Belgian American jazz great Jean Baptiste "Toots" Thielemans was a great harmonica player. He also had serious skills on the guitar.
But the music Thielemans made simply by whistling was truly marvellous.
Thielemans died earlier this week at the age of 94.
One of his best-known compositions is called "Bluesette." The inspiration Thielemans once said was — well — it just WAS. The song, that is.
"It happened to me. You don't write a song like Bluesette.”
He came up with the iconic jazz tune in 1961. Thieleman’s style caught the ear of a young Dutch whistler named Geert Chatrou.
“When I started whistling at competitions, well, I listened to a lot of music all my life, but mostly classical music," Chatrou says. "And then I was asked to do some jazz pieces and I was thinking ‘what should I listen to?’ and someone recommended to listen to Toots Thielemans and, well, I started listening to him. By now I think I’ve heard everything by him and still enjoy it.”
Chatrou now performs with symphonies around the world and has won the world championships in whistling three times.
So what’s at the heart of Toots whistling style?
When Toots was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a jazz master solo instrumentalist, he explained how he approached a solo.
“I don't know if you can put the stamp on what is a jazz solo. It's playing on the chords. Playing a variation on the melody. ... It's a big thing to answer. I don't know. For instance, if you want to show off, then you put too many blue notes or you make a caricature, you become a clone. A clown and a clone. Okay."
"What makes jazz? Jazz is that feeling. To me, whatever is called jazz, if you call it jazz, certainly, it has to contain or be really full of that ingredient, that African-American ingredient, where it came from. It's a horrible thing to say but without the slaves being brought to America, we wouldn't have Billie Holiday, we would not have had Louis, we would not have had Michael Jackson. You see, maybe it's sacrilegious to use that because it's a human right's violation. Bah! Without that there violation, I would be playing I don't know what in Belgium and Louis Armstrong would have played what in Africa?”
To Chatrou, the essence of Toots' whistle solos is their complex simplicity:
“He never whistled too many notes, if you know what I mean. I really love the simplicity and every note was, it just had to be there and when you hear a lot of whistlers and also musical instrument players, they want to show off as if to say ‘listen to what I can do!’ Toots, I think never did that from the start. He played with all the best jazz players in the world and he was still just Toots Thielemans and that's what I really like about him.”
Chatrou’s favorite recording of Toots whistling is from the soundtrack to the Dutch movie "Turks Fruit." If you have a favorite, share a link in the comment section below.
On Saturday, Toots Thielemans will be buried in La Hulpe, the city where he lived, not far from the Belgian capital, Brussels. Next month, the city will honor his musical legacy with the Toots Jazz Festival.
Toots Jazz Festival, La Hulpe, Belgium.