Belgium, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) In the womb he shaped his hands as if he held a small guitar close to his chest. At night, and from the aquatic world in which he lived, the baby would whistle to soothe his mother, pregnant with a baby whose melodic DNA inhabited every cell of his body. On the 29th of April 1922, when Jean ‘Toots’ Thielemans was born in Brussels, the world did not yet know what gifts the boy had been endowed with.
Raised in the historic neighborhood of Les Marolles/Marollen, Jean Baptiste Frederic Isidor Thielemans was a true ‘ketje’ or boy from Brussels. His first instrument was the accordion, which he started to play when he was three. Although he started playing the harmonica when he was 17, Thielemans’ reputation started as a guitar player. Thielemans visited the US for the first time in 1947, and in 1949 he met Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival. He toured Europe as a guitarist with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1950, and the following year moved to the US.
During 1953-1959, Toots was a member of the George Shearing quintet (mostly as a guitarist). He first recorded his big hit “Bluesette” in 1961. Toots’ two-volume Brasil Project was popular in the 1990s and found him smoothly interacting on harmonica with top Brazilian musicians. He played side to side with masters such as Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Dori Caymmi, Joe Lovano, Kenny Werner, and many more.
This year, Brussels is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the jazz legend with a wide array of walks, concerts, conferences, and open-air activities.
“Hosting major events in Brussels is of the utmost importance for making our region more tourist-friendly and boosting our image,” said Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels Capital-Region. “I am pleased to see a series of events spread over four months and dedicated to the centenary of the birth of iconic Belgian and international artist Toots Thielemans.”
On the 29th April 2022, Toots’s 100th birthday, an extraordinary gala concert was held at the Henry Le Beouf Hall at Bozar. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra with Philip Catherine, Kenny Werner, Grégoire Maret, Tutu Pouane, along with Claudio and Ivan Lins took the audience on a journey through the life of great Belgian musician.
The exhibition ‘Toots 100: The sound of a Belgian Legend’, which runs until the 31st of August at the Royal Library of Belgium, showcases how the unique sounds of Toots’ harmonica came to life. Visitors will be swept away on a musical adventure with an impressive collection of musical instruments and never-before-published footage. The exhibition is a co-production of Royal Library of Belgium and the Museum of Musical Instruments.
From the 9th until the 11th of May, the Royal Library of Belgium is also host a colloquium devoted to research on and around Toots Thielemans. Besides the academic part, a special concert has been scheduled, in collaboration with the jazz departments of Koninklijk Conservatorium Brussel and Conservatoire royal de Bruxelles. Research into the various aspects of Toots Thielemans presented: his life, work, reception, and the multicultural contexts in which they took place. Multidisciplinary approaches and a diversity of perspectives will be favored.
Also in May, an important photo exhibition called ‘Toots through the eyes Jos L. Knaepen’ will be held at Flagey. In 2016 was a year of two difficult farewells: Toots and his close friend, photographer Jos L. Knaepen.’The Jazzman’, as Knaepen was sometimes called, left behind wonderful portraits of Toots, all of which can be observed at the exhibition, which runs from the 9th until the 21st of May.
“With Toots 100, we honor our world-famous artist and his harmonica,” said Sven Gatz, Minister of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region. “The Brussels-Capital Region is supporting a comprehensive and multi-faceted program that runs from 29 April to Belgium’s national holiday on 21 July.”
The Brussels Jazz Weekend will be paying tribute to Toots from the 27th to the 29th of May, with a free program on various squares in the centre of the capital. On Friday July 1st, the opening day of the Brosella festival, held again at the Théâtre de Verdure near the Atomium, will be dedicated to him. The festival runs from the 1st until the 3rd of July. On Wednesday July 20th, there will be a grand Bluesette flute concert on Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles. This will take place during the Bal National, the popular festival on the eve of Belgium’s National Day. On Thursday July 21st, Resto National will be serving some of Toots’ favorite dishes on the square where his parents once ran a café and where, as a young whistling boy, he began his long musical journey.