Brussels, (Brussels Morning)- He played with the greats of the earth, but Toots loved to surround himself with the young heroes of tomorrow. Ten of those aspiring jazz greats from the Brussels conservatories bring his spirit to life in Toots 100 & Beyond. “Toots kept looking for the joy of playing until the very end.”
“Never talk about your age and keep feeling like a teenager,” was the slogan of the man who would have turned 100 last week. Zou, because in 2016 jazz icon Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans gave his harmonica to Maarten. His motto was also that he always followed young musicians, even in old age. He was delighted to be able to link his name to the Toots Thielemans Jazz Award, an award organised by the Royal Conservatory of Brussels for the most deserving student(s) from the jazz department.
The prize will be awarded for the twelfth time this year on 10 May in Bozar. But that same evening, an event took place that would probably have made the Brussels jazz blazer even more delighted: Toots 100 & Beyond, a special collaboration between the two conservatories in his hometown, the Royal Conservatory of Brussels (KCB) and the Conservatoire royal de Bruxelles. (CRB). Ten students from the KCB and CRB will pay tribute to Toots Thielemans by reinterpreting his work (composed by himself or not) in two triptychs that they will perform together.
“Normally you have at least a year for these kinds of projects where you ask your students to write new arrangements and compositions,” says Bart De Nolf, coordinator and teacher at the Royal Conservatoire. “But now the Royal Library was asked to organise this event as a result of a colloquium about Toots Thielemans, not so long ago. It was a challenge to realise this project, which is huge, in a reasonably short period of time.” he told BRUZZ.
De Nolf knows what he is talking about, because he played the double bass with Toots for seventeen years, from 1997 until his deathbed. “Those were the concerts that touched me the most. In jazz you have to listen carefully to what the others are playing, because what you hear, you use in your own expression and improvisation. On stage I stood right behind Toots as he played on his stool. As a double bass player I had to be functional and give him comfort, but if I did something that caught his eye sporadically, he would reach back for a lo-five. Those were beautiful moments.”
Ode to improv
Toots Thielemans will forever be etched in our memory by ‘Bluesette’, his composition from 1962 that grew into a jazz standard . But above all he was also a performer of other people’s work, which he then manipulated as if he had composed it himself. Such as ‘Circle of smiles’, the song that Jurre Haanstra came up with as the theme song of the Dutch krimi Baantjer and which gave the Brussels ket its recognizable, bittersweet shine. For Toots 100 & Beyond, KCB student Jonas Paenen (23) chose this tune to write a new arrangement. “ Baantjerwas my first association with Toots, I watched it as a child with my parents,” he says in one of the classrooms of the conservatory while in the room above us Toots’ mind seems to have started a heavenly round of guitar solos.
Paenen received his bachelor’s degree in jazz piano at the conservatory of The Hague and is now in his first master year, with composition as an elective. His reworking of ‘Circle of Smiles’ is combined with two pieces by two other arrangers. CRB students provide the other triptych. “Toots is someone I’ve always looked up to,” he says. “He gave young musicians a lot of opportunities, I am happy to continue his legacy in this way.”
It does not bother Paenen that Toots did not compose ‘Circle of Smiles’ himself. “I wanted to present people with something recognizable. Improvisation was very important to Toots, and improvisation is also a form of composing, but then on the spot. He was very good at that.” The composition is a feat, says Paenen, who has been toiling on the arrangement for the ten musicians. “It’s like my composition teacher, Michel Bisceglia, says: the most beautiful tribute is to make it something personal. You can’t use the same chords and keys, but you shouldn’t change it too much either. I tried to keep the authentic sound of the original and still do something modern with it, but with the chords that are close to me.”
Among the ten performing musicians of Toots 100 & Beyond are alto saxophonist Pierre Lagache and harmonica player Olivier Vander Bauwede. “At the moment I find it difficult to play my game completely well,” says French senior student Pierre Lagache (25). “The composition is quite heavy now, a lot has been added. Besides, I’m not really familiar with Toots’ work, I only really know ‘Bluesette’, because my father listened to a lot of jazz. I’m still searching, but it will be fine.” Olivier Vander Bauwde (30) nods: “First we have to master the scores, only then can we give it our own interpretation and the spirit of Toots can come to life.”
