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Howard Levy Remembers Toots Thielemans

4.29.22 – 8.22.16

Toots Thielemans (photo by Tom Pich/courtesy of the NEA)
Toots Thielemans (photo by Tom Pich/courtesy of the NEA)

Toots was the greatest jazz chromatic harmonica player of the 20th century and on into the 21st, until he retired. There had been incredible chromatic players, like Larry Adler and John Sebastian, who played classical works, and great players in popular harmonica bands like the Harmonicats. Some of these men could swing and play a little jazz, but none of them came close to Toots as a jazz artist on the harmonica. When I asked Adler who he thought the greatest chromatic harmonica player was, he said—without a pause—“Toots.”

Toots was a musical genius with a mathematical mind—a poetic soul with great personal warmth, a wonderful sense of humor and fierce personal pride. He burst onto the scene in America in the 1950s, playing guitar and harmonica with George Shearing. He created the unique sound of whistling with his guitar lines, and used it to great advantage on his composition “Bluesette,” which became an international hit in 1961.

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Originally Published