Before & After: Toots Thielemans

Toots-ThielemansWhen I met Jean “Toots” Thielemans in early 2007 to record this piece for JazzTimes, he was not prepared to do any serious listening (he thought it would be an interview about his latest cd). He vacillated for a few minutes, finally agreed, and eventually warmed up to the idea and told some great stories. To prompt him, I wanted to get his reaction to various guitarists, a few harmonica players (including Stevie Wonder), and some Brazilian tracks.


1. Duke Ellington w/Django Reinhardt 
“Ride, Red, Ride” (from The Great Chicago Concerts, Music Masters). Reinhardt, electric guitar; Ellington, piano; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Recorded in 1946.

Before: Sounds a little gypsy. Of course it could be Django. I heard Django in Brussels during the war and he had just written “Nuages.” This touches me less these days. I started listening to Django on a wind-up phonograph. I memorized his solos but I could never play them. I never had the speed. “Sweet Georgia Brown” was my favorite, that introduction by Django and Stephane, you know? The technique of Django was mostly bar chords, though he did other things. When the war was finished and we could get Nat “King” Cole records, for instance, I learned a lot about those inside voicings from Oscar Moore. No more bar chords. And that’s when we also started to get Charlie Christian records and records with Teddy Bunn, who played more horn-like. If you play a solo by Django on the piano or on the saxophone, it doesn’t sound good. But if you play a Teddy Bunn or a Charlie Christian solo, it does. At liberation there was lots of officer’s clubs that employed musicians, and we got some fantastic V-discs with Louis Armstrong, Bobby Hackett, Sid Catlett, Art Tatum. And there was one with a great solo by Al Casey on the electric. That was very hornlike. I still know it [sings the solo while snapping fingers]. That was my horn-like shock. Then I started listening to Bird.

After: That was Django playing electric? He came to Decca studios in Belgium. He had a Maccaferri guitar with a pickup. But this doesn’t sound like an acoustic guitar with a pick-up. It sounds electric, like a Gibson. He’s a very important branch of jazz. Django is Django. He’s a monster. A giant. I used to listen a lot to that record he made with Rex Stewart, “Solid Old Man.”

2. Cassandra Wilson 
”Red River Valley” (from Thunderbird, Blue Note). Wilson, vocal; Colin Linden, guitar. Recorded in 2005.

Before: Of course it’s blues. [sings the melody]. I recognize the melody, but it’s done slower here. I couldn’t tell you who it is but I like it. Red River Valley, yes? I enjoy it, but no goose-bumps. It’s good, the slide, bending a lot. I never had records like that. I listen to it and I respect it, yes. But I wouldn’t know who the singer is. I’m responsive to it. I come from a neighborhood in lower east side of Brussels called le Marrole. And the people from there are called Marrolian. So in Belgium I call myself an Afro-Americanized Marrolian. I react very much to what they used to call black music or sepia or whatever. The way I hear that is this could be black or it could be somebody from the country who’s living near a black neighborhood. I like it and I respond to that because it comes right out of the blues. But it’s not far from country.

After: No kidding? Lizz Wright is on my new record, so in New York I call this music Greenwich Village Country, ’cause the guys downtown they play dobro, slide, and Craig Street works with both of them. When Cassandra played in Brussels she had that little harmonica player with her, Gregoire. I like him. She invited me to sit in in Brussels and she proposed we do “Skylark.” I don’t know enough about Cassandra. I want to get into that direction before I pack up. And Craig Street, I would like to see what he feels when he hears me. [laughter] You have to be yourself at all times, otherwise it’s all bullshit. [more laughter]

3. Sergio Mendes 
“Berimbao/Consolacao” (from Timeless, Concord), Mendes, keyboards; Stevie Wonder, harmonica; Gracinha Leporace, lead vocals, Kleber Jorge, guitar; Meia Noite, Mike Shapiro, percussion; Leo Nobre, bass;, drum programming; Sergio Mindes, Kleber Jorge, Debi Nova, Gracinha Leporace, vocals. Recorded in 2005.

Before: [smiles] It feels nice. It has a good groove to it. That’s not English, it’s Portuguese. Brazil is running parallel to jazz. Lee Konitz told me the “One Note Samba” is pure bebop-the chord construction. He said, “Toots, we’ve been playing “Wave” for 40 years now. It’s two choruses of the blues with a be-bop release.” It’s true. I like this feeling, this harmonica. It’s bossa nova polluted by funk.

After: Ah, yes. I read about this record. One of the good producers made it. Stevie hit me 40 years ago. Little Stevie Wonder in the early 60s. I was already very slick and all that, and I played all the be-bop lines. But Stevie has the black sound, and no white man has a black sound. I play the African-American language with the white man’s accent from Europe. But Quincy Jones calls me Stink because when I play I emulate the aroma of a black man who needs a shower! [laughter] Quincy says, “Toots, you may be from Antwerp but I think your mama spoke to a brother!” That’s Quincy. One time he left me a telephone message that said “I’m here in the dressing room with Ray Charles and we’re talking about your black ass!” Things like that. I’m as black as a white man can be [laughter]. But I never used the word motherfucker, cause that’s the black man’s word. But I enjoy it when Quincy calls me motherfucker. When I came to the States in 1952 I played w/George Shearing at Birdland and during the break I went for some fresh air. Charlie Parker came by–I had played with him and Dinah Washington–and Bird said to me, “I ran into Benny Goodman and he asked me do you know this Jean Thielemans, he’s a bitch ain’t he?” And Bird said he told him, “No Benny, he’s a motherfucker.” Your tape may explode if that’s not true. I’m proud of that. Stevie is a beautiful musician, singing, composing, playing. I wouldn’t say I copy him, he plays his own stuff. If he has one gift it’s to say with one note, if one note is enough, don’t play two notes. Stevie’s a monster.

4. Ron Kalina 
“Golden Earrings” (from Getting My Axes Together, Kalinor Records). Kalina, harmonica; John Pisano and Ron Eschete; guitar; Kendall Kay and Joe LaBarbera, drums; Todd Johnson and Dave Carpenter, bass.

Before: [chuckles] I don’t know who it is. Good player. I forget the name of the song, but then at my age I forget what I ate for lunch. I would play that song differently. He has a good tone. And he can play the melody, yes. Of course I respect it, but I’d like to hear him get a little deeper into the pool. I made records like that. It’s nice. Ok, I wish him luck. I hope he sells records. We’re in the same ballgame. He can play, yes.

After: Kalina, I know. He probably sent me this record. He’s a musician. Ok. Everybody has a right to play the instrument. Outside of Stevie and the pioneer of the instrument Larry Adler, who had the ability to project himself, or if you want to be nasty, to sell himself… Larry Adler had the showmanship. He had the audience. I knew that he put the harmonica on the map but I realized soon enough it would be suicide to go into his footsteps. Lucky for me Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie became my gurus.

I have a feeling this man listened to you. 

It’s possible. I think I met him. No, I’m not moved by this.

5. Brian Bromberg 
“Four Brothers” (from Wood II, Artistry Music). Bromberg, bass, whistling; Randy Waldman, piano; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums.

Before: Four Brothers. I don’t like that. There was a man who did a lot of whistling, Ron McRoby. But it’s not him. It’s not good whistling either. It’s not horn-like. No, it doesn’t knock me out. He probably whistles better than I can. I can’t whistle any more because of my inner ear is messed up. I whistled with the guitar one octave apart, but I could never whistle except for jingles when there was a lot of money to make. I never thought of myself as a whistler. In the beginning when I was scuffling and I had to schlep my amplifier and play Jewish weddings. Then I whistled and I joined the screen actor’s guild, and I now have a better pension [chuckles]. No, I don’t like this, but then I don’t have to like it. I respect it. I hope he makes a lot of money. Get on the jingles, you’ll make a lot of money.

After: No shit? He’s on my Brazilian records. His music is better on the bass. He‘s a good bassist. He never sent me that. To me it’s fun, but music to me is not just fun.

6. Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane 
“Why Was I Born” (from Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, Prestige). Burrell, guitar; Coltrane, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 1958/2006.


I wouldn’t put that on my IPOD. It don’t touch me. I’ve made records like that where I listened to a producer to try to sell records. Interesting guitar but it doesn’t sound current. I didn’t become a musician to listen to that. It’s a good guitarist but it may not be the best record he made. I like to listen to Jim Hall, Scofield, Frisell. And the old Wes Montgomery. Look out.

After: That’s Burrell and Coltrane? See, Coltrane didn’t kill me on that.

But you generally like Coltrane. You’ve recorded Giant Steps. 

Well sure. Coltrane is one of the masters. I practice Giant Steps every morning. My wife brings me the yogurt at 7:30 in the morning and after my yogurt and right next to the phone is a harmonica with an IPOD and a palm agenda. And I practice Giant Steps and Windows for a half an hour. [after listening to I Never Knew from the same CD] See, that doesn’t sound like my Coltrane. I met Kenny 50 years ago before he went to NY. We met at the West End Hotel in Detroit. I met Paul Chambers, Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard. No, this didn’t kill me. My seminal influences haven’t always been guitarists. I don’t want to put Kenny down. I’m honest about what I hear. I trust my goose bumps. I haven’t had any yet.

7. Oscar Castro-Neves 
“Nao Me Diga Adeus” (from All One, Mack Avenue Records). Castro-Neves, guitar; Luciana Souza, vocals; Don Grusin, keyboards; Brian Bromberg, bass; Gary Meek, woodwinds; Alex Acua, Mike Shapiro, drums; Kevin Ricard, percussion. Recorded in 2005.

Before: That’s Brazil with a touch of funk. I don’t know. Oscar Castro-Neves? I preferred the CD he made before this. He’s a great all-around musician. He plays good piano, he knows how to arrange, write for strings, orchestrations. Probably conceived this. He’s one of the good, if not seminal Brazilian musicians. When I hear him I call him Freddie, because to me he’s the Freddie Green of Brazil. 

Yeah, that’s the new one. He gave that to me. Luciana, I have two CDs by her on my IPOD. She’s very adventurous. But my goose bumps have a filter. I wish you had played a record that Gregoire made with Andy Milne called Dapp Theory. I listen to that regularly. I have the new Chris Potter. He’s fantastic. I listen to everything that can stimulate. But it has to be black, or at least have the aroma. And there’s a great little French guy who plays the harmonica, Olivier Ker Ourio. He’s from near Madagascar but he lives in Paris. He made a nice duo record with Ralph Towner. There’s a lot of stuff I want to learn and enjoy. If I put it in my IPOD I have a souvenir. But I still have a lot of Bill Evans, Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock. When I hear that touch, I’m gone.

8. Karrin Allyson 
“I Follow The Turnaround” (from Footprints, Concord). Allyson, vocal; 
Bruce Barth, piano, keyboards; Peter Washington, bass; Todd Strait, drums. 
Recorded in 2005.

Before: With all due respect, I don’t enjoy it. I don’t have an explanation. It may be popular or great. Where’s she from? 

[looks at the cover] “Footprints”- She probably does the Wayne Shorter tune.

After: There are not many singers I enjoy. Lizz Wright I enjoy. Also Madeleine Peyroux. She plays great guitar, she‘s like a female Freddie Green. And a Norwegian girl, Celia [Silje] Nergaard. Oleta Adams singing “Stormy Weather,” you’ll pee in your pants.

9. Paul Bollenback 
“Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” (from Brightness of Being, Elefant Dreams). Bollenback, guitar; Gary Thomas, Tim Garland, saxophones; James Genus, bass; Terri Lyn Carrington, drums. Recorded in 2005.

Before: That’s a good guitarist. I have no idea who it is, but I like it very much. The fluency and the good notes. He can swing, and all those slick scales. I’m impressed. Very close to goose bumps. Some things I would still like to try and play myself. I cannot anymore because I’ve had a stroke. But I was pretty slick 30 years ago. I like it. Who is it?


I’d like to hear him play a ballad. [listens to “You Don’t Know Me“ from the same CD and starts to sing along]. Yeah, that’s nice. I wish him luck. I’m impressed with the facility. He knows a lot of stuff. Would I put it in my IPOD? Yes, but I don’t know how long it would stay there [chuckles]. One of the greatest shocks I had lately was [listening to] an old Louis Armstrong record on “When You’re Smiling.” In the last chorus he plays the melody, just the melody, an octave higher. Beautiful. That’s goose bumps.

One comment on “Before & After: Toots Thielemans

  1. elyn rucker says:

    candid and enjoyable…Toots was straight ahead…lovely man. great ears!

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