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.
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.
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.