may 2012


The Mastery of Toots

Going strong at 90, Toots Thielemans, who put the chromatic harmonica on the jazz map, stands with the musical greats of our time. A birthday tribute is in order.

By David McGee

On April 29, one Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans, aka Toots Thielemans, celebrated his 90th birthday. It’s fitting that we honor him in this issue, seeing as how he singlehandedly validated the harmonica as a jazz solo instrument, much as the late Maurice André, to whom we play tribute elsewhere, did so for the classical trumpet and whose legacy is being boldly advanced by this month’s cover subject, Alison Balsom.

Born in 1922 in Brussels, Belgium, Jean Thielemans took his renowned nickname from a couple of musicians who also called themselves Toots. As he told Les Tompkins in a 1978 interview for Jazz Professional, “My name, Jean Thielemans--that doesn't swing at all. Names on the scene at that time were Toots Mondello, who was with Benny Goodman, and the arranger Toots Camarata; so they said: ‘That's it--Toots.’ I said: ‘Okay, why not?’ It started like that, and it stuck. It's been a lucky label, I guess, through the years.”

young toots
The young Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor, Baron Thielemans: ‘My name, Jean Thielemans--that doesn't swing at all.’

He guesses right. Since beginning his professional recording career in 1946, Toots has played in just about every musical combination imaginable—from sitting in with orchestras to simple harmonica-and-piano duos—and with some of his time’s greatest musicians: Ron Carter, Al Cohn, Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Bucky Pizzarelli, George Shearing, Zoot Sims, McCoy Tyner—the list goes on and on, and also includes guest appearances accompanying Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Natalie Cole. He is Quincy Jones’s first-call session player, he’s recorded dozens of film soundtracks, his song “Bluesette” is an acknowledged jazz classic, and in 2009 he became an NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor the States award a jazz musician.

tootsHis musical journey, at least from 1946 to 2001, is chronicled on Yesterday & Today, a splendid new two-CD collection of rarities from Naxos of America and Out of the Blue Records. On these two discs you can hear Toots growing up and into his instrument, and emerging as the virtuoso he’s recognized as today. Delights abound, big and small.

Disc 1 has some almost cartoonish moments, as the bands Toots is playing with seem to be aiming less for artistic statements than for high-spirited good fun, albeit well played good fun. The first frantic cut, the earliest Toots recording to have yet surfaced, is “Jazz Band Roll,” cut with some of his fellow Belgian musicians literally for a cartoon. As he gains confidence, he gets frisky, playful: in the midst of the hubbub that is his own “Nalen Boogie” (recorded in 1950 with a quartet of fellow Belgians), Toots interpolates a chorus of George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; a year later, recording in Brussels with a Belgian trio and laying down another high flying original titled “Red Devils Boogie,” he breaks out into a chorus of John Philip Sousa’s “Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue” march. Work of more serious intent is on the horizon, though. In 1952, recording in New York City with Dick Hyman on piano and banjo great Harry Reser, he fashions another original tune, “Dynamite,” into a scintillating, pulsating exhibition of virtuoso musicianship that is nigh on to breathtaking in its rhythmic intensity but is soulful, too—and there’s the rub, friends. Toots started out, and appears on these early tracks, as a guitarist in the mold of his fellow Belgian legend, Django Reinhardt, as well as a harmonica player. In either guise, he stands out for that extra measure of personality he injects into the proceedings. Thus the hallmark of Toots’s legend and legacy.

Early Toots and his trio, on Toots’s ‘Nalen Boogie,’ 1950. Recorded in Stockholm. Reinhold Svensson (organ), Ben Steiberg (banjo), Thore Jederby (bass), Anders Burman (drums). Toots (harmonica) throws in a taste of George M. Cohan’s ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ at the 1:13 mark.

Maurice André and Alison Balsom are not merely technicians of the highest rank on their instruments, but artists who infuse their work with deep, expressive feeling of such a degree as to stir a listener’s most precious memories and affections. So it is true of Toots—he is who he is because he brings to his chromatic harmonica, the tool of his trade, something that can’t be taught--something that comes straight from the heart. You can bet Paul Simon enlisted Toots’s services so he could tap into Toots’s passion first and foremost.

