Obituary: Toots Thielemans, Belgian harmonica player

Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, Belgian harmonica player. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans, Belgian harmonica player. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born 29 April, 1922, in Brussels. Died: 22 August 2016, aged 94

Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, whose illustrious career included playing with jazz greats like Miles Davis and whose solos have figured on numerous film scores, has died. He was 94.

Thielemans died in his sleep in a Belgian hospital yesterday, his manager said. He was hospitalised last month after a fall, but had been in good spirits after an operation on his shoulder.

“He was so happy. He was doing well,” manager Veerle Van de Poel said.

“We were very surprised” by his passing, she said. “He was sleeping, and he did not wake this morning.”

Born in Brussels on 29 April, in 1922, Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans started playing the harmonica as a hobby and got “contaminated” by the jazz virus during the German occupation, according to his website.

His first international breakthrough came in 1950 when he joined Benny Goodman on a European concert tour.

He emigrated to the US in 1952, joining Charlie Parker’s All Stars. He also played with other jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald, and mainstream stars like Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Billy Joel.

His harmonica solos figure on many film scores, including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway and Sugarland Express, and also on the theme music to the children’s TV series Sesame Street.

Thielemans, who also played guitar, was honored by Belgium’s royal family in 2001, when King Albert II gave him the title of baron.

Belgium’s royal family said it was “deeply moved by (the) passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen”.

The US National Endowment for the Arts granted him the 2009 Jazz Master Award.

“We have lost a great musician, a heartwarming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans,” Belgian prime minister Charles Michel tweeted.

On the liner notes of one album, Quincy Jones said he believes “without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry.”

Thielemans hung up his harmonica in 2014 as health problems linked to his age made it more difficult for him to take to the stage.

A jazz festival held in his name was due to take place from September 9-11 in the town of La Hulpe, about16 miles southeast of Brussels, where Thielemans lived.

Van de Poel said his funeral will be held in the town on Saturday.