I was heartbroken to learn about the death of harmonica virtuoso and all-around jazz great Jean “Toots” Thielemans several weeks ago at the age of 94. I knew he had been ill in recent years but somehow that doesn’t soften the blow. He was one of my favorite performers, whether whistling and playing guitar in unison, as he did on his signature tune “Bluesette,” or coaxing the most beautiful sounds from his harmonica.

Toots Thielemans-Leonard Maltin-1988

A happy moment for me: meeting Toots Thielemans in 1988

He made more than a casual contribution to movie music, as well. I can never forget the haunting music that closes Midnight Cowboy; the music is John Barry’s but the performance is Toots. Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, John Williams, Burt Bacharach and other top film composers used him on a regular basis, although it wasn’t customary for soloists to receive screen credit in years gone by. He played on the soundtracks of The Sugarland Express, Arthur, The Getaway, Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, but we may never know how many soundtracks or TV shows he was part of.

I met him almost twenty years ago when I was on an overnight trip to New York and went to see him at a jazz club downtown. It turned out to be his birthday and his wife had arranged a cake for the occasion. I was sitting by myself and she asked if I would take some snapshots with her camera, which I was happy to do. During his next set, Toots turned to me and asked what I wanted to hear. I thought for a moment and said, “Joy Spring.” He smiled approvingly and said, “I’m an old bebopper” as he and pianist Fred Hersch launched into a lively and completely unrehearsed rendition of the Clifford Brown jazz standard.

Al Hirschfeld album cover-Toots Theilemans

I was always impressed that the great Al Hirschfeld captured Toots’ many talents for this album cover, and prize my original copy of the LP

Every time I saw him after that we had a friendly chat. One night I said, “It just occurred to me: is that you playing the Sesame Street theme?” He said, “Of course! You know, I did that 25 years ago and they’re still using it.”

Imagine how many kids have heard Toots’ lilting harmonica as a result of that durable program. Their parents may also remember his spirited work with Billy Joel on “Leave a Tender Moment Alone,” which you can (and should) check out online.

Celebrated as much here in the U.S. as he was in his native Belgium, Toots Thielemans was one of a kind. His music will live forever.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024