• Toots Thielemans Hangs Up His Harp

    March 18, 2014. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    NEA Jazz Master Toots Thielemans, who turns 92 in April, has decided it's time to retire. After seven decades, the harmonica player and composer of "Bluesette" - who is also a master whistler -  has decided to hang up his harp, at least on the concert stage,  his website says.

    Toots has been a soulful and constant companion to jazz lovers lover over the years, with an unquenchable reserve of musical talent and enthusiasm. He has been frequently featured on WBGO and NPR, as in March, 2011, when we recorded him for JazzSet at the Kennedy Center.

    Listen to Toots' JazzSet here

    After that, he was scheduled to perform at New York's Blue Note, but canceled some of those shows, citing fatigue.

    A year later in May of 2012, Toots was back: he made an multi-city tour of his home country, Belgium, to celebrate his 90th birthday.

    WBGO's Becca Pulliam was lucky enough to visit Dinant and Brussels to take part in Belgium's celebration of their national treasure.  In the bookstore at the museum of musical instruments, she saw this stack of commemorative books.

    Stack of Toots books

    Back in the US, she wrote this appreciation of The Harmonica-Playing Baron of Belgium and the Toots90 concert in Brussels for NPR's A Blog Supreme:

    ". . . four of Toots' first five tunes were recorded by Miles Davis in a short span: 'On Green Dolphin Street' (1958), 'All Blues' (early 1959), 'I Loves You, Porgy' and 'Summertime' (both 1958, for Porgy and Bess). 'Days of Wine and Roses' was the other number. . . .  [T]hough he's streamlined his playing, 30 years later he still sounds tuneful, optimistic, willing to soar.

    "When [pianist Kenny]Werner and [guitarist Oscar] Castro-Neves came to the stage — excitement! embraces! — they brought shades of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Hollywood as they played 'How High the Moon' (a samba, thanks to Castro-Neves), 'All the Way' (Werner on synthesizer, interpolating 'My Way'), and the theme to Midnight Cowboy, an eight-note melody that circles and haunts. Indeed, Thielemans played it on the soundtrack [to the movie]."

    Toots was back in New York later that year to perform at Jazz At Lincoln Center, with his Brazilian friends Oscar Castro-Neves, Eliane Elias and Dori Caymmi, as well as Herbie Hancock, Kenny Werner, and Marc Johnson.

    The center of attention, the heart of the matter - was this wonderfully resilient, determined, and most musical nonagenarian, Toots Thielemans.

    According to his manager, Toots now - on the cusp of his 92nd birthday - "wants to enjoy the rest he deserves."

    Deserved, indeed, and thank you, Toots!

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