Jean 'Toots' Thielemans is widely regarded by most people as the most accomplished harmonica player in the world.
Of course, that's not all he does and it would be a great injustice to label him as just a good harmonica player. If you are not into Jazz, you may not have heard of his name but you have probably heard his music many times and I suspect you liked it. He is equally good at playing guitar, the accordeon and many other instruments. For instance, you will never hear anyone whistle jazz better than Toots.
Born on 29 April 1922 in Brussels, he quickly got interested in music and was playing the accordeon at age 3. Later he started playing the harmonica and the guitar. He got seriously hooked on jazz in earnest during the German occupation and has been influenced predominantly by Django Reinhardt, another Belgian who invented a particular way of playing the guitar, and the legendary Charlie Parker. Other influences were Toots Mondello and Toots Camarata, resulting in Jean Thielemans being nicknamed 'Toots' early on in his career.
In an interview in 1983 with a Belgian radio station, he said : "My parents had a pub and each Sunday there was an accordionist. They have told me that when I was in my cradle, I already was imitating the gestures of the musician. One of the clients said "that kid wants to play accordion". My father bought me a little cardboard accordion, and when I was three I got this little machine. (plays a little bit, accompanied by the barking of his little dog called Duke Yorkshire Ellington Thielemans)".
He made his big breakthrough when he went on European tour with Benny Goodman in 1950. He moved to America in 1952 (and became a US citizen the same year) where he is extremely well-known, especially among the jazz community. Quincy Jones said this about him in 1995 : "I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more". Toots hates his favourite instrument, the harmonica, being called a 'miscellaneous instrument'. Indeed, the late Clifford Brown said : "Toots, the way you play the harmonica they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument".
His successes include harmonica solo contributions to film scores for Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway, Sugarland Express, Cinderella Liberty, Turks Fruit (Turkish Fruit), Jean de Florette and others. In 1962 he had a massive hit with 'Bluesette'. He also did many concerts and recordings with legends such as George Shearing, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Natalie Cole, Pat Metheny, Paul Simon and Billy Joel. Many people also will remember him from the music used for the 'Old Spice' TV commercial.
Toots succeeded in doing something that is very difficult for Jazz musicians: being well-known by the general public and still practice high-class Jazz. Receiving the high appreciation of his peers and connoisseurs is no mean feat and Toots is regularly voted first in his category in the famous Down Beat Jazz Magazine in the USA by critics and public. In 1981, Toots suffered from a major stroke that left part of his body with little feeling. Today he has pretty much recovered from the stroke and admits that while he may not be able to play as many notes as he used to, he can still "play the good ones". He has always suffered from asthma which makes his success even more remarkable.