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Toots Thielemans (born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, 29 April 1922, Brussels, Belgium) is a Belgian jazz musician known for his guitar and harmonica playing as well as his whistling. Thielemans is credited as one of the greatest harmonica players of the 20th century.
He has worked as a bandleader (scoring an international hit in the 1960s with his song "Bluesette"), as a sideman (notably on many projects with composer/arranger Quincy Jones), and has appeared on dozens of film soundtracks. In 2009 he became NEA Jazz Master, the highest honour for a jazz musician in the United States.
He may be best known to some as the performer whistling the melody in commercials for Old Spice cologne.
Thielemans started his career as a guitar player. In 1949 he joined a jam session in Paris with Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach and others. In 1949 and 1950 he participated in European tours with Benny Goodman, making his first record in Paris with fellow band member, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims. In 1951 he became a band member of the singer-songwriter and compatriot Bobbejaan Schoepen (at the time still as a guitarist).
He moved to the US in 1952 where he was a member of Charlie Parker's All-Stars and worked with Miles Davis and Dinah Washington. From 1952 to 1959 he was a member of the George Shearing Quintet, primarily playing guitar but also being featured on harmonica both in performances and on recordings. He has also played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius, Stephane Grappelli, J.J. Johnson, Michael Franks, Peggy Lee,((John Williams)), Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, The Happenings, Astrud Gilberto, Shirley Horn, Elis Regina, Joe Pass, and others.
A jazz standard by Toots Thielemans is "Bluesette", where he used whistling and guitar in unison. First recorded by him in 1962, with lyrics added by Norman Gimbel, the song became a major worldwide hit.
His harmonica playing can also be heard in film scores such as Midnight Cowboy, Cinderella Liberty, Jean de Florette, Sugarland Express, The Yakuza, Turkish Delight, The Getaway,French Kiss, Dunderklumpen, and in various TV programs, including Sesame Street, the Belgian TV series Witse, and the Dutch TV series Baantjer. He composed the music for the 1974 Swedish film Dunderklumpen! in which he also voiced the animated character Pellegnillot.
His whistling and harmonica playing can be heard on Old Spice radio and TV commercials that have been made over the years. During the 1980s he performed with bassist and composer/bandleader Jaco Pastorius in ensembles ranging from duet to the Word of Mouth Big Band. In 1983 he contributed to Billy Joel's album An Innocent Man, and his trademark harmonica can be heard on "Leave a Tender Moment Alone." A year later, he appeared on the Julian Lennon song "Too Late For Goodbyes" from the album Valotte. In 1984, he recorded the final album of Billy Eckstine (I Am A Singer), featuring ballads and standards arranged and conducted by Angelo DiPippo. In the 1990s Thielemans embarked on theme projects that included world music. In 1998 he released a French flavoured album titled "Chez Toots" that included the Les Moulins De Mon Coeur (The Windmills of Your Mind) featuring guest singer Johnny Mathis. Apart from his popularity as an accomplished musician, he is well liked for his modesty and kind demeanor. In his native Belgium, he is also popular for describing himself as a Brussels "ket", which means "street kid" in old Brussels slang. He received a joint honorary doctorate from the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium) and in 2001 Thielemans was ennobled a baron by King Albert II of Belgium.
In 2005 he was nominated for the title of The Greatest Belgian. In the Flemish version he ended 20th place, in the Walloon version he ended 44th place. In October 2008, he was honored with the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. On 23 January 2009, he joined Philip Catherine on stage at the Liberchies church (Belgium) in memory of the 100th anniversary of Django Reinhardt's birth. In 2012, the Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in New York celebrated his 90th birthday with Herbie Hancock, Eliane Elias, Kenny Werner, Marc Johnson, Oscar Castro-Neves, and Dori Caymmi. He performed for the occasion and left the stage standing among his friends.
Major works include:
- The Sound (Columbia, 1955)
- Time Out For Toots (Decca, 1958)
- Man Bites Harmonica! (Riverside, 1958)
- Soul (1959)
- The Whistler and His Guitar (1964, ABC-Paramount)
- Honeysuckle Rose Aquarela Do Brasil (1969, with Elis Regina, Fontana Records, Philips)
- "Cinderella Liberty" 20th Century Fox 1973 (One of best known film soundtracks w/music by John Williams, and features lyrics and vocals by Paul Williams
- Only Trust Your Heart (1988, Concord Records)
- Footprints (1991, Universal)
- The Brasil Project (1992, BMG)
- The Brasil Project vol 2. (1993, BMG)
- Compact Jazz (1993, Verve)
- East Coast, West Coast (1994, Private Music)
- Apple Dimple (1994, Denon)
- Chez Toots (1998, Windham Hill)
- The Live Takes, volume 1 (2000, Quetzal records)
- Hard to Say Goodbye, the very best of Toots Thielemans (2000, Universal)
- Toots Thielemans & Kenny Werner (2001, Universal)
- One More for the Road (2006, Verve)
- Yesterday and Today (2012, Disques Dreyfus) "a two-CD compendium of highlights from Thielemans’ first session in 1946 up to 2001", "a set of 37 previously unavailable recordings selected by friend and fellow musician Cees Schrama from over Thielemans' lengthy career." EAN 8713545212525
With Dizzy Gillespie:
- Digital at Montreux, 1980 (Pablo, 1980)
With Urbie Green:
- The Fox (CTI, 1976)
With Oscar Peterson:
With Billy Joel: