Toots was born in 1922 as Jean-Baptiste Thielemans in the Marolles, the oldest and most unpretentious district of Brussels, Belgium. As a small kid an accordion player performing in his father’s café captivated him. His parents quickly noticed his musicality and soon bought him a little accordion. It didn’t take long before Jean could play the Belgian National anthem and the ‘Internationale’, the battle song of the worker’s movement on his own little instrument.
Inspired by the soundtrack of a James Cagney movie that he saw in the local cinema, Jean bought his first harmonica at age 14. Jean was asthmatic and as a matter of coincidence playing the harmonica turned out to be good for his health. Then the war came and the first jazz music hit the European radio stations. Jean instantly fell in love with the new genre, especially after hearing Louis Armstrong. He learned to play the guitar and started jamming with American troops in bars in Brussels. After the war, he travelled with his adventurous uncle to the United States by ship. Of course he brought his guitar and harmonica with him and he started playing in local bars there. Agents and managers picked him up quickly and soon he was invited to tour with Benny Goodman. First only in Europe, because visa issues prevented him from staying in the States too long. But he was so eager to make it in the States that he applied to become an American citizen in 1957. That made it a lot easier for him to tour and perform there.
In 1962 he wrote his biggest hit, ‘Bluesette’, where he used whistling and guitar in unison. That was so original that it became an instant jazz standard. In the meantime he was advised to call himself Toots because it sounded cooler and more international than Jean-Baptiste. His distinctive sound made him very popular, as did the fact that the harmonica was and still is a very uncommon jazz instrument. Toots was asked to play for many film soundtracks. The best known are Midnight Cowboy (1969), The Getaway (1972) and the Dutch film Turkish Delight (1973). He also composed and played a lot of jingles for radio and television. For example the intro music for Sesame Street and a commercial for the perfume Old Spice, both of which increased his popularity exponentially in the United States. But his collaborations with other jazz artists are probably his greatest achievement. In the course of the years he worked with Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and many others.
In the seventies he started to get attracted to Brazilian music; he stated that there is a great similarity between Brazilian melodies and jazz harmonies. He worked with singers like Elis Regina and Astrud Gilberto and with composer/vocalist Ivan Lins. His albums The Brazil Project 1 & 2 were amongst his own favourite works. In 1981 Toots, at age 59, suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage, exactly one year after he had married Huguette Tuytschaever, a Belgian artist. His first wife Nette De Greef had passed away four years earlier. As a result of that stroke, he was no longer able to play the guitar as before. Playing the harmonica however proved to be no problem.
Nowadays Toots still performs regularly, for example at the Jazz Middelheim festival in his native Belgium and in 2012 for his 90th birthday, together with the equally legendary Herbie Hancock at the Lincoln Center in New York. Of course it his unique harmonica sound that made him so popular but people also love his charming personality. Toots has always stayed the simple ‘ket’ (street slang for kid) from Brussels even though he was ennobled a baron by King of Belgium Albert II in 2001.