I first was aware of the Belgian harmonica legend Toots Thielemans through Sesame Street—the harmonica playing in that theme music is amazing! I wasn’t sure who it was at first, but you could hear a fair amount of jazz in that folksy melody. Then I heard him on Quincy Jones’s Walking in Space. That’s some of the most incredible harmonica playing I’ve ever heard. He stood out amongst the giants on that record…
Toots Thielemans legitimized the harmonica as a jazz instrument. In his hands, it was no longer a crude or crass instrument—he made it haunting, melodic, soulful, lyrically profound. He’s a towering figure.
As it turns out, Toots was a monster guitar player too, one of the most important guitar players in Europe. He also took whistling to dazzling heights.
I remember a conversation with Abbey Lincoln once where she compared Toots Thielemans to Miles Davis. I realized I got the same chill listening to Toots as listening to Miles. I think all three of them have a similar spirit—they play music with such delicacy, it’s like they’re walking on eggshells. They can strip the flesh off you in a way that frees your spirit from your body.
After a life of making incredible music, Toots Thielemans died in his sleep this past August, at the age of 94.