Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 17 News List

An unlikely legend

Not many jazz greats make their name from blowing a harmonica, fewer still from whistling

By David Momphard  /  STAFF REPORTER

Toots Thielemans, an unlikely jazz giant, is set to play in Taipei this weekend.


Toots Thielemans is that rare musician who can be accorded the title living legend. Born in 1922, he taught himself jazz guitar by listening to a wind-up phonograph during Germany's occupation of Belgium. A decade later he was playing both the guitar and harmonica -- the instrument that he would single-handedly popularize in the jazz world -- alongside the likes of Benny Goodman, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. In 1962, his composition Blusette became an overnight jazz standard and secured him a place in the pantheon of jazz giants.

He provided the haunting harmonica solos for Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express as well as composed and performed the universally popular theme song to Sesame Street. Not only an accomplished guitarist and harp player, he's perhaps the only musician to have made a career out of whistling, having used it to accompany the jazz guitar and later in numerous television commercials.

He's the perennial winner of Down Beat magazine's readers and critics poll in the category "miscellaneous instruments," an honor that prompted the late Clifford Brown to say "Toots, the way you play harmonica they should not call it a miscellaneous instrument." The comment stands as his favorite compliment, despite having had the world-renowned Antwerp Jazz Festival named after him.

Taipei Times spoke with Thielemans at his home in Antwerp earlier this week.

Taipei Times: Have you ever played in Taiwan before?

Thielemans: No, no, never before. I've never even visited. I've been to Japan and Hong Kong. I go regularly to the Blue Note in Japan and I was in Singapore about a month ago.

TT: You started playing the accordion at age three. How did you lift it?

Thielemans: In Europe, at sidewalk cafes, people come to drink beer. I saw an accordion player there one day and picked up a shoe box, making the motions of the accordion with that shoe box. One of the customers in the bar told my father, `Hey, your kid likes to play the accordion.' So my father bought me a cardboard accordion, one that a kid can play. It wasn't so heavy.

TT: You won your first guitar on a bet? What was the bet?

Thielemans: Well, I already played the harmonica as a hobby. And I was not bad in mathematics, but no Einstein, you know. I had started to play melodies and improvisations. And once, when I was sick with pneumonia, I had a friend come visit me. He had a lot of money because his uncle sold liquor in the black market during the war. He bought instruments every week -- a different instrument every week -- and he was disgusted because he couldn't get anything out of the guitar. He came to visit me wanting to play a Fats Waller tune that all the kids in Belgium knew -- in 1942, I'm talking, 60 years ago -- that tune Hold Tight (sings it). He wanted to play that phrase on one string and he couldn't get it. And I told him -- Gilbert was his name -- `Give me the guitar a moment and I can play that melody on one string in 10 minutes.' I had never touched the guitar before so Gilbert said, `If you can do it, you get the guitar!' So I got the guitar and started buying all the records by Django Rhinehardt and studied the guitar from the phonograph. You had to wind it up and change the needle every few minutes. I still have the phonograph.

TT: I've heard you say Django Rhinehardt was your idol.

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