Toots, an icon of the Brussels jazz scene

23 July 2022
Toots Thielemans blowing his harmonica on stage

In Toots Thielemans, Brussels had a living jazz legend as its ambassador. When he began his musical career, there was no bebop, no free and fusion had yet to be invented. Nobody had any idea that electronics would lead to a new offshoot of jazz. Toots was involved in it all and as a musician, he lived through every radical innovation.

As a youngster, he immediately established a reputation as an accordionist in his parents' café, Trapken Af at number 241, rue Haute. That was where Jean-Baptiste Thielemans was born on 29 April 1922. It is true that Thielemans did spend a large part of his childhood in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean where his parents moved, but he is still considered, to this day, a real Marollien.

Music wasn’t a priority in the Thielemans household, at least not for Toots' father, who wanted his son to have a good education. However, the young man's attention always wandered to the phonograph in the house. That's how he learned the most: playing along with the records he bought with his savings. He gradually abandoned the accordion in favour of the harmonica. Initially, a lot of musicians told him to "throw that toy away!" Fortunately, he persevered and there were those who believed in him, like Clifford Brown, who said years later: "Toots, the way you play harmonica they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument (the category in American jazz magazine Downbeat's annual poll, where Toots consistently occupied the top spot).

Meanwhile, he also learned to play the guitar, again he was self-taught and inspired by Django Reinhardt, among others. By now he had himself a real stage name: Toots, after the two horn players who played in Benny Goodman's orchestra (Toots Camarata and Toots Mondello). At first, Toots played popular light music. Then, in the early forties, he heard a record by Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers. We was instantly hooked. In 1947, his uncle invited him to go on holiday to America, and from then on, there was no stopping him.

In the early fifties, Toots moved to America to try his luck. Like almost all musicians starting out, he experienced some tough times, but he was the right man in the right place when George Shearing needed a guitarist. It became a six-year tour. Then Toots met and played with all the icons of jazz history, including Lester Young, and band members of the Count Basie Orchestra and Billie Holiday. 

Prior to that, he had already been signed up for Benny Goodman’s tour of Europe. That was all as a guitarist, because it was only at the end of the fifties that he started to increasingly use his harmonica as a fully-fledged instrument. In 1962, he hit the jackpot with 'Bluesette'. A seemingly simple melody but with whistling in unison as a gimmick. From that moment on, Toots was at the top of his game, a position he never left. The list of musicians he worked with is a chronicle of jazz history, but also part of pop history because artists like Billy Joel and Paul Simon also called upon his services. He featured on many soundtracks like Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Dutch film Turkish Delight, Swedish piece Dunderklumpen and French film Jean de Florette.

Only after his success in America did Toots, via detours to Sweden and the Netherlands, gain recognition in his homeland. He was even made a baron and awarded an honorary doctorate by the VUB/ULB. In the Brussels commune of Forest, a street was named after him. He was also, since 1986, the patron of the Brosella Folk & Jazz festival which takes place every year at the foot of the Atomium.

Toots always made sure he remained aware of the latest developments in jazz. He regularly invited young musicians as accompanists and always has his iPod and iPad close at hand to discover new things. His motto was "Never mention when you were born, and you will always continue feeling like a teenager".