Toots Thielemans, 1922 — 2016

Musician and composer Toots Thielemans, who brought the chromatic harmonica into the realm of jazz, died Monday in his native Belgium. He was 94.

Active in Europe as a jazz guitarist, Mr. Thielemans moved to the U.S. in 1952. While playing guitar in the George Shearing Quintet he began introducing occasional harmonica and whistling numbers (the whistling recording of his composition “Bluesette” became a hit in 1962). From 1959 on he was in demand as a harmonica player for recording sessions, soundtrack work for films, and television theme songs. He played on many pop records but his first love was always jazz.

Often a soloist with big bands, we feel his best work was with small jazz combos, where the intimate tone of his chosen instrument is most striking. Jean-Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans was named a Baron by King Albert II of Belgium in 2001 and honored with an NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2009.


“Toots’ Thielemans, Who Won Jazz Renown With the Harmonica, Dies at 94,” Peter Keepnews, New York Times

“‘Toots’ Thielemans, master of the jazz harmonica, dies at 94,” T.R. Goldman, Washington Post

“Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94,” Tom Cole, NPR

“Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans, Harmonica Wizard With Range, Dies at 94,” Felix Kessler, Bloomberg

Toots Theilemans website

Top video: “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with Toots Thielemans (harmonica), Michel Herr (piano), Tony Dumas (bass), and Ralph Penland (drums).


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