Toots Thielemans dead at 94

Toots Thielemans
Toots Thielemans (Image credit:

Toots Thielemans has died aged 94.

The multi-instrumentalist, who was widely known for his mastery of the harmonica, reportedly died in his sleep. He’d been hospitalised last month after a fall.

His manager Veerle Van De Poel tells the Los Angeles Times: “There were no complications. He died of old age, his body was simply worn out.”

Thielemans was an in-demand session player and a successful recording artist in his own right, having released a string of solo records over 50 years – including 1962 hit album Bluesette. He once described his sentimental, melodic musical style as “between a smile and a tear,” his unusual blend of guitar and whistling becoming his trademark sound.

Though he rose to prominence in the jazz scene, Thielemans featured on a number of pop songs, such as Billy Joel’s Leave A Tender Moment Alone and Julian Lennon’s Too Late For Goodbyes, as well as R&B works including Quincy Jones’ 1981 album The Dude and Paul Simon‘s 1975 record Still Crazy After All These Years.

Born Jean-Baptiste Thielemans in Brussels on April 29, 1992, Toots began playing the accordion aged three at his parents’ cafe. He bought a chromatic harmonica in his teens and taught himself to play by listening to the swing music of the 1930s. Thielemans’ talent earned him the nickname ‘Toots’ from his friends, who described his given name as “too square.”

When he suffered from a bout of pneumonia in his 20s, Thielemans’ friend bought him a guitar as a get-well gift. He mastered that instrument within months by listening to jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

By his early 20s, Thielemans was a professional working musician. He moved to the US in 1951 and joined the Charlie Parker All-Stars, who included trumpeter Miles Davis. He later worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Jaco Pastorius, Johnny Mathis and many more genre-spanning artists throughout his career.

Among his many achievements, Thielemans received a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2009, was appointed a baron by King Albert II of Belgium in 2001 and was nominated for the title ‘The Greatest Belgian’ by the television show of the same name.

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Former TeamRock news desk member Christina joined our team in late 2015, and although her time working on online rock news was fairly brief, she made a huge impact by contributing close to 1500 stories. Christina also interviewed artists including Deftones frontman Chino Moreno and worked at the Download festival. In late 2016, Christina left rock journalism to pursue a career in current affairs. In 2021, she was named Local Weekly Feature Writer of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards.