General Meeting

Speaker: Hugo Rodriguez
Hugo Rodriguez
Hugo Rodriguez
CHÂTEAU SAINTE-ANNE Rue Du Vieux Moulin 103 1160 Bruxelles

Toots Thielemans would have been 100 years old in 2022. On this occasion, a whole series of initiatives were launched to celebrate the man who is undoubtedly a major figure in Belgian music and jazz in general. These events were an opportunity to realise to what extent the life and work of this extraordinary musician go far beyond what we must call the Épinal image of Toots of recent years.

In this lecture, we intend to give an overview of the life and work of Toots Thielemans, in words, images and, of course, music, that does justice to the many paths he had taken. For each stage, we will highlight certain social, cultural and aesthetic issues of his activity: the living conditions of jazzmen in the early days of Toots' career, the choice of eclectic musical styles and the nomadic nature of his tastes, straddling the line between the "learned" and the "popular", the role of improvisation and composition, and the bittersweet melancholy of his playing (and his vision of life) that Toots liked to describe as being "between a smile and a tear".

Hugo Rodriguez has a PhD in musicology from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is currently a scientific collaborator at the Music Division of the KBR (Royal Library of Belgium). He was one of the curators of the exhibition Toots 100: The Sound of a Belgian Legend, which was held at KBR between April and August 2022, and co- organised other projects within the framework of the 'Toots 100' year (symposium, conferences, concerts). He also conducts other research on issues of 19th century music history, theory of musical meaning, musical humor and psychology of music.

Photo from Wikimedia


A Review
A review by Larisa Doctorow
Toots Thielemans

On 17 April, our group had the pleasure of listening to a presentation on Toots Thielemans by Hugo Rodriguez, a musicologist working for the Royal Library of Brussels (KBR). The title of his talk was that of the exhibition he co-organized in the Royal Library. Thielemans was a major figure on the Belgian popular music scene. This month of April he would have been 101 years old.

Hugo Rodriguez has a PhD in musicology from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. At present he is a scientific collaborator at the music division of the KBR. He was one of the curators of the exhibition “Toots 100” which was held at the KBR. He also co-organized other projects at this time such as symposia, conferences, concerts.

Thielemans lived a long life, and millions of Belgians remember him. If you ask people of the older generation here whether they are familiar with Thielemans, their faces break into a smile. “He was unique, a great musician and a very humble man,” they say. Thielemans was born in Brussels to a Flemish mother and a Walloon father. He considered himself a perfect Belgian. His parents owned a small business, a café in the Marolles district of Brussels. In his youth, he started playing the accordion, his first musical instrument, following in the footsteps of a relative. He played it in his parents’ café, the Trapken Af. On the screen we were shown a drawing of him playing there while listeners crowded outside by the window.

Popular music and jazz was well established in Belgium since the beginning of the 1920s and Brussels was a centre. If you wanted to hear it, there were plenty of opportunities at cafés and in street parades when military orchestras performed. Thielemans listened, learned and played. He never stopped educating himself. He performed political songs, military music, folk music, operettas, ballroom dance music, hit songs and also classical music. Our lecturer told us that among his archives they found complete scores of world classics, like Debussy and Olivier Messiaen on which Thielemans left his comments.

The cafe

At the time, the most popular musical instrument was the chromatic harmonica. It was considered to be an instrument for poorer people. Half a million of them were produced in Germany each year by Hohner. Harmonica players were regarded like movie stars today. There were also harmonica ensembles which were exceptional for their virtuosity and showmanship. They performed on stage. Thielemans realized that to become popular he should learn to play this instrument. The harmonica was cheap and easy to carry. It imitates a human voice, and it is also associated with blues, country and folk music. Thielemans started playing the harmonica and quickly made it equal and legitimate with other jazz band instruments. Thielemans did improvisations on the harmonica, which is for a jazz player the quintessence of performance. He described his mode of playing as being between a smile and a tear.

Then, Thielemans got his first guitar and loved it. We watched scenes from the Belgian movie “Modern Mood” of 1946, where Thielemans played the guitar. It was his first appearance in a movie. In the foreground there are four saxophone players. Thielemans plays behind them. Our lecturer commented: “Imagine – he plays like that after three years of studies. Marvellous! He was 24. In 1939 he studied mathematics at ULB but soon left it and devoted his efforts to music. In 1947 he went to the United States. His uncle Theophile lived in New York and persuaded him to move.

About his name. When he was born, he was given the name Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidor Thielemans. For a performer that is too long and difficult. Someone suggested to him to shorten it. He took his pseudonym Toots from Toots Lockwood, a pioneer trumpeter of jazz from the New Orleans area. But there is another suggestion: toots is a Dutch slang for babies’ feet. His mother used to call him that. The name helped his popularity.

In 1948-1949 Thielemans worked with Bob Shots in Belgium and France and after that he formed his own band, reviving early jazz and its roots in blues and ragtime. In 1951 Thielemans received American citizenship. During his stay in the USA, Benny Goodman heard him and after Thielemans came back to Belgium, Goodman called him and offered to go together on a tour of Europe, including Sweden. Between 1949 and 1952 Thielemans performed with the Toots Quartet, in which he played both harmonica and guitar. We heard a beautiful excerpt.

On stage

Between 1952 and 1959 he was a member of the George Shearing Quintet where he played an electric guitar. John Lennon of Beatles fame heard him and was influenced by his playing. Thielemans played everything: old jazz, modern, a lot of Latin dances and Afro-Cuban music. We heard the famous “Caravan” where he played harmonica. Fantastic! When he was 55 years old, Thielemans not only played harmonica and guitar, but also developed whistling. On the screen we were shown the album “The whistler and his Guitar” and we listened to great whistling. Thielemans called this style ‘Bluesette’. It is a type of waltz in three quarter time.

After the Bluesette came out, Thielemans became a star. Solo albums followed, often pieces of music combining whistling and his guitar. Our lecturer called the period of Thielemans’ life between 1963 and 1977 ‘La Dolce Vita.’ But during this time his wife died. Two years later he married again. A year later he had a stroke, was obliged to give up his guitar and returned to Belgium. During many years he gave 260 concerts a year and performed up to the age of 90 years. He composed music for films, including “Midnight cowboy’. He died in 2016, not so long ago.

We listened to his recording of 1982. The Phillips recording studio engaged him to create music for their employees: Music de bureau. The music is so beautiful that we wonder how it was possible to listen to it and work at the same time. Our lecturer agreed with us. The way Thielemans played the harmonica was very melancholic. 

Photos from Wikimedia and by courtesy of M. Hugo Rodriguez

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