Musician Friends Celebrate Thielemans’ 90 Years

Jazz harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans quipped that his legs don’t work but his mouth does after he was pushed onstage in a wheelchair to a standing ovation during the first of two Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts this weekend celebrating his 90 years. And once he put his harmonica to his lips, he more than lived up to his words.

Thielemans, who has been in poor health, had only played once this year at a summer jazz festival in his native Belgium and had canceled all his other U.S. dates. JALC programming director Jason Olaine said that up to the last minute, the producers were not sure whether Thielemans would even be able to play at the tribute concerts.

But energized by an enthusiastic audience and his musical friends, Thielemans rose to the occasion. Among those paying tribute were American jazz pianists Herbie Hancock and Kenny Werner, and three Brazilian stars, guitarist-vocalist Dori Caymmi, pianist-vocalist Eliane Elias and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves — all of whom appeared on Thielemans’ two Brasil Project CDs in the early 1990s.

Thielemans, who turned 90 in April, was the first musician to create full-fledged jazz improvisations on the harmonica. But he’s also made his mark in pop culture — as the whistler on the Old Spice commercials; playing harmonica on the themes for “Sesame Street” and the film “Midnight Cowboy;” and in performances with Paul Simon and Billy Joel. He was ennobled by Belgium’s king as a baron in 2001 and received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 2009, the highest U.S. jazz honor.

Werner opened Friday night’s concert at the Rose Theater by playing two ballads — Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring” and Bill Evans’ “Very Early,” which were on his 2001 duets album with Thielemans. Then Caymmi and Castro-Neves joined the band to play two Brazilian standards, including “Aquarela do Brasil,” the title track of a 1969 recording Thielemans made with bossa nova singer Elis Regina that made him a hero to Brazilian musicians.

“When I heard Toots Thielemans for the first time, I’d like to tell you I was a baby,” Caymmi said. “I was impressed like I was by Gil Evans, John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery.”

Thielemans made his first appearance of the evening to play Caymmi’s composition “Obsession” with the band; a Gershwin medley of “I Love You Porgy/Summertime” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,” considered the first bossa nova song, with Werner; and Jacques Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” with Elias.

Hancock opened the second half by recalling that he first heard Thielemans when he was 14 years old with the George Shearing Quintet, a group he said greatly influenced him when he first became interested in jazz. He later played with Thielemans on records with Quincy Jones and others.

Hancock dedicated a spontaneously improvised piece — with lots of classical influences — to his Belgian friend, and then Thielemans joined him for a playful free-form duet loosely derived from Miles Davis’ “Blue and Green.” Thielemans stayed on stage to play a Sinatra medley (“All the Way/My Way”) duet with Werner and joined with Elias to play her ballad “Moments,” ‘which he played on her first CD for Blue Note Records.

After Elias and Castro-Neves played several Brazilian tunes to give Thielemans a break, he returned one more time. He dedicated his composition “For My Lady” to his wife, Huguette.

“In this world I wouldn’t certainly be here if it were not for my lady. She pays all the dues I should be paying,” Thielemans said, addressing his wife in the audience before playing the tune with Werner and Castro-Neves.

All the musicians returned to the stage to play Thielemans’ best known composition, “Bluesette,” possibly the first swinging jazz waltz that was composed 50 years ago. Hancock and Elias engaged in some playful four-handed piano playing as the audience sang and clapped along with the musicians.

Photo: AP Photo
File photo provided by the National Endowment for the Arts – Toots Thielemans performs at the Rose Theater in New York.

For an encore, Thielemans thanked everyone by caressingly playing “What a Wonderful World” — a dedication to Louis Armstrong. He exited the stage standing proudly, supported by his fellow musicians, as the audience serenaded him with “Happy Birthda