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Toots at 100

Toots Thielemans

When I sat down this morning to write my column on my laptop, the day’s Google Doodle greeted me. There was a colorful tableau of jazz signs—piano keyboard, drumstick on cymbal, trumpet, clarinet— with Toots Thielemans at the center of the image, mustache and chunky eyeglasses and the shock of white hair of his late years. Both hands, always moving when he played, were motionless as they held his harmonica to his mouth.

Even though there was no sound, I immediately heard the haunting yet happy cry of his instrument, one that could pose in fragile melancholy, then in the next instant fire off lightning bolts of bebop. The amiable Thielemans would have been 100 today. He made it almost that far, still playing concerts within two years of his death in 2016 at the age of 94.

He lived through a long stretch of jazz history, helped make that history. Inspired by fellow Belgian Django Reinhardt, whom he counted as his most lasting and lyrical influence, Thielemans jammed with Charlie Parker, toured with Benny Goodman, was befriend by Louis Armstrong, gloried in countless concerts and recordings with a decades-spanning succession of luminaries.

With the aid of Wikipedia, I keep a vague eye on upcoming musical anniversaries, centennials and such of celebrated and not-so-celebrated composers, pieces, recordings, and performances. I had already had plans to offer a tribute to the great harmonica player before Google Doodled him. The internet has algorithmicized the zeitgeist, has become it—or vice-versa.  In 2022 that seems oddly right: if ever there were a sound that was disembodied and uncannily, physically, paradoxically palpable, it was Thielemans’s.

He was a genius not just of invention but of adaptation. His first instrument was the accordion, and he took up a miniature version of it—the harmonica—after he heard the American virtuoso of the mouth organ, Larry Adler, play in films of the 1930s. Thielemans’s saw the movies in a cinema in the same Brussels street where his parents ran a pub.

When he discovered Django’s music as a teenager, Thielemans taught himself the guitar and was initially hired by Goodman on that instrument. Thielemans was also a fabulous whistler, expressive and exact, and could accompany himself on guitar, doubling the melody on his lips with his fingers on the strings.

Those adaptable gifts brought him his greatest, literally unsung, popularity—tunes and textures engraved on millions of memories.  Big Bird brought him more celebrity than his association, however fleeting, with that other Bird—Charlie Parker. From the debut of Sesame Street in 1969 and for the next four decades Thielemans’s harmonica gave color and flair to the anemic groove of the theme as heard at the close of the show. He put juvenile spring in the song’s step; he was cool yet uncondescending.

Thielemans whistled the Old Spice aftershave ad of the 1970s. It popped up often when I watched sporting events on tv as a kid. Madison Avenue recognized the synesthetic allure of Thielemans’s music, his capabilities for evoking senses beyond the aural—smell, touch, and sight. His sound was transportative, an incantation of memory that celebrated the present moment of its making.

The emotional resonance of a musical sonority must be socially constructed. The thin, flapping strip of metal called a “free reed” produces sound when air from a harmonica player’s lungs or from the bellows of an organ or accordion flows past it and causes it to flap. The resulting tones might immediately evoke lovelorn feelings because of the associations of accordions with gaslit Parisian streets ghosted by the shadow of elusive amour. But the sonic qualities of Thieleman’s tones were also undeniably intrinsic: “hollow” as a description of his harmonica sound is more than merely metaphorical.

Across a long, lustrous, and magnificently varied career, Thielemans was beloved and busy. He made cameos in pop culture beyond the just-mentioned anonymous tv contributions. I remember watching him with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live and on the David Letterman Show several times in the 1980s.

Thielemans’s work was also crucial to many movie soundtracks. He haunts the Pawnbroker, his instrument sounding from a dark past but also presenting itself in sound as a symbolically-freighted, pocket-sized possession that can be easily pawnable. The little money to be gotten from the transaction can never make up for what is lost when one parts company with this mouthpiece of the soul.

Midnight Cowboy will forever be in hock to Thielemans’s playing of its theme (written by John Barry, that stalwart of the James Bond franchise): there’s a high plains jauntiness to his rendering of the urban rustler melody, yet beneath the sheen of self-assurance, the sonority and its inflection are saturated with desperation and desire.

Thielemans’s catalog is huge, his expansive command of the jazz canon as impressive as his ability and eagerness to cross musical borders.  As I write this, I’m listening through the double album by an all-star quartet assembled under the banner of Norman Granz’s Pablo record label with Oscar Peterson as the first-among-equals headliner:  Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival, 1980.  Brimming with standards and blues, the music on the two LPs sweeps you along with its joy, skill, and camaraderie.

Along with the Great Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Joe Pass on guitar, but without a drummer, the quartet has something of the texture of Django’s dummerless ensemble of the 1930s that so captivated the young Thielemans. The thick attack of NHOP’s bass notes, coupled with Pass’s incisive strumming and the punctuating chords from Peterson’s piano, gives the proceedings more than enough propulsive energy, rich yet never muddied.

The second of the two tracks on the A side, the Thelonius Monk blues line “Straight, No Chaser,” offers a worthy tribute to our birthday boy’s brilliance.

The tune itself is serpentine, and serves as a fitting declaration of respect and appreciation for Thielemans’s chromatic Hohner harmonica.  The quartet plays the line in unison first, then NHOP breaks apart from the conclave to provide independent bass counterpoint, striding vigorously into the opening solo taken by Thielemans. The harmonica man lags behind the pace and below the pitch, biding his bluesy time across most of the first chorus. (Even on his playing of the Sesame Street theme Thielemans showed the kids—and their parents—how to play outside the beat, to have command of time but not to be shackled by it: valuable lessons for life.

As the form circles back towards the next go-round, Thielemans paints a bright Parkersque, bebop arabesque—fast but not furious. Amongst his fleet, sinuous figures he traces one long Escher-like ascent before emitting Mississippi Delta murmurs and shouts. This man from the European Lowlands speaks this American musical language without hint of foreign accent. His last chorus is filled with bluesy utterances, but closes out with a quick-paced diminuendo phrase that lands deftly on the tonic note of F and on the downbeat of the ensuing chorus that falls to the pianist.

After Peterson, Pass, and NHOP have their says, the musicians begin to trade four-bar units, Thielemans starting things off with his most downhome doings to that point. When Peterson doubles up on the pace on one of his entries, Thielemans returns rapid fire, his lips and tongue a match for Peterson’s fingers, famed for their speed. As the harmonica’s precise and virtuosic retort rises up, Thielemans transforms it into a gruff assent. His final comments in this four-way conversation are laconic, lagging, full of humor and warmth.

I don’t think that Thielemans is resting in peace or that he would have wanted to. He’s eternally at home in the blues, always underway and always saying something worth listening to, again and again.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

One Comment

  1. Lou May 6, 2022

    Nils-Henning, not Neils.

    Excellent article, nostalgic and full of fondness. My favorite Toots tune:


    and th original, whistled hit record from 1964:


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