Toots Thielemans Biography

Jean Baptiste Thielemans, 29 April 1922, Brussels, Belgium. A child prodigy, Thielemans played the accordion at the age of three (a home-made version; a real one would have considerably outweighed him), switching to harmonica in his mid-teens. A few years later he added the guitar to his instrumental roll-call and also became an accomplished whistler. The guitar apart, Thielemans’ chosen instruments were not especially suited to jazz, but he displayed enough invention and assurance to be hired by Benny Goodman for a European tour in 1950 and by George Shearing in 1953 for a spell in his quintet that lasted over five years.

In the 60s his popularity increased with a successful recording of his own composition, ‘Bluesette’, and he worked frequently in clubs in Europe and the USA (to which he had immigrated in 1952) and at international festivals. His activity continued throughout the following two decades and he played with leading artists such as Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie. He has also played on the soundtracks of many movies, including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway and Sugarland Express. Most distinctive on harmonica, Thielemans has gone far towards correcting the prejudice felt by many jazz fans towards this instrument. A momentary shift in the late 80s and early 90s into jazz rock fusion was less than wholly successful. Thielemans remains happiest in a bop setting, while displaying a fine command of ballads on his many recordings. Whilst the harmonica has only limited appeal in a jazz setting, Thielemans has made the genre his own.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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