By Jacob Katel
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The world can only speculate what 80-year-old Jean Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans -- considered the greatest living jazz chromatic harmonica player -- would have become if he hadn't discovered that soulful music. (Possibly a math teacher or an engineer, he says.) And a world without Thielemans is something else jazz fans and children of the Seventies would not want to contemplate. Although his name may not ring familiar to most, he is a pioneer, who introduced what was considered mainly a blues and folk instrument into the realm of jazz. And the songs he's played -- the cheery theme to the kids' TV show Sesame Street; the haunting solos in the disturbing 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy; his own 1962 composition "Bluesette," covered by hundreds of artists; and the familiar whistle of the jaunty ditty in the Old Spice after-shave commercial from the 1970s -- have left an indelible stamp on popular culture. Playing harp or whistling, Thielemans's warm, bittersweet sound and utter virtuosity have allowed him to create unique musical colors and tones, excelling in myriad styles from bebop to bossa nova.
Not too shabby for someone who as a teen discovered he suffered from allergies and asthma. By the time Thielemans reached university and began flunking out of math classes, his parents realized music had become more than a hobby to him and he wanted to perform professionally. "Even if I made no money, I still had to play," he admits. "It didn't matter." Gigging around Belgium in the mid-Forties, he earned his keep and his nickname from his colleagues, who thought he needed a catchier handle. "John the Baptist Thielemans: That don't swing!" he laughs. In honor of Benny Goodman's first saxophonist Toots Mondello and Jimmy Dorsey's first trumpet player Toots Camarata, they christened him Toots too. "It was okay with me," Thielemans confesses. "I just wanted the job!"
Many more engagements were to come. Toots never had to beg for a break; musicians sought him out. In the late Forties, Goodman, still the "king of swing," came calling. He had discovered Thielemans's abilities via an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" that the young musician recorded. Soon Thielemans signed on as guitarist with Goodman's sextet and performed at the London Palladium in 1949. Immigrating to America in the early 1950s led to a stint with the Charlie Parker All-Stars and an eight-year tenure with blind British-born pianist George Shearing's quintet. Playing mostly guitar, Thielemans would work the occasional harmonica solo in sets. Eventually he went freelance, and he was heard as a leader on many of his own recordings (among the best are Man Bites Harmonica and The Sound) and as an accompanist with a slew of other artists onstage and in the studio. The seemingly endless list includes Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, Peggy Lee, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, and Quincy Jones. The one that got away but who gave him "goose bumps" nonetheless: Dinah Washington, with whom he never worked professionally.
Thielemans's lucrative jingle career as a whistler was curtailed by tinnitus and a stroke in 1981 resulted in a weak left side, so he gravitated more toward the harmonica in his later years. Frequent appearances sitting in with the band on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman during the mid-Eighties earned him a new generation of fans, and he continues to record regularly, frequently topping the yearly Downbeat magazine poll in the category of "miscellaneous musical instruments." Dividing his time between a home in New York City and one in Brussels, where he counts a harmonica in each of four bathrooms and at his bedside, he claims he doesn't actively solicit engagements but still tours frequently, having played in France, Norway, Azerbaijan, Russia, South Africa, and Uruguay this year alone.
Although the King of Belgium recently bestowed the title of baron on Thielemans, who is now probably the most famous Belgian next to action-movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme, he doesn't take the designation too seriously: "If we were in England, I'd be known as Sir Toots! But you don't play better because of that." Keeping up with the times helps, though, and he's up on what's going on in music currently, especially hip-hop: "I'd like to make a funky record," he laughs. "Something of today that kind of suits my personality." And Thielemans would be the first to gladly confess his disposition is sick -- in a very good way, of course: "Whatever happens in the evolution of popular music is still profoundly African-American. If I have to say thanks for something, it's that African-American virus because I don't know many white guys as black as I am!"