Spielberg’s early Sugarland Express. Pop stars such as Paul Simon and Billy Joel also hired Thielemans to sweeten their tracks.
But it was in the jazz world that Toots found his most profound expression, and collaborations with Bill Evans, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock and many other legendary jazz musicians have left us with an astonishing legacy to savour. Trips to Brazil yielded such gems as The Brasil Project and Aquarela do Brasil.
The key to Toots’ success is pure emotion in sound – as he once said, he wanted his music to live somewhere ‘between a smile and a tear’.
Phil Hopkins • Oct 2017