Bye bye Toots, an icon of the Brussels jazz scene

Bye bye Toots, an icon of the Brussels jazz scene

In the person of Toots Thielemans, Brussels had a living jazz legend as its ambassador.

The adjective "living jazz legend" fits Toots perfectly. When he began his music career, there was no bebop, free and fusion had yet to be invented and nobody had any idea that electronics would lead to a new offshoot of jazz. Toots was involved in it all and as a musician, he survived every radical innovation.

As a youngster, he immediately established a reputation as an accordionist in his parents' café, Trapken Af at No. 241, rue Haute. That was where Jean-Baptiste Thielemans was born on 29 April 1922. It is true that Thielemans did spend a large part of his childhood in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean where his parents moved, but he is still considered to this day as a real Marollien.

  • Music was not a priority at the Thielemans household, at least not for Toots' father, who wanted his son to have a good education. However, the young man's attention tended to wander to the phonograph in the house. That's how he learned the most: playing along with the records he bought with his savings. He gradually abandoned the accordion in favour of the harmonica. Initially, a lot of musicians told him to "throw that toy away!" Fortunately, he persevered and there were those who believed in him, like Clifford Brown, who said years later: "Toots, the way you play harmonica they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument (the category in American jazz magazine Downbeat's annual poll, where Toots featured permanently in the number 1 spot).

  • Meanwhile, he also learned to play the guitar, again he was self-taught and inspired by Django Reinhardt among others. He also had a real stage name: Toots, after two musicians who played in the Benny Goodman Orchestra (Toots Camarata (trumpet) and Toots Mondello (sax)). At first, Toots played popular light music until in the early 'forties, he heard a record by Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers. After that, he had definitely been bitten by the jazz bug. In 1947, his uncle invited him to go on holiday to America, and then there was no stopping him.

  • In the early 'fifties, Toots moved to America to try his luck. Like almost all musicians starting out, he experienced some tough times. But he was the right man in the right place when George Shearing needed a guitarist. It became a six-year tour. Then Toots met and played with all the icons of jazz history, including Lester Young, and band members of the Count Basie Orchestra and Billie Holiday. 

  • Prior to that, Benny Goodman had already hired him for his tour of Europe. That was all as a guitarist, because it was only at the end of the 'fifties that he would increasingly use his harmonica as a fully-fledged instrument. In 1962, he hit the jackpot with 'Bluesette'. A seemingly simple melody but with whistling in unison as a gimmick. Since then, Toots has been at the top, a position he has never left. The list of musicians he has worked with is a chronicle of jazz history, but also part of pop history because artists like Billy Joel and Paul Simon also called upon his services. He featured on many soundtracks like 'Midnight Cowboy', 'The Getaway', Dutch film 'Turkish Delight', Sweden's 'Dunderklumpen' and the French film 'Jean de Florette'.

  • After America and via detours through Sweden and the Netherlands, Toots later received recognition in his homeland, he was even made a baron and awarded an honorary doctorate by the VUB/ULB. In the Brussels municipality of Forest, a street was named after him. And since 1986 he has been the patron of the Brosella Folk & Jazz festival that takes place every year at the foot of the Atomium.

    Even though he is now aged ninety, Toots remains well aware of the latest developments in jazz. So he regularly invites young musicians as accompanists, and always has his iPod and iPad close at hand to discover new things. "Never mention when you were born, and you will always continue feeling like a teenager" is his motto. We will always remember you Toots !