More than 90 years ago, on April 29, 1922, Jean-Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans was born in Brussels. An organization formed to celebrate his landmark birthday, TOOTS90 is presenting a series of eight concerts, featuring Thielemans' quartet and special guests Kenny Werner on piano and Oscar Castro-Neves and Philip Catherine on guitar. All take place in Belgium, tracing a route from Antwerp to Gent, Brussels, Hasselt, Brugge, Liège and Dinant.
Leading up to this grand occasion, Thielemans received the 2011 Player of the Year Award in the category "Rare Instrument" from the Jazz Journalists Association in New York. A street was named for him in Brussels. He performed in Poland, Tokyo, Detroit and Middelheim. Sadly, he honored some friends who had passed away. When you're tracking Toots Thielemans' career, it helps to read German and French as well as English and Portuguese (as spoken in Brazil).
This concert — recorded on April 2, 2011, from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. — finds, in that little space between a smile and a tear, the space in which Thielemans loves to play music.
Thielemans was always a natural musician, playing accordion at age 3. When he was a boy, the Nazis occupied Belgium and his family fled to France, where he fell even further in love with music — especially the hot jazz of Paris. After the war, Thielemans became fascinated with bebop and figured out the hip new phrases on his harmonica. (Toots, by the way, was originally a professional guitarist, and it is said that after hearing him with George Shearing in Hamburg in 1960, John Lennon went out and bought his Rickenbacker 325.)
Thielemans moved to the U.S. in the early 1950s, at which point he worked with Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Shearing. Toots loves to tell the story of how he made a Chrysler Plymouth commercial with Louis Armstrong, Armstrong singing and Toots playing harmonica. Pops called Toots "bop chops." Thielemans played music in the films Breakfast at Tiffany's and Midnight Cowboy, as well as the theme to Sesame Street; then, Toots fell in love again with the music of Brazil.
Thielemans became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1957. But it is Kenny Werner who thought of interpolating "Travessia (Bridges)" by the Brazilian Milton Nascimento into "God Bless America," the climactic song of the concert.
On synth and piano, Werner is both Thielemans' accompanist and agent provocateur, as he provokes, leads, follows and dances with Toots. In his own right, Werner is a world-traveling composer, pianist and educator, a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of a much-studied book. Effortless Mastery guides the musician/reader toward a personal place from which one's music flows. Perhaps that's the very space that, for Toots Thielemans, lives between a smile and a tear.