For Toots’ Thielemans’ 92nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature—and Interview—From 2006

Earlier this year, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, perhaps the foremost practitioner of the harmonica in jazz music for more than four decades, and an equally expressive guitar player, decided to retire from public performance. Thielemans turned 92 on April 29th, a milestone I’m observing by posting a feature article that DownBeat assigned me to write in 2006, and the verbatim interview that I conducted with Toots for the piece.

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Several  hours into an afternoon conversation at his Upper East Side pied a terre midway through a week-long booking at New York’s Blue Note last November, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, halfway through his 83rd year, might easily have opted for a restorative pre-gig nap over continued interrogation.

Instead, using his dining room table as a prop, Thielemans launched into an impromptu demonstration on blues aesthetics.

“During the ‘60s nobody made a great living playing straight jazz,” Thielemans said, beginning the back story. “I got a call: ‘Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to do a jingle. We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ ‘Do you know anyone who does?’ There was maybe one, but my defense mechanism turned on. I said, ‘No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.’ I was living in Yonkers then, and once a week or so I’d go to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. There were two black gentlemen there who played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we want to play like you.’ But I said, ‘Can I hear what you do?’ I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Mechanically, that is; not the voicings and the sound. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.’ I went right to Manny’s Music Store on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. ‘Sir, I am ready for you.’”

Thielemans picked up his chromatic harmonica and blew a pair of nasty 12-bar phrases. “That’s very close, but it’s not funky enough,” he said. Meanwhile, Thielemans’ wife, anticipating his next step, emerged from their bedroom with a black leather bag, which she placed on the table. “Those are my diatonic harmonicas,” Thielemans noted. “I even took that bag to Hollywood for Quincy Jones, in case he needed that sound.” I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.”

Thielemans peeled off the wrapping from the harp. “Have you heard of Howard Levy?” he asked. “He overblows and creates harmonics, and he can play ‘Giant Steps’ on the diatonic. I can’t do it like he does, but I can show what can be done.”

He blew. “That’s too high-pitched,” Thielemans said. He quickly unwrapped another harp, and uncorked a variation, tapping his foot. “If you want to change keys…” Then he unwrapped another, and blew some more. “These guys have tone,” he remarked. He repeated the phrase, bending notes with soulful abandon. “Here you can attack the note,” he said, and offered another passage. “That’s very moody,” he said, before resuming.   “When I overblow like this, you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion.” He elaborated on the sonics. “That’s funky,” he said happily. “Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. ‘Before we say goodbye.’” He stated an emphatic line, put down the harmonica and laughed heartily. “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!”

[BREAK]
“Not everybody likes my sound,” Thielemans had remarked early in our chat. “But I can’t help it. A critic in Belgium described me once in Flemish, ‘shameless sentimentality.’ And I admit that I may be shameless. I laugh easily, and I am very close to tears sometimes when I hear those minor-7 chords. Now, if you analyze a minor 7, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy. The top three notes are major. So minor 7 mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, ‘between a smile and a tear.’ It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, ‘Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tonnes pastels,’ ‘give me your pastel tones.’ That’s my nature.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, on the opening set of his opening night, Thielemans and his superb quartet demonstrated this proposition on a program comprising  bebop, chanson, show tunes, and a tasting course of Brazilian musical cuisines. If he served up no small amount of kitsch and schmaltz, he compensated with many creative moments.  On “How High The Moon,” propelled by Airto Moreira’s effervescent hi-hat samba beat, Thielemans danced through the melody, interacting closely on the improv with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. After a brief turn by pianist Kenny Werner, he reentered with a vengeance, weaving substitute changes into the flow, leaping through the intervals and swinging hard. On Castro-Neves’ “Felicia and Bianca” and Chico Buarque’s “Futbol,” Moreira orchestrated samba school beats on different components of his arsenal, which included a 22-inch bass drum; his opening declamation that provoked Thielemans to respond with train whistle onomatopoeia. After a long Thielemans melody-to-abstraction improv on Sammy Cahn’s “All The Way,” Moreira ingeniously limned the melodic design on caixa, shaker and tom-tom, setting up  an abstract Werner solo.

There was much shameless melody-milking, too, as Thielemans sculpted the phrases of such ballads as Luiz Eca’s luxuriantly melancholic “The Dolphin”—but also on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” and “The Waters of March,” Buarque’s “Joanna Frances,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Michel Legrand’s “You Must Remember Spring,” and the set-closer, “God Bless America,” which Thielemans described as “my idea of what would have happened if Irving Berlin had met Milton Nascimento”—to animate the soulful emotions within.

“To me, Brazil is minor-7 country,” Thielemans said at his apartment. Rio-based harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn “sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested in the harmony,” he continued. After he collaborated on Aquarella do Brasil with Elis Regina in 1969, Brazilian musicians began to regard Thielemans as an iconic figure, as was evident in 1990, when he broke bread with Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Buarque, Djavan, Joao Bosco, Dami Caymmi, Ivan Lins and Eliane Elias on a two-volume collection called Brazil Project.

“His heart is Brazilian,” said Castro-Neves. “He understands the idiom with the ease of someone who speaks fluent Portuguese. But also, he is a bottomless well of ideas. After a take with Ivan Lins, you’d say, ‘Great, Toots, let’s do a second take for the sake of it.’ The second take was totally different from the first. If he’d come from the right, he came from the left; if he’d started on the third, he started on the fifth; he’d have a rhythm figure here, he’d start another rhythm figure there. He is incredible.”

[BREAK]

“You may have noticed that little change I made to ‘How High The Moon,’” Thielemans informed the Blue Note audience. “The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.”

Thielemans in his teens aspired to be a math teacher; he has the kind of mind that hears harmonic equations as sonic poetry. A native of Antwerp, a bustling North Sea port city, he bought a harmonica not long after Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, and “fooled around by instinct” to Benny Goodman Trio records. He continues: “Then the musicians in Belgium started to say ‘jette se joué,’ ‘throw that toy away and get a real instrument.’” Recuperating from pneumonia with extended bedrest, he taught himself to play guitar—a Macaferri—by ear, copying Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian records. By 1944 Belgium was liberated, and soon thereafter merchant sailors were bringing such early bebop classics as “Groovin’ High” and “One Bass Hit” across the Atlantic. While playing guitar at a local boite with the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Stephane Grappelli, Thielemans began to analyze the musical language of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

“We made acetate copies, although the needles eroded them quickly,” he recalls. “’Groovin’ High’ is ‘Whispering’ in E-flat, and I remember the phrasing Dizzy used to go from A-minor-7 to D-7. I tried to play that phrase – from D-7 to D-minor-7 to G – in every key on harmonica. I continue to find new things. For instance, for sixty years, like everybody else, I played ‘Confirmation’ in F, but recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F.”

He played the “Confirmation” theme in both keys. The version in B embodied the trademark Thielemans sound.

“I first visited the States in ‘47,” he continued. “I was with my uncle in Miami, and we were having a drink at a restaurant where they were playing Nat Cole trio music. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, but I bought the guitar player a drink and sat in.” By happy coincidence, photographer William Gottlieb was at the bar. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re good.’ I looked him up in New York, and he took me to 52nd Street – the Three Deuces. It was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Bags, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, maybe Jimmy Heath, too. Bill took me to meet the band. ‘Who? Belgium?’ The two question marks. ‘What do you want to play?’ In those days, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of ‘I Can’t Get Started.’”

Thielemans demonstrated. “I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine! With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Billy Shaw was there, the agent, the big salesman of bebop. The big cigar.  ‘Shaw Nuff.’ ‘Where you from? You’re good!’ ‘I’m from Belgium.’ ‘Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.’ Typical  Hollywood. ‘Send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.’

While sailing back to Europe—a festival in Nice, where he and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar accompanied Lucky Thompson—Thielemans wrote a progression on Stardust, and recorded it with a string quartet. He played the acetate for Ray Nance, whom he befriended when the Duke Ellington Orchestra visited Belgium in 1948; Nance took it to an agent, who played it for Benny Goodman, then beginning his brief love affair with bebop. In 1949, Goodman summoned Thielemans to London for a gig at the Palladium.

“I played the Charlie Christian chair,” Thielemans says. “After six weeks of touring I said, ‘Benny, I’d like to play another number.’ ‘Play Stardust.’ Benny loved that progression, which went up the chromatic scale instead of down. It worked out well for me. It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, and I had newspaper attention. But I didn’t play the rhythm with the strength Benny wanted, so he didn’t use me after that tour.”

Sponsored by Goodman’s secretary, Thielemans emigrated to New York in 1952 with $2000 in his pocket and  and a burgeoning reputation. While waiting to establish his residence and join the union, he worked for Sabina Airlines, networked at musician bars like the Metropole and Charlie’s Tavern, and played three nights a week at the Downbeat, where he met such fellow progressives as Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Billy Taylor, George Wallington and Tony Scott.

