Toots Thielemans (1922-2016), a Poeta Universalis of Jazz

Toots Thielemans had passed away. In The Low Countries Yearbook, jazz specialist Marc Van den Hoof called him one of the great stylists of jazz who needs just one note to create a whole new world and let it blossom”. Read his portrait of Toots Thielemans here. 

In Early Jazz (1968), volume one of his monumental history of jazz, Gunter Schuller notes that Louis Armstrong 'was incapable of not swinging' . One of the musicians to whom this remark also undoubtedly applies is Jean 'Toots' Thielemans, the only Belgian jazz musician with a notable international reputation. But while Louis Armstrong had hardly any musical predecessors, in the 1930s the young Jean Thielemans could look to a variety of artistic geniuses like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Lester Young and other heroes in the still new but already rich history of jazz. But as a guitarist, he mainly emulated the Franco-Belgian gypsy Django Rheinhardt.

The extraordinary career of this working class boy, who was born in Brussels in 1922, is by now well known in his native country: his exceptional gift for music which emerged at a very early age; his university studies in mathematics which came to a premature end with the outbreak of World War II; and how he became a pro musician almost overnight. Then we have Benny Goodman' s surprised interest in the young Belgian guitarist's fine version of Hoagy Carmichael' s Stardust. In the early post-war years, Toots personally experienced the exciting changes in the highly innovative world of New York jazz. When he left for the States, Jean was already known as `Toots' , but once there Thielemans became `Tilmans' – a guitarist in a quintet led by the immigrant English piano player George Shearing.

In the years that followed, Thielemans the harmonica player began to feature more and more prominently with a number of different formations. Not until fairly recently has Toots been joined by other players of this rather rare instrument in jazz. In the meantime, it brought him repeated triumphs in the `miscellaneous instruments' category of the various popularity polls. Our comparison with the great Louis Armstrong can be taken further. For half a century, right up till his death in 1971, `Satchmo' was the personification of everything jazz was: a bizarre mixture of often somewhat banal entertainment and the highest artistry, a musical no man's land somewhere between folk and art music. But nowadays, TV viewers and passers-by in Tokyo, Stockholm, Brussels and New York see and recognise Toots as the embodiment of jazz in its many and often contradictory forms. He will produce an exciting Ennio Morricone soundtrack, but can equally enliven the score of a Scandinavian cartoon. People like Michel Legrand and Quincy Jones call on him to interpret the great emotions and Lee Konitz, who never compromises, invited him for an abstract duet on Body and Soul. He has travelled from city to city and country to country world-wide with some of the most unpredictable geniuses of Afro-American music, ranging from Billy Holiday and Lester Young to Jaco Pastorius. Whether you are a young and talented beginner or were in some way involved with him in the past, you can continue to count on his good advice and real support. There is a pressing need for a detailed account of his extraordinary life; but it must, at last, pay due attention to Thielemans' unique musicality.

He shares with all the greats of jazz an absolute mastery of measure and timing and an inexhaustible power of imagination when playing with the stuff of melody and harmony. Being a sort of `poeta universalis', he is able to give voice to the most diverse human emotions. And as one of the great stylists of jazz, Toots Thielemans needs just one note to create a whole new world and let it blossom. We need, too, a detailed inventory of his oeuvre, which, like every other jazzman's, consists of countless fragments which have to be brought together – like the recordings he made with Bill Evans in late 1978. Here were two musicians with such clear affinities that every piano player working with Toots since then has always drawn on numbers from his Bill Evans bag. Take Herbie Hancock for example, or Fred Hersch who played the piano in Toots' memorable quartet that played at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels on 19 June 1992. Martial Solal, however; was the exception; he was as usual very much his own man when duetting with Toots on about ten standards and one of his own themes in 1992. And finally we must also point to Toots' interest in what we nowadays call 'world music', as well as in the adventures of some of the most striking members of the latest generation of jazz musicians, ranging from a gifted neo-classicist like Joshua Redman to unpredictable post-modernists like Bill Frisell and Joey Baron, be they accompanied by John Zorn or not. Considering how much Toots has contributed to jazz, it is about time that he was given the place he deserves in the literature.

Translated by Peter Flynn.

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