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Jazz Harmonica great Toots Thielemans dies aged 94

Toots Thielemans was one of the greats in the harmonica world, his illustrious career saw him use his harmonica skills on the theme tune for the iconic TV show ‘Sesame Street’. His harmonica was also prominently featured on movie soundtracks, including those of the Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy,” ”The Pawnbroker,” ”Jean de Florette,” and “The Sugarland Express.” Also adept as a whistler, he could be heard on the Old Spice after-shave commercials. He performed and recorded with Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, among many others.

Toots Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium, on 29 April 1922. His parents owned a cafe. He began playing music at an early age, using a homemade accordion at age three. During the German occupation of Belgium beginning in 1940, he became attracted to jazz, but was then playing on full-size accordion or a harmonica, which he taught himself to play in his teens. Since 1959, Thielemans led his own small groups and toured internationally when not working in the studios.

Although mostly recording straight-ahead jazz albums, he released two albums in the 1990s as “The Brasil Project,” featuring such prominent Brazilian artists as Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso.

Even despite suffering with asthma most of his life he still managed to be one of the most instrumental harmonica players, being one of the first to blow complex bebop lines. His harmonica of choice was a custom-made Hohner chromatic.

Toots died in his sleep at the age of 94 in a Belgian hospital.

After the announcement, the Netherlands-based jazz and pop orchestra Metropole Orkest, along with American trumpet player Quincy Jones, performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall in Toots Thielemans’ honor. Another concert was performed at the Brussels’ Grand Place.