“Tony heard that Dick Garcia, who was George Shearing’s guitar player, was  going into the Army, and he brought me to George’s dressing room when he was doing a double bill with Billy Eckstine at Carnegie Hall,” Thielemans recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got the man for you.’ We played Body and Soul together, and George said, ‘If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.’ I knew it by ear. Over the years I developed my guitar chops and got some visibility. On the road we both read the Percy Goetschius book,  Materials Used in Musical Composition—he had it in Braille and I normal. Elementary stuff. Now I can explain every note I play—to which altered scale it belongs, which chord it should go to. When I improvise, I respect the ten commandments of harmony—no parallel fifths, the leading note should go to the tonic, that sort of thing. After a while, George was ready to change faces, and I decided I hadn’t come to the States to be a sideman all my life.”

Instead, Thielemans began to divide his time between New York and Europe, primarily Sweden, where he wrote Bluesette, the breakthrough tune that opened theretofore closed doors in the New York studios. “Talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree,” Thielemans laughed. “I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and everything so I could stay home. But Madison Avenue was looking for different sounds. I’d done some ads where I played guitar and whistled; for the guitar I’d make $37 for 12 weeks, which was scale for an instrumental jingle, but for the whistling I made $50 each time it was heard. Then I got a call for Old Spice. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?’ That was Class A, coast to coast. Staying home, I made $15,000. That was also the time when Johnny Cash made Ring of Fire, with two trumpets, and I decided to do a melody with two voices. I gave it to the publisher who’d just handled Bluesette, he sent it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert heard it. It’s called Ladyfingers, and it went on a record—the one with the chick on the cover wrapped in whipped cream—that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000. Between Old Spice and Herb Alpert, we bought a house in Montauk.”

By 1979, Thielemans’ c.v. included the soundtracks for Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express, the harmonica solo on the Sesame Street theme, a slew of Quincy Jones  big band recordings, and one-offs with pop-folk as diverse as Paul Simon, the Brothers Johnson, Ray Charles, and John Denver. “The phone rang—I said, ‘Okay,’” Thielemans recalled. He wasn’t playing much hardcore jazz, though, and when Bill Evans’ manager, Helen Keane, called to ask Thielemans to play on Affinity, Evans’ first album for Warner Brothers, Thielemans hesitated.

“From a pianist, I can almost say that I need Bill Evans as my ground floor,” Thielemans said. “When Bill was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform and a crewcut, to listen to George Shearing rehearse at the Blue Note in Chicago. Afterwards, he said, ‘I hope we play together’—one of those polite goodbyes. Later on the road, I heard him and remembered him, After I left Shearing, I heard Bill playing with Miles, Trane and Cannon at the Showboat, and during a break Miles saw me talking to Bill. ‘What are you talking about?’ We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment. Miles said, ‘You two should play together,’ quick, and he went on by.

“When Helen called, I was playing with good group – Phil Markowitz, Chip Jackson and Joe LaBarbera – and told her to have Bill come to hear us before he made up his mind to have me.  I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and like a piranha Bill jumped on the lead sheet and said, ‘Come Monday.’ After three or four days in the studio, it appeared that I was going to play on every song with Bill instead of just two. I said, ‘Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much. It could be Toots Thielemans featuring…’ Bill said in my ear: ‘I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that.” No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out. He said, ‘Give me a minute.’ He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. ‘We will double your fee.’ I never heard that one before!”

[BREAK]

On a Wednesday afternoon early in 1962, after a gig-hunting expedition to the Local 802 headquarters on West 52nd Street, Thielemans heard music from a trumpet store next door, and entered. “It was Donald Byrd, and I saw a piano player from the back,” Thielemans recalled. “It was Herbie Hancock, who had recently come to town. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island, and I asked him if he wanted to do it. Donald said,’Take him! He needs the job.’ We rehearsed, and I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. It wasn’t a jazz job. After ten minutes he said, ‘Hmm, I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.’”

Reminded of the comment last March, Hancock laughed loudly. “It was fun to play with Toots because he would always stimulate ideas and inspire me to pull out more things. Now he works off a much broader palette, from familiar things to the cutting edge. He has his own harmonic stuff, and his sound is so haunting and arresting and warm. On one hand, it’s as sharp as a razor, but on the other hand, as warm as a fireplace.”

It was the end of an all-afternoon rehearsal at Carroll Studios for a tribute concert the following evening at Carnegie Hall at which Thielemans interacted with a rotating cast of characters comprising Hancock, Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Ivan Lins, and Eliane Elias. After her opening remarks, co-producer Pat Philips brought out an upholstered chair on which Thielemans sat, smiling broadly, as Hancock improvised a richly harmonic solo meditation. Then the maestro moved to the  center stage stool on which he would perch for the remainder of the evening.

After heady duets with Hancock on “I Do It For Your Love” and “Dolphin Dance,” Thielemans played “Body and Soul” and his own “For My Lady” with Lovano, joined Paquito D’Rivera for a pastel-shaded version of D’Rivera’s “Brussels in the Rain,” and illuminated the weltschmertz melody of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in soaring dialogue with Werner. The Brazilians came out for the second half, on which Elias sang a Jobim tune and an original ballad in a whispery, sensual alto, and Ivan Lins, fighting off a cold, sang two songs, including his early hit Madalena. As always, the house was filled with an international mix; standing ovations were the rule.

“I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion,” Thielemans said, offering a self-description of his magic. “I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always give me a goosebump. Of course, I try to incorporate much of what I hear. I do feel closer to the loose phrasing of today’s rhythms – on Dapp Theory, for instance, which Gregoire Maret gave me – than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago.  I play my songs differently each time. That’s what keeps me interested.”

[—30—]

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Toots Thielemans (Nov. 18, 2005):

TP:   We’re in Toots Thielemans’ apartment, and there’s a wood fire going on in a Manhattan apartment building, and he’s talking about the contents of his I-Pod. Chris Potter is on it? Herbie Hancock.

TOOTS:   Yes, I can show you. Messiaen. In Belgium, they ask what Charlie Haden is reading? The writings of Claude Debussy. Claude Debussy was French-educated, and he writes such elegant French. He was a music critic under the name of Monsieur Croche. “Croche” is eighth note in French. Monsieur Croche. And he writes such beautiful French. Literary French. They are famous letter-writers from Louis XIV time. Madame DeSegueur, La Comptesse de Segueur. The letter exchanges between him and Stravinsky, his first encounter with Stravinsky’s music. He died only in 1917, and I was influenced by Debussy.

TP: Were you listening to Debussy and Messaien when you were young?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. But clearly (?).

TP:   He’s looking at his I-Pod. Is it 40-gig?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I have… This Englishman, Django Bates. I have him here, too. Steve Coleman. I have it here. [5 records] My managers puts it on. I don’t have a computer. But he puts it… I’ll roll it, and you’ll see what you like to talk about. That’s Django Bates. Teri Lyne Carrington. When she came with Cassandra to Brussels, she gave me that CD. It’s great, with some guys… Definitely George Shearing, from my… I spent six years with George. The live takes was fairly recent.

I’m nervous, of course. I appreciate very much your command of jazz, call it that. I read in one of the Downbeats the word Ouillette used, “the jazz police,” talking about Norah Jones. Would she be accepted by the jazz police? That sort of thing. For instance, in Brussels there’s a lot happening. One evening I went to listen to Norah Jones, and the next was Archie Shepp and the pianist who plays the organ, Amina Meyers… A duo. A lady from Chicago.

TP:   How long have you been playing with this band that you’re with this week. Kenny Werner has been your pianist and you’ve done projects with Oscar Castro-Neves.

TOOTS:   Oscar is the one who had the idea to get the Brazilians together. He was a film producer who did some film producing with Miles Goodman in Los Angeles. Miles passed away… They came to Brussels, and the session was produced for a film, Nothing About Love or something. After the (?), Oscar said, “You should make a record with the Brazilians. They all love you.” He mentioned Chico Buarque, Nascimento, Gilberto Gil. “Are they going to do it?” “Yes.” So Oscar set it up. He did all the calling or the fax. “I don’t believe what you say.” “Yeah, they’d all like to play with you.” So we did one session in Los Angeles, which is fantastic…

TP:   You’re talking now about the two Brazil Project records from ten years ago.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then there was Ron Goldstein who had Private Records. We went to Rio, and we did two songs a day with Chico Buarque and the other guys. Vol. 2 is the same as Vol. 1.

TP:  You used Eliane Elias, Oscar, with tunes by Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil…

TOOTS:   Recently Gilberto Gil, if you know his story, he was very (how you say) against the regime, and even went to jail. He and Caetano Veloso…

TP:   He gave you the award.

TOOTS:   Yes. Commandadore Orde de Rio Branco.

TP:   Was Brazilian music part of your repertoire at that time? When did you start getting interested in Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   I must say, I have a friend, a harmonica player in Rio, Mauricio Einhorn, and he sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested. In the harmony. I always to say, “to me, Brazil is minor-VII country.” If you analyze a minor VII, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy, and you have a third… The top three notes are major. So minor VII mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, “between a smile and a tear.” It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, “Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tones pastels,” “give me your pastel tones.” That’s my nature. A critic in Belgium, Rob Leurentop, described me once in Flemish, “shameless sentimentality.”