Vander Bauwde is in his third year at the conservatory and with his harmonica is a white raven. “I’m the only one who studies that instrument here. Without Toots I probably wouldn’t have been here. He ensured the emancipation of the harmonica in jazz, that instrument was not taken seriously before that. But it was actually only after his death that conservatories realised that they could not ignore that Belgian legacy.”
Like Paenen, Vander Bauwede knows Toots from series such as Baantjer and Witse, and films such as Midnight Cowboy , for which Toots colored the sound track with his recognizable harmonica sound out of a thousand, or from the jingle of Sesame Street. Vander Bauwede only started playing harmonica when he was seventeen, when he was given a diatonic version as a gift – that is a harmonica in one key, as used in the blues or folk. Toots played on a chromatic variant, slightly larger and with a slider that allows you to play all keys. “At first I thought: cool, that is an accessible instrument. But in the meantime I know that it is just as hard to study as any other instrument. ( laughs ) No wonder Toots was one of the only ones at the time to make it that far.”
Emotion in the subway
There are many things he can name why Toots is so great, says the lonely harmonica cowboy. “But it’s not about the technical virtuosity or complexity, it’s about the enormous naturalness. Toots makes his harmonica sound very natural, as if the instrument becomes a voice. That’s why so many people are touched by it, even if you don’t know anything about jazz. There is something bluesy in it, something very emotional.”
That emotional, according to miscreants downright sentimental, is something the average listener associates Toots with. Like insignificant background music in the supermarket, like sweet breeze on the subway, right? “It was just in the metro that I heard him recently,” says De Nolf. “And I immediately felt that emotionality that he was able to put into his music so beautifully. Harmonica may not be a beautiful instrument in itself, but Toots was able to transcend that. He also didn’t care whether they were jazz standards or simple songs that had nothing to do with jazz, such as the songs of Will Tura or Bobbejaan, the music just had to touch him. We also often did ‘Sesame Street’ during concerts, because he liked it so much.”
Vander Bauwede recognizes that. “Toots always played with a child’s mindset: it had to be fun. He really wanted to entertain people. He also grew up with the swing of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, which was music to dance to. So entertainment. But he also wanted to have fun himself. He did that to the end, until his hearing and memory failed. In jazz you have to study a lot. And in the exams you have to be very focused. And then you see Toots playing and you think: that’s where the fun lies. Then you realize that, even after playing for so many years, you can still discover things.”
In his younger years Toots was an absolute virtuoso, says De Nolf. But after he suffered a stroke in the early 1980s, he was forced to phase out that virtuoso. “The older he got, the fewer notes he played, but the more he played the right notes.”
“It also seemed to cost him no effort at all,” says Vander Bauwde. “He could find the right notes like no other. But his musical talent was not his only great achievement. He is also simply inspiring as a person. How a young guy from a working-class neighbourhood in Brussels could make it this far. He worked hard for that. He tried to build a career in the US, but because he didn’t get a work visa right away, he had to return several times. In the end, he succeeded.”
Toots lived in the US for a long time and became an American citizen. He played with the greatest of all, from Charlie Parker to Quincy Jones, Bill Evans and Stevie Wonder. But he was always humble about it. “His whole life story is inspiring. It’s a bit like the cliché of the American Dream, but by a little Belgian.”
China and beyond
Jazz is hipper than ever today, even among young people. Only Toots seems to be overlooked by the new generation of jazz cats. “As a saxophonist, I was always mainly inspired by other sax players,” says Lagache. “I played the Coltrane standards . I once tried to master ‘Bluesette’, in Karel Boehlee’s version on organ and piano, but the solo was too difficult. That song is instantly recognizable, there is something wonderful about the melody and the chord progression.”
Toots’ music is sometimes surprising, but also not that complex,” says Paenen. “Perfect for jamming and doing something with it. Like we do now. I think that’s the best tribute he can get.”