You’ve heard the work of Jean “Toots” Thielman, you may not know who is he was but he was one of the musicians who was everywhere and worked with everyone. He was on commercials, pop music, jazz music, even performed the theme to the iconic children’s show Sesame Street.
His work was featured in many movies including classics like “Midnight Cowboy” & “The Pawnbroker”.
He just passed at 94 years old.
He is a jazz master and music icon.
Yes he primarily played jazz, harmonica and whistler and no there aren’t many other musicians like that, not back in the day and certainly not now.
He was an in demand musician until a couple of years ago when he retired, which was for almost 70 years. The New York Times stated “that his body was worn out”.
I first heard of him over 20 years ago via Quincy Jones and his masterful collaboration work “Q’s Jook Joint”. Seems Toots & Q went way back when Q had big bands in Europe in the 1950’s & 60’s. That was Toot’s hey day and he had a huge hit song “Bluesette” back in 1961 that is now a jazz standard.
Toots had the one thing that makes jazz special, an unmistakable sound. Obviously since he played an instrument that is not common and he played it so well, he was his own genre.
For those of us who know R&B you know the harmonica of Stevie Wonder and in blues music some people call it a “mouth organ”.
But the sounds that instrument makes in those forms of music is great and has its own sound.
Toots used the harmonica to create his own legacy and you knew at the first note it was him.
And its not like the harmonica can lead a song or band like in the blues, its more accompaniment in jazz, like it is with R&B, you hear the great Stevie Wonder “solo out” for a few chords or chime along at a “bridge” or a “riff”. You have to basically jump in a song like a moving train, groove with it and jump off all while making a smooth transition and not ruining the song.
Not to make playing the harmonica sound like living like a hobo on the rails but you get the idea.
Toots could bring so much to a song with his playing, he added that one touch that made good songs great and made a good group of musicians a “tight band”.
The best example of this is my favorite Toots CD, and one of his last from 10 years ago aptly titled “One More for the Road”. This got heavy airplay on satellite and subscription music back then.
It’s a beautiful CD that highlights the work of the underappreciated songwriter Harold Arlen and my favorite is the last song on the CD, “Over the Rainbow”.
Toots said in an interview some years ago that some his own ballads made him cry and to me that’s what the best jazz ballads can do.
For years I listened to his version of Over the Rainbow before I went to bed, it just put me in the right mood, got me passed my day and ended it on the right note, literally.
This year we have lost some of the greatest musicians to ever walk the earth and entertain us with a song, add Toots as one of those cats who played so beautifully for us and will not be forgotten.
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