TP: What did you think of that?

TOOTS:   I may be shameless. I am very close to the tears sometimes when I hear some of those minor VII chords. Kenny plays them so well. On my Johnny Mandel left hand!

TP:   So you’ve been hearing and playing Brazilian music…

TOOTS:   Since it came out. Maybe slightly before Stan Getz. I had the records, and then it exploded.

TP:   When did you start playing with Brazilian musicians?

TOOTS:   Oh, Elis Regina.  I made a record for George Avakian in 1955.

TP: This is my collection. They’re all recent. I have 20 selections with George Shearing. With Bill Evans. With Ella.

TOOTS:   Oh, that was pathetic. Norman Granz wanted her to do mostly Jobim, and she had the start of that glaucoma, and of course she didn’t speak Portuguese. So it was like the old TV cue cards with letters like that, and from the booth. She read and sang.

TP:   But Elis Regina got you started. How did that happen?

TOOTS:   That happened in 1969. I was in Belgium, commuting already then, but I didn’t have this apartment that we have. I lived in Yonkers with my first wife. We already had the place in Montauk. I love Montauk. So I went to Sweden. Sweden was the first country… In 1950, I did that tour with Benny Goodman with Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman, Ed Shaughnessy, and a bassist from England. So I was in Europe, and a TV producer… That was the first time Elis came to the MIDEM, that big thing in the south of France, the record…like your NARAS, a big thing. I speak Swedish fluently. He said, “Toots, would you like to make a record? We want to do a show with Elis Regina and you.” They brought Elis’  band. Fantastic. Antonio Adolfo, [(?)Nilson Das Neiras(?)], a drummer. Roberto Scalero(?). He played fantastic guitar. He still does. Then while we were there for the show, the show was presented at the International TV competition in Montreux, “La Rose of Montreux,” ‘the rose of Montreux.” He won the prize with that. While we were doing that TV show, the guy from Philips Records… It was winter, snow, like that. Imagine those Brazilians, used to that heat, in the winter! He said, “You should go in the studio and make a record.” And we did. That was my first.

TP:   Did you take very naturally to the phrasing of Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   Yes. You didn’t hear yesterday… Oscar Castro-Neves… I call him Freddie. Because to Brazilian rhythm, he is what Freddie Greene! [LAUGHS] I sat in the bus so many times next to Freddie on Birdland tours. Across the aisle from Billie Holiday with the chihuahua! Oh, there are so many… But you pick out what you need.

TP: But let’s speak about now.

TOOTS:   Yes, the Brazilians. That is where my first contact with Brazilian lies—Elis Regina. Then I went a few times.

TP:   Have you played with this band a fair amount? Is it a recently formed band? A band you formed a while ago?

TOOTS:   Kenny and I have been touring basically with a duo. Like, in St. Louis a few weeks ago, we did a duo. We have that repertoire. Then I asked Oscar… We had a little budget, and we played Yoshi’s. “Hey, that’s great. Can you come back next year?” That was the suggestion of Yoshi’s, the jazz club there, to add Airto. I never had played with him. [A couple of years ago.] Now we did San Francisco Festival with Airto, we did the Blue Note, and we did the Belgium (?) Festival with Airto…

TP:   So this is basically a new group. Airto makes it a new group.

TOOTS:   Yes. But Kenny is the quarterback, and Oscar can play in that direction. We really never rehearsed. It might not be pure(?) Brazilian music, but you cannot go much… To me, my ears, Jobim, Ivan Lins, and then Chico Buarque. That’s when the record was made, but I haven’t… I played with Maria Schneider. She is my friend. She was very sad. She is going to try to come to the last show Sunday because they are flying in from Europe.

TP: They play next week at the Jazz Standard.

TOOTS:   Yes. But they start Tuesday. We’ll be going back home to Belgium on Monday.
TP:   Ah, you live in Belgium.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   You live in Belgium, you live here, and you live in Montauk.

TOOTS:   No more. We sold Montauk. We were there ten days a year. That’s not enough… With the few pennies we got from Montauk…

TP: It’s not a few pennies in Montauk.

TOOTS:   I love it. And the lobster. Since we were there, Paul Simon, Billy Joel… No, Billy Joel is East Hampton. Did you hear Paul Simon with Herbie on the new record? I think Paul Simon is underrated as a vocalist. He’ll compose and produce or whatever. But with Herbie, he sounds so beautiful. And it’s not his groove. I have a beautiful email from Herbie. I’m very proud…

TP:   Pat told me that he might be in this concert in March.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   With Airto, what does he do for your presentation? What does having a dynamic, creative drummer like that…

TOOTS:   [Huguette speaks] Yes. Quincy says sometimes, “Oh, you don’t need anything, with Oscar, Kenny and you,” and she feels the same. But it’s very exciting.

TP: So your wife feels you don’t need Airto.

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   But that being said, how does having a creative drummer impact your band?

TOOTS:   Oh, he is a creative drummer. You should have heard the second show! Many groups you go to hear and they loosen up. Besides that, I was saying, “Hey, Panken’s here.” [ETC.] I have much respect for Ouillette and you. I watch the signatures on the articles. I do. I don’t mean to rub… “brute(?) la matte(?)” means you flatter.” “Rub the sleeve,” that means flatter. [RUBBING MYSLEEVE]

TP:   For instance, when you’re doing a week at a club, do you do the same set every night?

TOOTS:   Many times we have strong numbers. One of our strong numbers is What A Wonderful World. Yesterday, there were Belgians… When I play in Montreal, when I play Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel, we’re French territory… A 10-minute standing ovation! It was nice. It was Kenny and I, and we had Fresu and Pat Metheny.

TP: Do you approach the tunes the same way every night?

TOOTS:   According… We had Belgian friends, so I play Brel. I don’t like to tell the joke the same way as I did… You know? [Huguette: didn’t like The Dolphin as on the record. Pas ne meme chose.”] I play once in a while… Not every year. But Quincy and I play sometimes a year apart, two years apart. Quincy said… He was in Hollywood at the Capitol Studio, the tower, and I was in Holland, overdubbing one of his things for one of his projects. At the end, he says, “Toots, each time I hear you, you’ve got some new shit.” That’s a good thing. He knows me; I know Quincy.

TP:   How do you know each other?

TOOTS:   That happened when I was already playing on the Street, on 52nd Street, with Shearing in the early ‘50s, and they started to talk about this cat from Seattle who wrote… I remember I was rehearsing something, and Quincy passed through whatever we were doing, and he told me, “You have the most beautiful humming voice.” But I never sang or anything! But we have a great relationship. A beautiful… One of those things I wish I could have kept. A couple of months before Ray Charles passed away, he was still one-nighting, you know, tours. I got a call on the answering machine in Belgium. We’d come back from a restaurant or whatever. The message was Quincy’s voice. “Hey, Stink!” That’s what he calls me. Or suspenders. He gives me suspenders. Because when you inhale a long note on the harmonica, my pants fall down! We exchange once in a while New Year’s presents. So: “Stink, I’m here with Ray Charles” (in Indianapolis or something) “and we’re talking about your black ass.” Now, Quincy, he don’t call so many guys “black ass” who are not black. He said, “Okay, you may be Belgian, but I’m sure yo mama spoke to a brother.” So these are precious… I feel like wearing that!

TP:   When you started playing harmonica… I don’t know who the predecessors… I think you said you heard Larry Adler in a film.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: But stylistically, did you emulate anybody? Or did you learn how to play and adapt the vocabulary?

TOOTS:   No. I first bought a harmonica during the Occupation… I was trying to become a math teacher.

TP:   Good for harmony.

TOOTS:   Yeah, they say so. I can explain every note I play, to what altered scale it belongs to, and what chord it should go to and whatever. I read the same book as George Shearing. He had it in Braille and I normal. Percy Goetschius, Materials Used in Musical Composition. Elementary. We didn’t go very far. But that’s 50 years ago. Call it conservative; I need an explanation for whatever I do. When they say no parallel fifths, or the leading note should go to the tonic—that sort of thing. The big commandments. The ten commandments of harmony. I respect that, even when I improvise.

TP:   When were you studying that book?

TOOTS:   While I was on the road with George Shearing. We both wanted to know what we were playing, George and I.

TP: Before that, you were playing by ear, more or less?

TOOTS:   Self-taught. Oh, yes. So, chronologically: I bought a harmonica. Then I started, no jazz. Then I heard one record, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, “carry me back…” A 78 with the wind-up phonography. Over sixty years ago! Then I bought other records. People don’t realize that during the German Occupation, Belgium was invaded in 1940. But anything that happened before, we had the records… We had a dear friend, Leon de Mock(?)… He died, but he was a good friend of Clark Terry. And he called to make …(?)… Clark Terry and I somehow project something similar, and Leon, he said, “Clark a ton negatif,” the negative of the photograph. But he had a lot of records. We already had some Benny Goodman Trio, I think. Benny played with Teddy Wilson in the ‘30s. Teddy Wilson, Krupa, Where Or When and things like that.

