The man doesn’t need an introduction. His name has been on billboards all over the world. And this for decades.
He performed with legendary names as Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Elis Regina, Stevie Wonder, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, George Shearing, Natalie Cole, Paul Simon. To name a few.
Born 90 years ago in the popular neighborhood of the Marollen in Brussels, now he is occupying center stage, everywhere. At the age of 3, he already played the accordeon. And later the guitar. But his career is inseparably identified with the harmonica. When you think of Toots, you see a harmonica. And vice versa. He is the one who lifted the harmonica to an instrument in its own right. He took it and made it his sole voice.
His achievements are countless and although he never would brag about them, I certainly will.
The American public must remember the Old Spice commercial. The whistling was Toots’s! We all recognize the theme from Midnight Cowboy. And Sesame Street.
The Flemish and Dutch public also remember Thielemans’ harmonica of the Witse and Baantjer television series. But it is Bluesette that brought him from the background into the spotlight.
Toots has worked with so many different people in such a variety of styles, from jazz to bebop, swing, big bands, bosa nova, and fusion. He can do it all and this certainly is one of those things that make a great artist even greater.
Toots Thielemans received an honorary doctorate from the “Université Libre de Bruxelles” and from the “Vrije Universiteit van Brussel”. In 2001 Toots was ennobled a baron by King Albert II of Belgium. And in 2009 he was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest distinction for a jazz musician in the United States!
To let us all take partake in his 90th birthday celebrations, Toots Thielemans performed at the Lincoln Center Rose Hall in New York last weekend.
I already had the pleasure to meet him about a year ago at a cocktail party. I remember how he held my hand as I sat down and chatted with him. And he smiled and laughed non-stop.
But I had never been to any of his concerts before. Shame on me! We know Toots Thielemans. We know his music. We know how his harmonica sounds like. But seeing and hearing him on stage is still another all-surpassing experience.
A birthday is best spent with friends. So Toots invited Kenny Werner (piano), Marc Johnson (bass), Dorival Cayymi (guitar, vocals), Oscar Castro-Neves (guitar), Rafael Mendes Barata (drums) and Eliane Elias (piano, vocals) to the party. Sometimes it just seemed like that: a bunch of good old friends having a really good time. And the best part of it: we were all invited. Together with another living legend: Herbie Hancock!
When Toots appeared on stage, everybody rose and gave him a warm and deafening applause. Toots was sitting in his wheelchair. He might have looked a little bit frail, but he was all smiles and laughter, always in for a good joke. And full of praise for his co-performers.
The first note from his harmonica was enough to silence the crowd. And spellbound the audience was, until the very last note. Although Toots and his friends brought different genres, the whole performance felt like a naturally flowing musical fountain. The bossa nova got everybody moving in his chair. The musicians played and teased eachother with improvisation. They all got the audience started with a rarely seen six-mains on the piano: Herbie Hancock and Kenny Werner, with Eliane Elias literally squeezed in the middle.
And then there were these moments that I only can describe as magical.
Toots praised Eliane for her soft touch on the piano, and together they played what he called the greatest declaration of love: Ne Me Quitte Pas of Jacques Brel (another great Belgian artist!).
Somewhere within – what I dare to call – their lyrical conversations, pianist Kenny Werner touched the notes of My Way. I don’t know if this was planned. I saw that Toots lowered his harmonica and turned around in his wheelchair to look at Kenny. Anyhow, it surely was an appropriate tribute.
After a long standing ovation, the evening culminated when Toots leaned back one more time. Complete silence. He set the harmonica to his lips, as if kissing it, and played What A Wonderful World…in his own uncomparable and touching way. The lady next to me discretely reached for her handkerchief in her purse. It was as if nobody dared to breathe. An unforgettable moment.
A classical Indian singer and friend told me once that the most touching instruments are those that involve breathe. Breathe is life itself. Breathe comes from deep within and brings out our soul. And so the instrument becomes an extension of the soul. The instrument gives a voice to the soul.
Toots got up and left the stage on his own feet.
As a tribute to Toots Thielemans and his career, the TOOTS90 organisation is holding a multimedia exhibition at the Vanderborght Building, Schildknaapstraat 50, in the heart of Brussels, Belgium till January 6, 2013