“One of the greatest that jazz has ever produced’: biography of Toots Thielemans

Toots Thielemans died at age 94 in the hospital where he was treated after a fall last month. Read a biography of the jazz legend.

Toots Thielemans © Belga Image

The 10 plates of Toots that you should have

The blinddoektest with Toots Thielemans: ‘Allez, so mouldy that now wouldn’t it?”

Notes on the death of Toots Thielemans: ‘Our greatest’

Jean-Baptiste Thielemans on 29 april 1922 in Brussels, was born. He grew up in the Marolles, a working-class neighbourhood in the centre of Brussels and taught at the third playing the accordion.


During the German occupation he fell under the spell of jazz. The Belgian jazz Django Reinhardt was the first great example. Under its influence switched ‘ket’ on to the guitar. In the same period he also started harmonica to play. He is a self-taught artist.

After the war he departed on a European tour with Benny Goodman. Because of this, he knew in 1950 an international breakthrough. He was given the nickname ‘Toots’, to the jazz musicians Toots Mondello and Toots Camarata.

In 1952, he emigrated to the United States. There he experienced one of the most important moments in his career: he was a member of Charlie Parker’s All-Stars and played in Philadelphia a few concerts together with this jazzgrootheid. He was also the guitarist recorded in the famous George Shearing Quintet.

Toots was in the US finally got the attention he in Belgium could not get out. This would be in 1957, to play a part in his decision to take the American nationality to take.

Thielemans introduced a whole new sound in the jazzscène, by unison to the melody to the flutes and to play the guitar. An example of this is in 1962, composed ‘Bluesette’. The song became a worldwide hit and Toots called it, sometimes laughing his pension fund.

Toots Thielemans © Belga Image

The world

Still, he was mostly known for playing the play his favorite instrument again: the mouth-organ or the ‘mondmuziekske’. He made sure that the instrument has a fixed place within the jazz world. Like many jazz musicians, he enjoyed most of his performances.

But Toots he also composed a lot of film music (for’Midnight Cowboy’, ‘The Getaway’, ‘Sugarland Express’, ‘Cinderella Liberty’, ‘Turkish Fruit’, ‘Jean de Florette’) and took a huge number of plates.

He played also the world-famous melody of the children’s program “sesame street” and played together and/or took plates with Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Natalie Cole, Pat Matheny, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and many others.


On his instrument he is one of the greatest that jazz has ever produced

Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones, the legendary producer of ‘Thriller’ of Michael Jackson, left in 1995 the following words recorded: “I can without hesitation say that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he is one of the greatest that jazz has ever produced. He aims for the heart and brings you to vienna. We have more collaboration than I can count and he does me, and I did come back for more…’

In 1981 got Toots a small heart attack, which ensured that he was but little feeling in part of his body. Since then, he left the guitar behind you, and he focused fully on the mouth organ.


In 1997, he was appointed Commander of the Order of Leopold II, despite his American nationality. Four years later he received the title of baron, and he became doctor honoris causa to the two free universities of Brussels (ULB and VUB). Yet in the same year, he was allowed to be the opening party for the Belgian EU-presidency going to blow and he was at the North Sea jazz festival in The Hague awarded an Edison Jazz Award for his entire career. On 16 march 2006 in the prestigious New York Carnegie Hall ‘The magic of Toots’ organised a ‘tribute’ to Toots Thielemans with, among others, Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau , and Kenny Werner.

After a busy summer full of concerts had to Toots the beginning of October 2006 mandatory calmer to do. By the fatigue he saw himself forced to a tour in the Netherlands early to stop. In the spring of 2007, however, he again a few times.


I am a real Belgian

Toots Thielemans in 2009has placed on may 17, 2009, the musician Belgavox, a solidariteistfeest for Belgium, at the foot of the atomium. All alone on the stage he played “Ne me quitte pas’ by Jacques Brel on his harmonica. “I am a real Belgian. Plus Belge que moi, tu meurs, ” he said to the audience.

In June 2011, Thielemans been a new crowning. In a new neighbourhood in the Brussels municipality of Vorst was a street named after him.

Tootsjaar 2012

On april 29, 2012 fourth Toots Thielemans his ninetieth birthday. ‘2012’ is declared ‘Tootsjaar’. So there are eight locations in Belgium special verjaardagsconcerten place. Also, there is in Brussels an exhibition on the Belgian jazz icon. In the Rose Theater in New York plays Toots Thielemans two evenings with some of his prominent jazzvrienden, among them Herbie Hancock and his regular pianist Kenny Werner.

Toots Thielemans © Belga Image

Jazz Middelheim

In december 2013, Thielemans default for a gig in zaal Roma in Antwerp. Rumors doing the round that he is in the hospital, but that is quickly denied by his management. The jazz musician had only a headache, it sounds, and looks forward to his next concerts.

But three months later, Toots Thielemans known that he was a point put behind his musical career. He doesn’t feel strong enough anymore to have a full concert to play. Because his audience does not want to disappoint, cancels all scheduled concerts.

To everyone’s surprise, ascends Toots Thielemans that year upon the stage at the Jazz Middelheim festival, the festival where he peter was, and where he until then any edition on the stage had stood. Thielemans, who is the ultimate tribute programmed was, caused a spontaneous bisronde. He kept still for a time the best of himself with his version of “What a wonderful world’.


Into old age remained the ‘Afro-American Marollien’ jazz lovers move with the sounds of his harmonica. In the readers ‘ poll of the American jazzmagazine ‘Beat Down’ was Toots Thielemans virtually every year, a prize winner in the category “miscellaneous instruments”. The meanwhile deceased jazztrompetist Clifford Brown said to him once: ‘Toots, when you are the harmonica plays, deserves better than the title “miscellaneous instrument”.’ Thielemans, considered it the finest compliment he has ever received.

Toots died on the 22nd of August 2016 in a Belgian hospital in his sleep. “He died because of old age, his body was simply on’, says his manager, Veerle Van de Poel. (Belga/KVDA)

Read more

The 10 plates of Toots that you should have

The blinddoektest with Toots Thielemans: ‘Allez, so mouldy that now wouldn’t it?”

Notes on the death of Toots Thielemans: ‘Our greatest’

Farewell jazzicoon Toots Thielemans

  • On 4 september at the Jazz Middelheim festival: farewell, Toots Thielemans (2)
  • Flemish beiaardiers play Saturday Bluesette
  • At the death of Toots Thielemans: a man of mussels with fries
  • Bass player Nolf: ‘Physically, but enjoyed the last moments’
  • Read all articles about Farewell jazzicoon Toots Thielemans

Follow us

Don't be shy, get in touch. We love meeting interesting people and making new friends.

Most popular