TP:   Did you know about Benny Carter or Hawkins?

TOOTS:   Yes. Hawkins stayed in Europe.
TP:   Yes, that’s why I asked.

TOOTS:   He stayed in Brussels. He played there for a while. But I didn’t meet him.

TP: Or Bill Coleman or any of those people.

TOOTS:   Yes, the expatriates.  But I had those records, and I started to fool around, not knowing jazz, what to do on blues and so on. But I followed by instinct. Then the musicians in Belgium started to say “jette se joué,” “throw that toy away and get a real instrument.”

TP:   That’s an oft-told story. So you got a guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then, on a bet, I had a friend who wanted to try… He had a lot of money because his uncle sold liquor on the black market during the war, and he wanted to try to play Fats Waller. …(?)… exactly, “want some seafood, mama.” That phrase, if you think, it’s the typical blues phrase. [SINGS IT] I was in bed with pneumonia, and he comes… He had just bought it; this was his day. Wednesday is my day for guitar. I’m in bed, and I play. I said, “Gilbert, je sais joué salon moi dix minutes; je sais joué…” On one string I can play [SINGS REFRAIN], “For the …(?)…, I want some seafood.” Then he gave me the guitar.

TP:   And you taught yourself the guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: You listened to Django records, and you bought a picture of him to see the way he held the guitar, or something… Or did you see Django play?

TOOTS:   Yes, when he played during the war. He just had written Nuages, and he played with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet. Stephane was in England at the time. That was in ‘43 or ‘44.

TP:   So you played accordion as a kid, and when did you start playing harmonica? Before guitar or after guitar?

TOOTS:   Before guitar. Then it was sure that I wasn’t good enough to become a math teacher, and then my parents… My father was very… They spoiled me, allowed me to do what I… And I was practicing the guitar.
TP:   So you played for fun. You played accordion for fun, you played harmonica for fun, you played guitar…

TOOTS:   Yes. Still now. [LAUGHS] I wish that for everybody. First to get to 83. My birthdate is the same as Duke. Stevie Wonder is also Taurus. He told me after one of his shows in Brussels… You know, the blind guys go like that. His firm, his Black Bull publishing firm. He said, “Toots, maybe I’m Black Bull, but you sure are white bull.” [LAUGHS] Isn’t that beautiful?

TP: When did you start playing professionally?

TOOTS:   After liberation. It might have been… No, not during the Occupation. Then I played guitar. Nobody wanted to hear that toy. I had still like a Macaferri guitar, the Django type. It was an acoustic guitar. I saw Django’s concert, one night with the quintet, and he broke strings. Then he gave his guitar to… He had one of his cousins or something that plays rhythm guitar [MIMES boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick, boom…] then he gives it to the cousin, and the song didn’t stop, just that the guy tuned up, and he came back. Django was fantastic.

TP:   When did you start hearing bebop vocabulary? Because Django started to get into…

TOOTS:   No, he wasn’t. Many musicians couldn’t jump… They called it a hurdle for a minute, an obstacle you have to… Charlie Parker. My first bebop records were… We had the French (?)s from Antwerp who knew the sailors, and they brought back Groovin’ High, the historic Guild record, with the yellow; One Bass Hit, both sides, small group and the big band. Then we made acetate copy of that. They didn’t last long, because we used those needles, you know; they erode quickly with it. One historic thing I remember is Dizzy… First of all, Groovin’ High, the phrasing those guys used to go from A-minor-VII to D-VII… Groovin’ High is Whispering in E-flat, and the second time in… I tried to play that phrase in every key. So I went from D-VII to D-minor-VII to G, the VI-V in every key…
TP:   You did it in every key on the harmonica and practiced it.

TOOTS:   Yes. You may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t) that little change I put instead of the normal How High The Moon. The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.

TP: You said that on stage.

TOOTS:   Yes. Once in a while, I find things like that. Or practice… For instance, I play Confirmation, which was another first hurdle through. [sings refrain] I played that for sixty years in F, like everybody. But recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F. I tried to play, and I got… But I am basically a tonal musician. Kenny wants to push me outside of it. [plays theme of Confirmation on harmonica in F.] Now I play it in B. [Plays it in B.]

TP:   That sounds like your sound. It transformed into something I could recognize as you.

TOOTS:   [Continues] Well, these are the things. Also, the release of Cherokee. Even Bud Powell, I think, made the release on the chords of Cherokee.

TP:   So those are the things you practiced.

TOOTS:   Yes. Chico Buarque is fantastic, this song. [PLAYS IT] And here is pure Monk. [plays refrain] That’s so deep, you know. And I did that in every key, too.

TP: Sounds like you keep yourself sharp and alert by doing these mental exercises. It helps you keep your mental agility.

TOOTS:   My strongest (?) is Jaco Pastorius. [Points to ipod] He has those records, Live In New York, and when I had my stroke in 1981, and I was recuperating here in Lenox Hill Hospital… I had played with him on the word of mouth. Herbie was there. The Breckers. How is Michael?

TP:   He just went to Minneapolis for an experimental treatment…

TOOTS:   Anyway, where were we? On Jaco. We had this session. The way I met Jaco, he had just broke up with Weather Report. They’d gone each their own way. And in ‘79, he was alone in Berlin, solo concert. A journalist asked him, “You see here a list of the performers at the festival, Mr. Pastorius. If you were going to do a duo with someone…” He said, “Get me Toots.” That’s how it happened. And I never called Dizzy and said, “Dizzy, hey…” Everybody I played with…

TP:   Why do you think? Being objective about yourself, thinking about the type of musician you are, why do so many people want to play with you?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. Still now. Maybe you should ask some of the people. Maria Schneider… I call Maria very often, or she calls us. I was the first one to ask for Maria. She was in the north of Sweden. They have this bands on salary, this jazz orchestra. Luleå. Anyway, there’s a lady up there who’s booking, and she has a band, but they need soloists. “Mr. Thielemans, would you like to work with Ms. Maria Schneider?” I had heard her on the corner there, where she played every Monday. [Visiones] “Yes, I’d like to!” And we started a correspondence, and that’s where I played with Maria. We have some live tapes here. [points to Ipod]

TP: That’s a virtual mind in that Ipod.

TOOTS:   That’s 60 years. I knew you were coming! So I got a little, just in case something…

TP:   But let’s step back. What you said was fascinating about studying Groovin’ High and Confirmation and the release of Cherokee, and playing them in all the keys. But when Benny Goodman heard your acetates and asked for you, and you wound up playing with him, you’d been doing it…

TOOTS:   I was a full-fledged bebopper then, and that’s already 1950.

TP:   Were there people to play with in Europe at the time?

TOOTS:   In Belgium there were a few. Bobby Jaspar, Rene Thomas, but not many more. I saw Bobby with Miles just before Coltrane!

TP: Rene Thomas was a helluva guitar player.

TOOTS:   Yes. Sonny Rollins liked him. My first visit to the States was in ‘47. I was with my father’s brother in Miami, and there was this “Straighten up And Fly Right” by Nat Cole in the restaurant. Trio music with “Route 66.” That was the era. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, that people don’t want to hear that. Then I buy a drink to a guitar player, and we talk a little bit, “Yeah, I play the guitar and also the harmonica,” and I sat in. But who was there? None other than Bill Gottlieb. So hears me, and he buys me a drink. “Oh, you’re good.” Whatever. Then Bill Gottlieb took me to the Street.

TP:   He heard you in Miami, and then you looked him up when you came to New York.

TOOTS:   I was just having a drink and sitting in. Then he took me to the Street, the Three Deuces.  I think it was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, and Bags, and Jimmy Heath, too, I think. If you ask Bill Gottlieb, he’ll probably remember. He took me to meet the band. “Hey, guys, I’ve got this guy who plays the harmonica.” “Who? Belgium?” The two question marks. “What do you want to play?” In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of I Can’t Get Started. [PLAYS IT] I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. That was enough. And I sat next to the piano; I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine? With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Then the agent, the big salesman of bebop then was Billy Shaw. Shaw Nuff. That’s one of the traffic lights! “Where you from? You’re good!” “I’m from Belgium.” “Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.” [LAUGHS] Typical  Hollywood. And the big cigar with it! “Oh, send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.” I swear to you.

TP:   After I Can’t Get Started like that, I can see why.

TOOTS:   No, I was close to that. But the fundamentals were there. Now I’ve got some alternate scales into this, heh-heh. Then I wound up… I had to go back to the south of France with the boat. New York-Genoa, and then go to Nice, where there was a jazz festival, and where I was playing with Bobby Jaspar, representing Belgium. We were also accompanying Lucky Thimpson at that festival. Louis Armstrong was the top. On the boat, I wrote… I will play for you the progression I wrote on Stardust. I did it with Benny Goodman. I can play what Benny heard me play on the acetate there, you know….

TP: 50 years ago.

