1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Belgian jazz great Toots Thielemans dies at 94

August 22, 2016

His breakthrough came in 1950 when he toured Europe with Benny Goodman. Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans also played with Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. He passed away in Brussels.

Toots Thielemans, Copyright: picture-alliance/Scanpix/E. Aas
Image: picture-alliance/Scanpix/E. Aas

Toots Thielemans was one of the world's most famous harmonica players in a career that spanned seven decades.

He died in his sleep in a Brussels hospital early Monday, according to his manager Veerle Van de Poel. Thielemans was 94.

Born as Jean-Baptiste Federic Isidore Thielemans in 1922, he took up playing the harmonica as a hobby during World War II. His nickname "Toots" allegedly comes from the US swing jazz saxophonist Toots Mondello, as well as trumpet player and composer Toots Camarata.

Thielemans gained a reputation among the US jazz scene when he joined Benny Goodman for his tour of Europe in 1950. After that, the harmonica player relocated to the US and became a regular on the top-tier scene, playing with big names like Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. He later teamed up with pop stars like Paul Simon and Billy Joel.

"He brought a rather banal instrument intended for campsites to almost sacred heights," said jazz historian Marc Danval.

Honored by Belgian royalty

Thielemans' harmonica solos feature on numerous film scores, including "Midnight Cowboy," "The Getaway," and "Sugarland Express."

In 2001, the musician was honored by Belgium's King Albert II, who gave him the title of baron. The Belgian royal family said it was "deeply moved by (the) passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen."

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted his condolences, saying "We have lost a great musician, a heartwarming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans."

Thielemans stopped playing in 2014 due to health problems. He was hospitalized last month after a fall and underwent shoulder surgery, but was said to have been in good spirits. His death came as a surprise, said his manager Veerle Van de Poel.

A jazz festival named for Thielemans was scheduled to take place from September 9-11 in La Hulpe, outside of Brussels, where Thielemans lived.

kbm/rb (AFP, AP)