Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans, 94, dies

Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans has died at the age of 94 in a Brussels hospital on Aug 22, 2016.
Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans has died at the age of 94 in a Brussels hospital on Aug 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Belgian jazz legend Toots Thielemans died early on Monday (Aug 22) after a 70-year career as the world's top harmonica player during which he made music with some of the biggest names in the genre.

Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans, known affectionately as Toots, died in his sleep in a Brussels hospital, his manager told AFP. He was 94.

Born in 1922 in the working class Marolles district of Brussels, he got a big break when he joined Benny Goodman on a European tour in 1950 before moving to the United States where he teamed up with other jazz greats, including Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.

He performed in Singapore in 2003 and 2008.

He took up the harmonica as a hobby and then during World War II, as described on his official website, he became hooked on jazz.

The nickname followed, taken from American musician Toots Mondello, a swing jazz saxophonist, and Toots Camarata, a trumpet player, composer and arranger.

Ray Ventura and Django Reinhardt were major inspirations. Buoyed by the commercial success of his now standard Bluesette in 1962, he played harmonica on the soundtrack for the hit Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight film Midnight Cowboy in 1969 and many others.

In 2001, Belgian King Albert II made him a baron, sealing his status as one of the country's best-known figures on a par with Tour de France great Eddy Merckx.

In recent years, Thielemans had to cope with failing health but he refused to let this put him off and in 2012 he played a concert in Brussels to mark his 90th birthday before setting out on a world tour.

However, age and poor health have caught up with Toots, and he gave up touring in 2014. "We have lost a great musician, a heart-warming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said in a tweet.

For Quincy Jones, who famously took Michael Jackson's career to new heights with Thriller, Toots was one of the all-time greats.

"I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time," Jones is quoted as saying on Thieleman's website.