TOOTS:   55! [PAUSE] For instance, on the day of my birthday, the 29th of April, in a stadium in Norway, a football stadium – soccer. It was cold! I think I had gloves to play the guitar. And Zoot… Roy was there, Zoot was here, and Benny in the middle. Benny would play, and he would turn to the next soloist at the end of his chorus, one way or the other. But in that stadium, I never forgot, Zoot was waiting his time to solo, and he hadn’t played a note. It was freezing. For 15 minutes easy. If you remember Zoot, his horn is hanging and… [TP: Looking blank [HEAD DOWN, STOCK STILL] Then Benny… He didn’t expect to play. Benny turned to his side, and instantly, like a transistor – DOODLE,DA-DA-DA, DE-DE. Typical Zoot. Fantastic. That was my first contact with… I wasn’t in the States really. My first live contact with that kind of spontaneity like Zoot. He was so great. Then, of course. We didn’t play often enough together after that..

TP:   What was Benny Goodman’s demeanor like when you touring with him? You were his guitar player and…

TOOTS:   He wasn’t bad. I played the Charlie Christian chair.

TP:   So you had nothing but good experiences with him.

TOOTS:  Yeah.  And after six weeks touring: “Benny, I’d like to play another number.” Play Stardust. He loved that progression, where the guys went down and chromatically… I went up… That was revolutionary almost. [PLAYS UPWARD CHROMATIC SCALE] That I wrote, so to speak, it was in ‘47. Because I only played it in ‘50 with Benny. I had time to make the record, send it… And Ray Nance…we were buddies. They came to Brussels with Ellington, and I played that… I don’t have that record any more with the strings. I was able to take Duke into a record store, [(?)La Deux Des Midi(?)] in Brussels, and to make him listen to that acetate which wound up on Benny Goodman’s phonograph. Those are great memories.

TP: When was that experience with Duke?

TOOTS:   Oh, I never played with him. In ‘47, I came back…

TP:   Maybe it was ‘49 or so?

TOOTS:   In ‘48. The beginning. So that wound up, and in Europe after that I didn’t play with him. I didn’t play the right rhythm he wanted to hear. Not enough strength. Guys like Bucky Pizzarelli did that much better for him.

TP:   As far as rhythm guitar. So what decided you to come to the States? Did you make a decision to move here?

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. Because I had already applied for the immigration. The secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, who died… [HUGUETTE: She came to our wedding.] She was Benny Goodman’s secretary. She volunteered to be my affidavit…
TP: Your sponsor.

TOOTS:   Sponsor. Made it possible for me… She would be responsible if I did something wrong to the United States life. She would pay… So that was a great responsibility. She became good friends with my wife, Nettie.

TP:   So you came here with your wife…

TOOTS:   Yes, with $2000 in my pocket and a suitcase.

TP:   That wasn’t bad in 1952. That was a lot of money in 1952!

TOOTS:   Then my father… Of course, the regulations of the union were very strict. The Local 802, even if you came from the Chicago local, you had to establish residence in the Local 802 area, and wait for… I made $40 a week sending posters for the Belgian airline, Sabina. But we lived very…it was not…

TP: Not like this.

TOOTS:   No. We paid $20 a week in a hotel that’s a welfare hotel now, the Marquis, at 31st and Madison. The lady at the Belgian Embassy found us a place. Nothing. No cooking, just a hot plate.

TP:   But when you got here, you’d go around to the clubs and hang out.

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. I could work three days… No steady job. Or a record date, but nobody asked me. Also, Monte Kay, who became Diahann Carroll’s manager, and also the Modern Jazz Quartet, he had a club, the Downbeat, where everybody played. I got $15 a night for three nights, and that was a big week. 45 plus 40 is $85! You could eat at least. Some nights there was Mingus. Everybody. Lee Konitz.

TP:   Were you playing guitar or harmonica?

TOOTS:   Both. But mostly guitar. Billy Taylor was there and George Wallington, and Charlie Smith, the left-hand drummer. Billy Taylor, who wasn’t Doctor yet. Slim Gaillard playing piano! [LAUGHS] You know who came hanging around, and we started a friendship which we never developed any further? Paul Bley. He came from Canada. “Bon chez, bon ja(?),” they say, like Papa’s son comes to the big city. We talked a lot. Never technical; “okay, let’s play.” Nothing like that. Then…

TP: So you come to New York and start hanging out with your peer group, or people a bit younger than you…

TOOTS:   I was 30 years old.

TP:   Well, Billy Taylor and George Wallington… But you’re hanging out with the most progressive musicians…

TOOTS:   Yes. Lee Konitz, too.

TP:   They’re hearing you play the harmonica. Were you playing bebop on guitar as well?

TOOTS:   Yes. The next step was George Shearing. Tony Scott was hanging around all the time also, and helping. For instance, they had a party, and Bird was at the party, and get, you know, PUFFS, whatever…the hospitality… And Tony introduced me to some black ladies. [LAUGHS] He said he’d heard that George Shearing was going to lose his guitar player, and Dick Garcia had to go into the Army. George was doing those double-bill things with Billy Eckstine – Billy Eckstine-George Shearing at Carnegie Hall, and touring. This was 1952. Then across at the Metropole or Charlie’s Tavern or one of those bars where musicians hang out between sessions… There were a lot of recording sessions going on then. I went there to try to meet the guys, and Tony said: “Come with me.” He took me to meet George Shearing, and he pushed…at the stage door at Carnegie Hall, all he had to do was say, “Yes, I know so-and-so”… “I am a good friend of Mr. Shearing.” And he pushed me into George’s dressing room. George was relaxing. “George, I’ve got the man for you.” “Ah,” George says. “He plays the guitar, too.” So I played “Body and Soul” together with George in George’s dressing room. Then George says, “If you cut the guitar book…” Those were the words in those days. “If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.”

TP: So you studied the guitar book.

TOOTS:   Well, I knew it by ear. Then there were those big hits by George. Then in the meantime, I had that offer to go with Charlie Parker to Philadelphia, on the Dinah Washington show. George came, too, to double-check on me backstage at the Earle in Philadelphia. We were going to rehearse. There was a Rendezvous Jazz Club in Philadelphia. Ava Gardner used to come listen to George Shearing all the time. Not all the time, but once or twice. Maybe she had relatives in Philadelphia. Then I went to my guitar audition with George, and that started six years.

TP:   Talk about the six years with George Shearing, and how you developed musically. It sounds like that was your first steady gig playing the function in a working band.

TOOTS:   Yes. My only! It was always interesting, because some of those jobs you’d get into, you’d leave one town and drive at night, with no day to rest or anything, and sometimes you arrive in a town at 5 o’clock and you’ve got to play at 7:30. We all were tired, but George always interested me very much. I never was bored.

TP:   You were studying the same harmony book, too.

TOOTS:   That was interesting. And I developed some great chops on the guitar. I mean, my kind of chops.

TP: Did that gig have any impact on the way you conceived the sound of the harmonica?

TOOTS:   I was playing it once or twice a night. I was there mainly for the guitar book. That’s why I’m happy I could play both then. I wouldn’t have a job with harmonica alone. So I learned a lot. It was always interesting. In those days, it was Brubeck, Mulligan and Shearing. Right? And the rest were big bands. I was a major league player.

TP:   Top of the heap.

TOOTS:   I had visibility, call it that, for a minute.

TP:   I don’t know how much you were in direct contact with Charlie Parker…

TOOTS:   Oh, he liked me. I had met him in Paris. Because in Billy Shaw’s office he had heard me. And Al Haig, too, was in Paris.

TP: Was that in ‘49, when he came to the Festival?

TOOTS:   Yes, when they all first came to Paris. Al Haig was there. Miles Davis. Kenny Clarke. James Moody. With Bird, there was Kenny Dorham. They had a thing called “Prince Albert,” a variation on “All The Things You Are.” After the Benny Goodman tour, I had to work. I didn’t have my papers yet to come to the States. I worked in Sweden. They were very responsive. I had newspaper attention. It’s the first time that a European… It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, which Benny was still…

TP:   He had Stan Hasselgard.

TOOTS:   Yes, that was before. Benny tried everything before he found out that Waiting For the Sunrise was what he wanted to play. But he tried everything. But Charlie Parker played in Stockholm while I was playing in Sweden with that Swedish organ player, a Swedish Shearing type, blind – Reinhold Svensson. We were very popular, and I played the guitar, not whistling yet. He heard. “Hey!” And he came to listen to me. I saw him. Of course, our organ player didn’t see him. He was blind. I said, “Reinhold, stop. Bird is in the house.” I went into Lover Man. Those were the days of Camarillo. Bird said, “Hey, how you doin’?” He wanted to give me money.

TP:   He was in a grand mood. Probably drinking schnapps.

TOOTS:   I said, “No, Bird, I’m working.” I have a book, To Bird With Love that Chan did. There’s a letter that I wrote from Belgium to Bird, and thank you, and he kept it, or somebody kept it.

TP: When you played in Philadelphia with Bird, did he call you on it?

TOOTS:   That was just one gig.

