Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans (29 April 1922 – 22 August 2016)
Although I’ve written about a lot of musical stars on the ol’ GMC, I’ve always had a special fondness for those who have had long, successful careers and are still doing their thing and doing it well, even at an advanced age. One that comes immediately to mind is jazz harmonica legend Toots Thielemans, who is still entertaining fans at age 89.
Information about his early history is sketchy, but he was born in Brussels, Belgium, as Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans (later give the title Baron Thielemans by the King of Belgium). He first learned harmonica while in his teens but as a child he’d already mastered the accordion, and when he first began to play professionally during World War II, it was as a guitarist.
Nazi-occupied Europe might not have been the best place for a young jazz musician to prosper, but Toots made up for it in the post-war years. Influenced by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, he was soon playing alongside touring American stars like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and within a few years was even traveling around Europe as part of the Benny Goodman Sextet.
In the 1950s Toots moved to the US, and began what would become a decades-long career of appearing with jazz stars like George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Billie Holiday, and just about everybody else (including Peggy Lee — see video below). Along the way he would move more and more from guitar to harmonica and at times even display his whistling ability, as he did on his composition, “Bluesette.” It would become his signature tune, and was often recorded on harmonica too — without whistling, of course.
Toots continues even now to be active, as you can tell from the schedule on his website. An amazing performer, still entertaining his fans.
Toots Thielemans (guitar & whistling) – “Bluesette” Toots Thielemans (harmonica) – “Bluesette”