I heard the playing of Toots Thielemans, who died yesterday at age 94, before I ever knew who he was or understood the importance and extent of his musical history. I was about 11 and remember being transfixed whenever the theme to the then-popular film “Midnight Cowboy” came on the radio. It boasted a slow, elegant melody performed on, of all things, harmonica. It was one of the loneliest sounds I had ever experienced. But there was also a lightness and warmth to it that countered the desolate feel with comfort.
That was the sound of the Belgian musician born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans but who was forever known simply as Toots.
It took a few years to understand Thielemans’ astonishing career, playing alongside the likes of jazz titans such as Charlie Parker, George Shearing and especially Benny Goodman. But Thielemans never stood on accolades. His playing also graced comparatively contemporary recordings by pop stylists (Paul Simon, Billy Joel) as well a newer jazz voyagers (Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Lovano) that introduced him to successive generations of fans. But his playing was a constant. While he never again sounded as lonesome as he did on “Midnight Cowboy,” Thielemans’ musicianship always possessed a lyrical sweetness that was unwavering.
A versed guitarist and whistler (as witnessed by his signature song “Bluesette”), Thielemans also had a performance affinity for pianists. Two of his recordings that especially resonated with me paired him with two cross-generational piano voices – Bill Evans (on 1979’s “Affinity,” one of Evans’ final studio recordings before his death the following year) and Fred Hersch (on the underappreciated 1989 concert album “Do Not Leave Me”).
I got to see Thielemans play just once, at a University of Louisville concert in 2010 backed by another great pianist, Kenny Werner. Thielemans was a spry 88 at the time. The program ranged from Brazilian music (Luiz Eca’s “The Dolphin”) to a medley of Frank Sinatra hits. But the harmonica tone was as exotic as it was steadfast, transporting the instrument from more expected folk and blues domains to a very different musical paradise. In the hands of Thielemans, the harmonica was a voice of and for the world.