Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94 The Belgian-American musician, also known for his guitar playing and whistling, performed with the stars of postwar jazz and was widely heard on film scores and commercial jingles.
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Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94

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Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94

Toots Thielemans, Jazz Harmonica Baron, Dies At 94

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The harmonica is best known as a blues or folk instrument, not so much for improvising jazz until Toots Thielemans came along.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONGS, "THREE AND ONE")

SIEGEL: Thielemans also lent his distinctive sound to film and TV scores. Millions have heard him on the "Sesame Street" theme and on pop songs by Billy Joel and Paul Simon. Toots Thielemans died today in the city where he was born, Brussels, Belgium. He was 94. NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: It was not easy for Toots Thielemans to get people to take his little instrument seriously, says Howard Levy, another harmonica virtuoso who got to know Thielemans.

HOWARD LEVY: He had to really fight for some respect because people would always make jokes like, if I'd known you were coming, I would have brought my kazoo - that kind of stuff. He really created a tremendous amount of respect for the instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "FUNDAMENTAL FREQUENCY")

COLE: Harmonica was not Toots Thielemans' first instrument. That was accordion, which he played as a kid in his parents' Brussels cafe. But as he told Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz in 2005...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOOTS THIELEMANS: Being a musician was not really a profession, so you needed to try to get a diploma. And I wasn't bad, not outstanding, but not bad in mathematics so I was aiming for a degree in mathematics. Louis Armstrong changed all that (laughter).

COLE: He heard jazz, and that was it. He picked up harmonica as a teenager and then guitar and caught the attention of Benny Goodman in 1950.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Jean Thielemans at the harmonica.

(APPLAUSE)

COLE: From there, Thielemans was off and running. He moved to the United States and joined pianist George Shearing's popular quintet. As the 1960s dawned, Thielemans added another color to his palette, whistling.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

COLE: "Bluesette" became an international hit with Thielemans' whistling and playing guitar in unison even as he seems to improvise.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONG, "BLUESETTE")

COLE: This device not only caught the ears of fans but advertisers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wake up. Wake up with Old Spice.

COLE: Thielemans became a first-call studio musician for top arrangers like Quincy Jones. His harmonica graced the "Sesame Street" theme and the score for "Midnight Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BARRY SONG, "MIDNIGHT COWBOY")

COLE: But jazz was Thielemans' first love. And Howard Levy says he kept pushing himself right to the end of his career.

LEVY: Toots was a transcendent musician. If he had picked up any other instrument, he would have been just as great. But what was remarkable about him was that he was able to express the full range of emotional and musical ideas through the chromatic harmonica. He was really playing music through the harmonic rather than playing the harmonica.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOTS THIELEMANS SONGS, "FOOTPRINTS")

COLE: And Toots Thielemans kept playing, despite a stroke when he was in his 60s, only retiring at the age of 92. Tom Cole, NPR News.

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