Toots and his soulful “harp” headline High Lights festival
Toots Thielemans, the first and arguably world’s best bebop harmonica player, was on the phone from Brussels asking who is headlining the Montreal High Lights Festival (Montréal en Lumière).
“Why, it’s you, sir,” I replied, and the pause in our conversation indicated a degree of surprise—a modesty that belies his incredible talent and a career that started at age 3 when he taught himself to play accordion.
He turns 90 on April 29 and enjoys an active performance career with gigs in Europe, Japan and North America. Thielemans plays Théâtre Maisonneuve February 16, part of the annual 11-day festival of music, performance art, exhibits and light shows.
Born Jean Baptiste Frédéric Isadore Thielemans—he acquired the Toots nickname in honour of swing-era saxophonist Toots Mondello and orchestra leader Toots Camarata—and taught himself the guitar while bedridden with asthma, picking up the swing style of Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Thielemans built his reputation when he picked up bebop after hearing leading players in Paris and on 52nd St. in New York City. He eventually joined the Benny Goodman groups and Charlie Parker All Stars.
It was only in the 1950s, when he made an impact on the jazz scene with his harmonica, that it became his favoured instrument.
Thielemans said that over the years he has lost some agility in his left hand. His asthmatic history hasn’t
impeded his artistry on the chromatic harmonica.
“I learned the jazz language on the guitar and the harmonica more or less simultaneously,” he said.
“The harmonica is almost complete as an instrument, and I’ve played it with and been influenced by some of the great innovators—(pianists) Bill Evans, George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, and (band leader) Quincy Jones.
“When I started, Charlie Parker was the guru and we had the same manager, so I ended up playing with his band in Philadelphia.
“Dinah Washington was the vocalist and Miles Davis and Milt Jackson were in the band. But Benny Goodman discovered me in Europe.
“I never thought I, a little man from a small and humble neighbourhood in Brussels, would end up playing with these musicians.”
Thielemans recalled an anecdote from a 1995 jazz festival concert here when he played his version of Jacques Brel’s anthemic Ne Me Quitte Pas. (He first played it in 1982 during a celebration of Brel’s legacy.)
“I adapted the harmony along modal lines, and it was a triumph. I still have the cassette,” he said. “When I feel a bit down, when I need a lift, I listen to this. I got a two-minute ovation!”
He was in a quartet with pianist Kenny Werner, who rejoins him here this month.
He credits his 1970s Affinity album with pianist Evans for earning him acceptance as a major jazz artist, and says it led to him playing with electric bass innovator Jaco Pastorius.
Over the phone, Toots played a few bars of ’Round About Midnight.
“It’s worth more than words,” he said.
He credits the late American harmonica genius Larry Adler for “putting the harmonica on the map.”
And his secret for a continuing career as he approaches his 90th?
“The notes are the same, the scales are the same,” he said as he ran through a set of scales.
“I practice every day. I usually put on an animal show on TV, especially with fish, and no sound, and I do scales, and modal scales, in every key, and I try to play softly, Stella by Starlight, in B flat and B natural.
“I choose the key that is best suited to the song. I try to play in all the keys, and if I have a strong point, it’s the emotion that I bring out.”
A big advantage of the harmonica:
“It’s an instrument you can play at 4 in the morning, even in a hotel.
“Nobody will kick you out of the hotel. You can’t do that with the trombone.”