His stage name had a down-home sound, but Toots Thielemans took harmonica playing to new heights as one of the only musicians to have a successful career playing jazz on the instrument. The performer, who also played on some classic film scores, has died of undisclosed causes at age 94.
A native of Brussels, Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidore Thielemans took a stage name inspired by two American jazz players who both went by "Toots." His musical gifts were apparent from an early age; in addition to harmonica, he also played accordion and guitar.
Thielemans found success in the postwar jazz scene both as a solo artist, a bandleader, and a collaborator with the likes of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman. In his last two decades of life, he found himself the subject of numerous tributes and honors, retiring only a couple of years ago.
In addition to his fame in the jazz world, Thielemans became a go-to player for composers looking to add his distinctive color to film scores. His harmonica is heard in films including Midnight Cowboy (John Barry, 1969) and The Getaway (1972) — working on the latter with composer Quincy Jones, who called him "one of the greatest musicians of our time."
Thielemans's other well-known performances include a guest spot on Billy Joel's album An Innocent Man and playing the Sesame Street theme as heard over the show's closing credits.