TP:   In the ‘60s, you moved back to Europe?

TOOTS:   I didn’t move back. Now we live more there than here. We have a big house and a pool and three dogs.

TP:   Any children?

TOOTS:   No. But then I started to make a living in the States. But still going back a lot to Europe, because it wasn’t so hot in the late ‘50s. A lot of guys like Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, they didn’t do so well in the States. I was doing a movie score. That was in the ‘60s somewhere, and at the session, there was Red Mitchell. He said, “I’m tired politically and I’m disgusted with this country – where should I go?” I said, “Go to Sweden.” I told him! He drove me back to the hotel after the film session, and he moved. The same with Kenny Drew. He also wanted to go. I said, “The two places you could go are either Paris or Copenhagen.” He went to Copenhagen.

TP: How many languages do you speak?

TOOTS:   In Belgium, if you want to be a serious student, you can… I speak French and Flemish. But I’m French-speaking, doing his best in Flemish. But then in English and German, and then, by being so often in Sweden, I can speak Swedish fluently.

TP:   One thing that’s immediately apparent from your repertoire is how many different cultures you draw music from. You deal with chansons and musette, with bebop, with blues, with Brazilian music, with the songbook, with this very harmonic film music…

TOOTS:   Yeah, Midnight Cowboy and Sesame Street!

TP:   Did you write something for Sesame Street?

TOOTS:   No. I didn’t write that. Joe Raposa(?).

TP: But you’ve been addressing this repertoire for a while, and 25-30 years ago it wasn’t so common to hear that sound, but now it seems more…

TOOTS:   The variety.

TP:   The variety of things you play and the many strategies you take to play them.

TOOTS:   I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion. People cry when I play Smile, the Charlie Chaplin thing, or Ne Me Quitte Moi or What a Wonderful World. I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always make my heart…give me a goosebump. Of course, much of what I hear I’d like to incorporate, because… I hear some guys. I don’t want to name names. They’re very famous. But they haven’t changed a note in their language. They use the same… And I know. That’s what I spend time on, to listen to my old records. Even my famous…my big traffic light with Bill Evans, if I played with him today, or played the same songs today, I will play them differently. I like to believe I evolved. Like Quincy said, “Each time I hear you…” It’s not much maybe after fifty years… You can maybe ask a painter what he did fifty years before. But that’s what keeps me interested very much.

TP:   Finding new ways to approach old friends.

TOOTS:   Yes. I’m still trying to capture the Nefertiti album, Miles…

TP: Wayne Shorter you like.

TOOTS:   Wayne! For me, there’s many musicians, and then there’s guys like Hancock and Shorter. I feel I can learn from them. Herbie can play, man! He played with me before he joined Miles. That happened in 1962 in New York. I did everything in ‘62 – Jewish weddings, jingles, everything. Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the union, 252 West 52nd Street. There was the Roseland Ballroom, and there were meetings there, you could find gigs if you wanted to. Then on the way back, there was a trumpet store, Giardelli(?), 10 yards from that union. I passed by, and I hear music. This trumpet store, a repair… They had little rooms where they had a piano, and they’d rent them for rehearsal. I go upstairs. It was Donald Byrd. I see a piano player from the back. It was Herbie. I didn’t know. He’d just got in town then. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island. I said, “Herbie, do you need this piano job on the weekend?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met him. “No, take him! He needs it.” He needs the work, the job. That’s how I met Herbie. So we played and we did the little rehearsal. You’d better check with him if he wants that to be known. After a few checks, you know, on what songs we were going to play… It was not a jazz job. I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. You accept the job, you’re going to do the job, do what is requested. We checked. And after ten minutes he said, “Hmm, I think I’m…” This is Herbie in ‘62. “I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.” In my ear. He sent a nice email about that thing with Stevie Wonder. “I want to do this, but I’m going to…”

TP:   Is Stevie Wonder going to be part of your concert at Carnegie Hall?

TOOTS:   I am not sure. We are afraid to ask that. Now, we could ask Pat Metheny, too. He might like it. I played on his record, too.

TP:   How did you meet Bill Evans? How did that relationship…

TOOTS:   Bill when he was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform… Imagine. A crewcut. A Jack Armstrong crewcut. He came to listen to George Shearing at the Blue Note in Chicago. He admired George. He had respect for George. There was the Blue Note later, but in the basement, in the lower level. We were rehearsing there, like that… Afterwards, he said, “I hope we play together.” One of those polite goodbyes. Then I’m on the road, and I hear this guy. I didn’t know the name. “Hey, that’s my guy.” Then after I left Shearing, Bill was playing with Miles, I think with Trane and Cannon at the Showboat. During a break, I say hello, “Hi, Miles…” Miles sees me talking to Bill. “What are you talking about?” We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment and… Miles said, “You two should play together,” quick, and he went by to the men’s room or whatever. But I remember that. And we wound up doing it in ‘79. Then Helen Keane calls me, and he had just signed the contract with Warner Brothers. It was his first album. Helen calls me and said, “Toots, we’d like you to play a couple of albums on Bill’s upcoming session.” I said, “Helen, I’m not sure if I’m up to date to play with a giant like Bill today.” In ‘79, I was freelancing all over, just playing with Paul Simon and all those movies, all the jingles, like Old Spice and stuff.

TP: So you were on the New York studio scene in the ‘70s.

TOOTS:   Yes. I had a group. There was a club, Trotter’s, very close to the Village Vanguard, the other sidewalk. Slam Stewart played there with Bucky, Stan Getz, and I played there. I’d been teaching for one week, I think, a workshop at Eastman School of Music as a media application, what you can learn to be in the media – jingles, movies and stuff. Phil Markowitz was there. I remembered him from Eastman, so I hired him. My group was Phil Markowitz, Joe LaBarbera and Chip Jackson. That was a good group. I was playing, and I tell Helen, “Before you make up your mind to have me at the session, tomorrow he can come to listen to me.” I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and Bill said… Like a piranha he jumped on the lead sheet by that song of Paul Simon, and he said, “Come Monday.” That’s a great song.

Then in the studio, the only time… I don’t know if it’s to be printed. I played for so many people. But after three or four days in the studio it appeared that I’d play on every song with Bill instead of just two – with Larry Schneider. Then there was Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund, I think. Not yet LaBarbera. Bill heard LaBarbera with me. Then I go on a break and I say, “Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much.” It could be Toots Thielemans featuring… Bill said to my ear: “I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that, meaning song… No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out.” He said, “give me a minute.” He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. “We will double your fee.” I never heard that one before!

TP:   That took care of your strictures.

TOOTS:   Of course, that record really gave me a lot of credibility, I guess. Some of your colleagues said, “What the hell did they get Toots Thielemans for?” I read that. This guy Lee Jeske wrote, “The next thing I need is to buy earmuffs so I won’t hear the harmonica.” He was reviewing my Brazil Project in the New York Post.
TP:   You need a thick skin in this business.

TOOTS:   But not everybody likes my sound or whatever. But I feel… I don’t know. I can’t help it. This guy who said, “shameless sentimentality.” I admit it. That’s me. I cry easy and I smile easy. A smile and a tear. I am a minor-VII person. You do what I have to do.

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP: We’re talking about the concert. Stevie Wonder is being approached, Quincy Jones will be in it, Paul Simon wanted to make it, but couldn’t… You told me this anecdote about Stevie Wonder. Did you record with him?

TOOTS:   Never. We’re on the…

TP:   But you’re both harmonica players.

TOOTS:   I learned a lot from Stevie. I play maybe more notes. When he came out, it was more than forty years ago. I am always impressed… First of all, I am very responsive to the black sound, the African-American… Sometimes I say I respond to “What are you thinking,” blah-blah. I would not be the same person or the same musician if it had not for the blue note that came from Africa via America. I feel that way, and I respond that way, and that’s the way people like Quincy responds to me so much, too, apparently. But you’ll have to ask them. “I am so proud of your black ass.” Ray Charles, he called me “Mr. T.”

TP:   Did Quincy Jones get you into soloing on film scores?

TOOTS:   Yes. I have a photograph. It was his first engagement in Los Angeles, the last film that Cary Grant ever made, Walk, Don’t Run. I have been on most of his recordings during the Creed Taylor era, and also in Los Angeles.

TP: He likes to paint pictures with sound, and no one gets that sound but you.

TOOTS:   The harmonica can underline a scene in a movie where not much happens. The last thing, I was very disappointed… They called me. The best movie score financially was in London. I won’t say the name. There was only gunshots. The composer told me, “Play there a little bit something nice” – with gunshots and explosions. But then a guy, one of the composers, he used to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriends…

TP:   Jon Peters.

TOOTS:   No. He wrote the The Fugitive. Anyway, he said, “Toots, don’t worry. When I make you play, they’re just holding hands and taking a walk in the country” or something like that.

TP:   When you improvise, what are you thinking about? The notes?

TOOTS:   Yes, the notes.

TP: Anything more abstract in your mind?

