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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.

He played with many of the greatest jazz artists and was comfortable in just about any style, from swing to bebop to funk. I think that some of his greatest playing is on recordings of Brazilian music and in his collaborations with Jaco Pastorius. He played on many movie soundtracks (Cinderella Liberty is a particular favorite of mine), on projects with Quincy Jones and with pop stars like Billy Joel and Paul Simon. He endeared himself to millions of children playing the Sesame Street theme, and the album he did with Bill Evans, Affinity, is one of those “desert island” recordings. Toots kept deepening his musicality until the very end of his 60-year career, especially in his wonderful collaborations with pianist Kenny Werner.

Almost every other jazz chromatic player imitated him. Toots’ style was so strong it seemed like there was no other way to play jazz on the chromatic harmonica. (I think that Grégoire Maret was the first great jazz chromatic player to not sound like Toots.)

I only met Toots twice, and, luckily, I played with him both times. The first time was at a club in Chicago around 1980. I was in my late 20s and pretty much unknown. I had discovered a way to play chromatically on the 10-hole diatonic harmonica in 1970, when I was 19, and was the first person to do this. I loved the bluesy sound of the diatonic, and since I could play all the notes on it, I wanted to take it into every musical territory and not have to play the chromatic harmonica, which sounded totally different. But I had heard Toots on recordings, thought that he was incredible, and was very eager to meet him and hear him play live.

After his first set, I walked up to him and introduced myself. We chatted and I played a little for him. I told him that, since I was primarily a pianist, I visualized the piano keyboard in my head when I played harmonica, and he smiled and told me that he did the same thing, since accordion was his first instrument. Then he invited me to sit in on a tune in the second set. I was excited and nervous, so I picked “Autumn Leaves,” the simplest jazz tune I could think of. I played very well, the audience liked it, and I sat down feeling really good. For the next tune, Toots played “Speak Low.” It was a great music lesson. He soloed with so much harmonic knowledge, depth and musicality; it made me realize how far I had to go, not as a jazz harmonica player but as a jazz musician, to develop the type of encyclopedic vocabulary and ideas that Toots had.

At our meeting in Minneapolis in 2000, we both played sets with a jazz trio led by pianist Bill Carrothers. Between the rehearsal and the concert, we had a great time hanging out backstage. He told me lots of stories about the old days in New York, when he was a studio musician. I loved hearing about those days, and about the way he had to fight to get respect for the harmonica. His wonderful sense of humor came out and we really hit it off.

His set was fantastic. The harmonica players in the audience went wild. I think some of them were crying. It was a hard act to follow, to say the least. I played my set as well as I could. Finally, Toots came onstage at the end and we played “Stella by Starlight” together. Our instruments sounded very different but our playing styles overlapped. He played a very emotional solo, ending it by holding a long note; I started mine on the same note as he was holding it. It was an intense, emotional experience that I will never forget. I’m glad that I got to know him a little as a friend and as a musician. He was a unique and inspiring figure, and there will never be another like him.

Originally Published