Toots Thielemans, the man with the harmonica
Jean-Baptiste Frédéric, alias Toots Thielemans, was born on 29 April 1922 in Brussels. His parents ran a café in the Marolles, where an accordionist played regularly and Jean-Baptiste grew up listening to him. His parents signed him up for accordion lessons, and he began playing in the family bistro. At the age of 5, he received his first harmonica, an instrument that would help him better manage the asthma problems that would affect him throughout his life.
After his secondary education at the Athénée Royale in Molenbeek, he enrolled at the Université Libre de Bruxelles where he studied mathematics. The Second World War put an end to his studies and during the Occupation he developed a passion for jazz and made amazing progress in his mastery of the harmonica. But the harmonica was not an instrument taken seriously at the time, in the clubs where he tried to get started. When a friend challenged him to learn the guitar, it didn't take him more than a few times listening to a Django Reinhardt record to get the hang of it. The man who would later take the pseudonym Toots was now an accordionist, harmonica player and guitarist!
After the Liberation, he joined the Jazz Hot club and was soon considered one of the best guitarists in Belgium. A good guitarist, yes, but he is best known as a harmonica phenomenon.
Toots went on to perform in Italy, London, the USA,... and Belgium of course.
His journey to the United States made him want to establish his career there; he emigrated there in 1952 and became a member of Charlie Parker's "All-Stars" band in Philadelphia and the "George Shearing Quintet". Toots composed Bluesette (1962), which became a classic and brought him international acclaim.
Toots Thielemans became a benchmark for harmonica playing, having performed works by Henry Mancini, Tin Pan Alley and Hoagy Camichael. He also played with Charlie Haden, Ella Fitzgerald, David Sanborn, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Natalie Cole, Nick Cave, Franck Sinatra, Ray Charles and many others.
In 1981, a heart attack affected the dexterity of his left hand, leading him to abandon the guitar, but not his harmonica.
Ten years later, he returned to settle permanently in Belgium, in La Hulpe, where he died on 22 August 2016. In 2001, King Albert II ennobled him with the title of baron.
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