TOOTS:   It’s an abstract process. But I try to play in a linear way. Make drawings, sound drawings sometimes. Okay, I’m working out… [PLAYS] That’s the introduction to Round Midnight. I try to sing also. When I play Brel, I try to play the words. There’s words like, “I want to be in the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your door. Do not leave me.” [SAYS THEM IN FRENCH]

TP:   Do you think of singers? Is the harmonica sort of a voice?

TOOTS:   Maybe. I like some songs to stay close, like The Nearness of You… If it’s a ballad, to try to make sense according to the lyrics a little bit. But maybe I should play more loose with Kenny. He had take wild chances.

TP:   Did anybody, apart from maybe Larry Adler, influence you on the harmonica?

TOOTS:   No. I am very impressed with Gregoire Maret. He came to the opening night. He gave me that record, Dapp Theory. Are you hip to him?

TP: He plays with Steve Coleman, too, and Cassandra…

TOOTS:   But Andy Milne. I’d like to get…

TP:   That would be a different sound

TOOTS:   I feel, if I may say.. .I feel closer… I can play more myself and closer to the loose phrasing of the rhythm that happens, for instance, on Dapp than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago. The rhythm of today is closer to what I feel.

TP:   A lot of those are odd meters, 7/4, 11/4…

TOOTS:   I’m not so hot with that

TP: You have Steve Coleman on your Ipod. Do you like his music?

TOOTS:   I want to hear it. As I don’t have that much time to play a lot, what… But I bombard  myself with new music, or if not new, at least something I can learn from. Gregoire makes me think, if I make a comparison… 55 years ago, I came to this country, and pretty soon I played with Charlie Parker and then with Shearing. Now he comes, and he’s great. I’d like to hear him in two-three years.

TP:   This brings up a point I touched on before, that the music now is such an international hybrid. Fifty years ago, jazz was coming from blues and the American songbook and so on. But now, things that were exotic many years ago are no longer exotic. In some way, the music has caught up with what you’re doing. It’s a very international proposition now, and there’s something in your tonal personality that embodies that meldjng of cultures.

TOOTS:   The responses I get, if you ask some people around… If you read the liner notes that Kenny wrote about me on our album, “Everybody likes Toots…” I get compliments from David Murray, the saxophone player! “Hey!” I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.

TP:   One thing I’d like you to try to talk about is what you see as your accomplishment. You’ve been a professional musician for almost sixty years – six years in Europe, 53 years in the States. Your sound is a very recognizable signpost on the jazz landscape, and you’ve played with enough people that there will be a Carnegie Hall concert filled with musical celebrities who want to pay homage…

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I was trying to get an answer for myself before you came. I don’t know. Accomplishment? I don’t know. When my wife and I received the title from the Belgian King, Baron… I am a Baron. You need a credo. Like arms.  A coat of arms, whatever. I had met… In Chicago about fifty years ago, somebody said to me, “Oh, man, I just want to be myself.” And then there is a Council of the Arts in Belgium. It can be done in Flemish, in French, or in Latin, one of the three. Then I asked the man, “Can I do it in English? Can I have a full English phrase defining what I…” Then I said, “Be myself, no more, no less.” “Connaitre toi-meme.” Know yourself. Then the man on the panel… They had a discussion, and they told me a few days after they thought that “myself” was too egotistical, too me-me-me. They said, “Mr. Thielemans, would you be satisfied with ‘be yourself, no more, no less’?” That’s what I like to be, and be accepted as.

I don’t know what I accomplished. Judging this, there’s two sides of the coin. Much of the public likes me. They cry when I play… We were in Seattle. Some people drove 500 miles to come and listen to me! Things like that. Oyster Bay, from Oregon or something.  In St. Louis, some guy came from Little Rock, Arkansas. They have my records, my old LPs! In Europe, the same thing. I don’t know what I accomplished. I did my best. Somebody asked Jim Hall, “Did you make concessions?” He said, “Nobody asked me.” Oh, no. “Did you ever sell out?” Jim said, “nobody ever asked me.” So I don’t know what I might have done…

TP: But there’s something about you that’s very individualistic and very selfless at the same time. With Elis Regina, you play yourself and also your own sound. Same thing with Bill Evans.

TOOTS:   My sound. The session started with two numbers. When we’re getting in the studio, he jumps on that Paul Simon song, which Paul redid with Herbie. But for three days I played all through the record, and Bill says, “I want people to know you can play like that.” That’s 1979. So I’m still doing my best.

TP:   Did you do a number of records with Paul Simon?

TOOTS:   I played one solo, and I didn’t think he liked it. It was at the old studio, 48th Street, where the union is now – A&R, West 48th Street.  Phil Ramone calls me. “Toots, can you come and play for Paul Simon?” “Yeah, Phil, but I have to take a plane to go to the Monterrey Festival, but I can be there at 1 o’clock.” If you listen, that was the first record that Paul Simon made on his own, after Garfunkel. There was a late game… Paul is a great baseball fan, and there was a melody…a song about a pitcher who dies on the mound. He makes me fill all the tracks. Paul has a blank face. He is not very demonstrative. There may be an explosion here, and he goes, “Hmm…’ “Can you play a little there,” I play, then “Bye, Toots.” I had to take my plane. I thought, “Jesus, I laid an egg here.” I flunked. I laid an egg. I get to my room in Monterrey. “Please call Mr. Phil Ramone,” they said. Paul had played with all the tracks. “Paul loves you!” Oh, yeah!? That was a great experience. Sanborn. Steve Gadd. Michael… No, I’m not sure if Michael was on it. Hugh McCracken on guitar. I think Ralph McDonald was playing percussion. Anyway, that was fantastic, and we played in England and in Holland and Israel also.

TP:   Oh, you toured with Paul Simon.

TOOTS:   Yes, about 15 days altogether. I learned a lot from him.

TP: What did you learn from Pop music as opposed to jazz? Do you think about a situation like that differently?

TOOTS:   No. The few people I’ve played with, like Paul or Billy Joel, they like what they hear when I play, and they say, “Hey, I want some of that.” I like hillbilly music, too. I have one little trio picking that you won’t believe. I was on that Jimmy Dean Show in the early ‘60s. I was trying to stay home, and Peter Max, the conductor, and Jimmy Dean… It was ABC network. All the guys from Nashville came up. They knew me. “How you’all doin’, Toots? You’all gotta come down and pick with us.”

TP:   You were playing guitar on the JimmyDean Show?

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   You were playing harmonica.

TOOTS:   Things like that. That was in the time when Johnny Cash made records with two trumpets, the Ring of Fire. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write something like that, a melody with two voices,” and then I give that to the publisher, who’d just handled Bluesette, and he sends it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert hears it, and that went on a record that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000.
TP: Bluesette?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. That tune is called Ladyfingers, on Herb Alpert, with the chick on the cover wrapped into whipped cream or whatever. You know? That enabled me… That and some… You talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree. Whistling for jingles. Bluesette comes out and gets a lot of play in ‘63, and Madison Avenue, they look for new sounds, different sounds. John Glenn went into orbit, and the music writer, Jimmy Fagas, he was a fan. I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs and everything – to stay home! Bluesette comes out. “Toots, you’re going to make money.” I never had money outside of working – you work for the money. I sign a piece of paper, and John Glenn goes into orbit – that’s a Class A spot, Screen Actors Guild. If you talk and sing you become a… If you whistle for a commercial, you become a Screen Actor, and that’s another union.  I did some things where I played the guitar and whistled. For the guitar, I received $37 for 12 weeks.
TP:   Scale.

TOOTS:   Yes, scale of the instrumental jingle. For the whistling, I received $50 each time it’s heard! Then when I whistled for Old Spice, in one hour… They asked me, “Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?” [LAUGHS] I already have made a little money, so I knew the rates. “This is for Old Spce, but we look for a sound like the man who gets off the boat and throws the bottle of Old Spice. [WHISTLES REFRAIN] Now I can’t do it any more. When I do that sometimes, in a concert… That followed by [BLOWS ON HARMONICA] “going to Sesame Street.”

TP:   It’s good to get some laughs.

TOOTS:   But for Sesame Street, that’s instrumental and educational. They use it for 15 years. No residuals. But lately they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to give a little extra anyway.” So for 15 years of use on TV, maybe I made $500. But for Old Spice, in one hour in the studio… And then at football games, that’s Class A, coast-to-coast. Some of those jingles are only seen in Chicago, but Old Spice is all over. So I made, staying home, $15,000, in the ‘60s. So the combination of that and Herb Alpert, we could buy the house in Montauk.

TP: I guess once you got in the studios, it was hard to get out.

TOOTS:   I had two years where they said, because I don’t read fast enough and all that, and there were better guys for the guitar work… But between the three, the whistle, the guitar and the harmonica, there was a saying, “Call Toots, he’ll find something to do.”

TP:   Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but harmonica players and whistlers are not.

TOOTS:   Yes. So that was the making a living value.

TP:   You’re talking about listening to country pickers and these Nashville guys liking you. Did you ever play the blues? Did you listen to blues harmonica players?

TOOTS:   I listened to them, yeah. Have you heard Howard Levy? He plays chromatic or diatonic. I have him in the IPOD. He’s a great musician. He plays the piano. He composes. He’s amazing. But Gregoire, I’d like to…

TP: But the Chicago blues type of thing.

TOOTS:   No. But these guys do that well, you know.

TP:   How about Bob Dylan?

TOOTS:   Are you ready? Again, I wanted to stay home, not travel. I was mostly in Europe and playing not jazz much in the ‘60s. Nobody made a great living playing straight jazz. So I got a call: “Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to come and do a jingle. Can you play like Bob Dylan? We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?” He had the diatonic. I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” “Do you know anyone who does?” My defense mechanism. There was maybe one. I said, “No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.” Then they called me… I was living in Yonkers then, on North Broadway. I did go once a week or so to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. Blind people enjoyed hearing me, and as a good gesture. There were two black gentlemen, blind of course, both of them, and: “Mr. Thielemans, I want to play like you.” They played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. “Oh, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown…” “We want to play like you.” But that’s another world. “Can I hear what you do?” And I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Not like them. The voicings and the sound, no. But mechanically! I thought, “Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.” [LAUGHS] I rwent right into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. “Sir, I am ready for you.” I got a box… I have a whole bag of the diatonic harmonics. I even took a bag to Hollywood for Quincy, in case he needed that. I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.

TP:   You have to do all that to play in the studios. But in the first few tunes the other night, you take a lot of tonal liberties on the harmonica…

TOOTS:   You bet. Howard Levy, for instance, he overblows, and he can change on the diatonic. When my wife comes, I can show you… Not like he does, but I can show what can be done.

TP: But where I’m going with the question, if you’ll bear with me for one second…

TOOTS:   [BLOWS THE BLUES ON A CHROMATIC]  That’s very close, but it’s not as funky as… Listen. The blues player calls the chromatic “the chrome.” “I don’t play the chrome, but I play the harp.” That’s my Quincy Jones bag. I got them all in the wrong keys.

TP:   A big leather bag of diatonic harmonicas.

TOOTS:   Yes!

TP:   But did this become part of your vocabulary after the ‘60s, or the way you embellish your voice…

TOOTS:   No. [BLOWS] That’s too high-pitched. [UNWRAPS ANOTHER ONE AND BLOWS SOME BLUES, TAPPING HIS FOOT] If you want to change keys… [BLOWS ON ANOTHER ONE]

[BLOWS] He can play Giant Steps on that. But these guys have tone. And here you can attack the note. [BLOWS: BENDS THE NOTES] That’s very moody. [BLOWS] But this guy Levy, he overblows, and then he creates some harmonics I don’t know. I can’t do it. [BLOWS] See, you can blow, but you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion. [BLOWS] [BLOWS] That’s funky, but that’s where… Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. Before we say goodbye. Come on, girls. [BLOWS A BLUES LINE] “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!” [LAUGHS]

TP:   How did the relationship with Ken Werner start? Earlier you played with Fred Hersch and Joey Baron for a long time.

TOOTS:   Yes, when they were available, that was my… Fred, Marc Johnson and Joey. We made a nice record. Where I play Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time, and where I played with Fred Stardust. We had played in Fort Lauderdale here, and the plane stopped in Washington, and from Washington to Fort Lauderdale. On the stretch between New York and Washington, there was Benny Goodman. He said, “Hey, Gene (he called me Gene), how you doing?” “I’m okay, Benny.” Blah-blah-blah. He was in first class, of course. “Come and sit next to me.” I said, “I am only in economy back there…” “Ah, fuck them. Sit next to me.” He spoke that way in the plane. The hostess comes, and he says, “Oh, this is my dear friend; this gentleman must sit next to me.” I sat there, and I started to talk. Benny was legendary for not paying a cent more than he had to. I said, “I started to make a bit of money, Benny.” He said, “I’m tired.” He had to go to an award thing in Washington at the White House or something. “Yeah, I’m starting to make…” “Oh, really?” he said. “Really?!” One of those. “I’ve got to go to Fort Lauderdale. Bye, Benny.” Then I hear on the media that Benny Goodman died. I have the chorus of Stardust always with me, and in Brussels at the Ballets du Beaux Art, the Carnegie Hall of Brussels, I told the people… I had played the same Stardust, the same chorus that you heard with Benny in ‘50. I told the people, “this is very touching for me; I am sitting here, playing what I played with Benny Goodman forty years ago, and we will play it the same.” You’ve got to hear that.

TP: I want to ask again what you’re looking for in the people who play with you. Ken Werner and Oscar Castro-Neves are very important to the sound you’re looking for.

TOOTS:   From a pianist, I can almost say I need that Bill Evans ground floor.

TP:   Just like Herbie Hancock said.

TOOTS:   Yes. The ground floor. Then it’s like this, but you need your own decoration. But Fred Hersch, the first time I heard him was in Tokyo. He was playing with Red Mitchell and Elliot Zigmund. Then I asked for his phone number. We met here, and I heard this touch. But I’ve played with other guys that get a lot of fame, even win polls, and I don’t hear that ground floor, so I’m not attracted to that so much. Don’t write it, but Kenny Barron doesn’t give me that ground floor. That was my band, Kenny, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart – at Greene Street. But don’t write that. Hank Jones does… Joe Lovano is a great fan of mine. Scofield, too, about my guitar. Last New Year… We were eating New Year’s Day in Brussels, the phone rings, and it was Scofield calling from here to wish me greetings. With Shearing, I had done a great solo, I thought, on Little Niles, Randy Weston’s song. “Hey, Toots! This is Sco.” “Thanks for calling.” “I am listening to what you did fifty years ago with Shearing on the guitar.” So I know where the good stuff is, but my fingers won’t follow.

TP:   I’m impressed with how up to date you are.

TOOTS:   I listen to everything. I have the latest Chris Potter record. [POINTS TO IPOD] I don’t want a computer. Then I get email, and I have to answer. But my manager…

TP: I should give you some rest.

TOOTS:   This is stimulating for me. But I am still very close to Wayne Shorter. All those guys send greetings. And the guys who play with Wayne want to play with me. Patitucci, Danilo and Brian Blade. Bill Frisell. Sco. I played a few times… He was my guest in Montreal.

TP:   Did you do a week…

TOOTS:   No, I just played each time… This time I did a duo with Kenny, and we had Paolo Fresu. He plays good. Pat Metheny. As they say in French, “ne pas frotte(?) la mange,” “I don’t want to rub your sleeve.” One of my first tastes of American humor, with Benny Goodman, at the Palladium: There was a Jewish comedian, Herky Stiles. You never heard of him? “Oh, you should meet my girlfriend. She has only one tooth, but it’s a nice brown one.” You still laugh at that today! Fifty years ago. “Oh, she has the hottest kisses. Why, she never takes her cigar out of her mouth.” “Last year I had a great year. I sold wedding rings to Artie Shaw.” He had one about Les Brown, too. “I used to work for Les Brown, but now I work for less money,” sometimes with Benny Goodman. [LOUD LAUGH] These are my… I know that since ‘49! Things I don’t forget.

In Sweden, I became a matinee idol in a revue, and when I played Brazil, therefore, the first time on the harmonica… I speak Swedish, and they gave me a monologue to say from slang, 300 years ago, the way they spoke in the north of Sweden. How can you compare that? You ask a Frenchman to speak in America with a Nashville accent. A famous Frenchman. It’s called a thing about Napoleon. Napoleon is Bonaparte in Swedish. The guys goes… It was a big triumph, doing that monologue. And in the summer later, after, I went into the parks. I’ve got to play you some of the stuff with whistling and guitar in Sweden. A guy in the back of the hall yelled, “Hey, do your monologue, man!” That was the time, the period… Look, in ‘63, I was trying to hold on to the Coltrane wagon. Giant Steps. [BLOWS Giant Steps] With Kenny we do that on the duo thing, and we make a tribute with Naima. [BLOWS Naima]

Again, I don’t try, but I am very happy… This is no more, no less. You seem to respond to me and the music, but you don’t change your pen for me. Write what you really feel.

[—30—]

 

3 Comments

Filed under Article, DownBeat, Harmonica, Interview, Toots Thielemans

3 responses to “For Toots’ Thielemans’ 92nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature—and Interview—From 2006

  1. Bill Levine

    Ted, thanks for making Toots’ rich history, especially the unpublished transcripts, available. Did he ever talk to you any further about his time on Jimmy Dean or whether he ever got to pick with the Nashville cats? I’m writing a book on jazz in Nashville, and I wish there were a way to talk about this more directly (I see you have a FB page where I’d need to “friend” you before messages go into your standard inbox, but I don’t know if you’d prefer that way of communication).

    • Hi, Bill. Thanks very much for writing. Toots did not speak with me at greater length about the Jimmy Dean experience or playing with the Nashville musicians; pretty much everything he said to me is in this document.

  2. Pingback: Renowned Harmonica Player Toots Thielemans Dead at 94

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