tootsSeven cuts into Disc 1 you hear Toots’s transformation into a more sophisticated and nuanced player in the wake of his big break in being invited to join George Shearing’s band, which also included Cal Tjader on vibes, Al McKibbon in bass and Bill Clark on drums, in addition to Shearing on piano. On the easygoing swing of “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” and in the sultry, understated heat his harmonica adds to the Latinalia of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” with the Shearing group joined by Catalina Rolon on shaker and Candido on bongos, Toots is a major atmospheric force. The latter number, recorded in 1952, marked Toots’s introduction, at least on record, to Latin music. Twenty years later he would make a deeper exploration of Brazilian music on his album The Brasil Project, teaming up with Ivan Lins, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, among others. As he explained to Terry Peters in an April 2004 interview posted at All About Jazz, he found in Brazilian music a connection to the early bebop that had changed the course of his musical direction as a young man: “I've always felt that in the harmonies of Brazilian music--especially bossa nova--there are great similarities to bebop. And on Jobim compositions like ‘One Note Samba’ and ‘Wave,’ the melodies are based on bebop chords. Brazilian composers like Jobim and Lins are melodic geniuses--they write melody that lasts. Charlie parker and the other beboppers wrote themes, but nobody outside of a jazz scat singer sings those. So that evolution in jazz harmony and melody is what attracted me to Brazilian music.”

Toots Thielemans and Elis Regina and Orchestra Elis Cinco, ‘Barqhino,’ from the Toots-Elis album Aquarela Do Brasil (1969)

The subtlety common to Toots’ mature work develops further on Disc 1 in easygoing, swinging numbers such as 1958’s “Cool and Easy,” with Hank Jones (piano), Doug Watkins (bass) and Art Taylor (drums) in genial conversation with Toots’s bright, sprightly harmonica discourses on another fine Thielemans original. From the same year, with the same trio supplemented by a supple horn section featuring Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Al Epstein and Danny Bank, along with guitarist Barry Galbraith, Theilemans assayed a Johnny Mercer co-write, “Early Autumn,” in an arrangement by Ralph Burns that evokes the blissful warmth of Indian summer as the harmonica dances across the melody line with a carefree spirit. As we get into the ‘60s, we find Thielemans working in larger ensembles and sharing the spotlight often with the great jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who has star turns on several tunes, starting with the exquisitely lovely, string-enhanced Thielemans composition from which this collection takes it title, “Yesterday and Today,” with Jack Andrews conducting the orchestra and crafting an arrangement worthy of Riddle-like comparisons for its velvety strings, percussive flourishes and the piano playing a fleeting Baroque figure at about the halfway mark. Bucky really stands out on a dazzling interpretation of “O Susannah,” which variously takes on strains of country, blues and jazz, and also happens to feature a snappy Herbie Hancock piano solo. The same lineup also tackles Percy Mayfield’s monumental “Please Send Me Someone to Love.” Being an instrumental, this version doesn’t underscore Mayfield’s bold inveighing against racism, but Pizzarelli’s brooding, fat-toned soloing, double-stops and single-string ruminations (subtly underscored by Hancock’s plaintive counterpoint on the organ) effectively conjures the hurt permeating Mayfield’s original classic. Not the least of the tracks here is 1969’s sultry “Barquinho,” recorded in Stockholm with Orchestra Elis Cinco and featuring the smoldering Elis Regina on a memorably seductive lead vocal with Toots’s harmonica dancing around her in a moment that led directly to the more serious inspections of 1972’s The Brasil Project.

Toots Thielemans and Elis Regina, ‘Volta,’ from their 1969 album Aquarela Do Brasil. Posted at Vimeo by THEANJOMAR. Parental caution advised, but this is great.

Disc 2 kind of goes all over the place and in a far more commercial vein than Disc 1’s tunestack, starting with the Quincy Jones produced-arranged-co-written (with Bill Cosby) “Chump Change,” heavy on wah-wah and brass, with Toots subsumed in the mix; better is the “Love Theme from ‘The Getaway,’” a haunting, Mancini-like meditation, stripped down (with only Jones, George Duke, Dennis Budimir and Grady Tate supporting a wistful Toots harmonica) and indicative of the complex feelings Toots could rouse with his chromatic harp; for further proof of this, look no further than his evocative harmonica-and-bass (by Mark Johnson) beauty, “Spartacus--Love Theme,” from 1989. Even better, Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty” is a straightforward, perky Toots solo guitar workout—concise (at 2:08), airy, fresh. Toots’s original “The Slickest Man in Town” is that true rarity of rarities—a solo guitar piece with a nasally, drawling vocal by Toots himself, along with his famous whistling accompaniment (before he made his debut on harmonica and was building a reputation as a guitarist, he was becoming as well known for his whistling as much as for his picking). If you share your faithful friend and narrator’s opinion that the big production numbers tend not to show Toots to good advantage (and sometimes he seems not to be on the track at all), there are plenty of austere “Black Beauty”-like gems in which to luxuriate, especially the closing quintet of songs beginning with the aforementioned “Spartacus—Love Theme,” such as a buoyant, carefree “What Kind of Fool Am I,” a 1989 track brimming with the sunniness of newfound love that Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley captured in the poignant, simple complexity of their lyrics, with Toots backed elegantly by Mulgrew Miller (piano), Rufus Reid (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums); an absolutely swooning take on Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” (1991), with Toots outlining a wistful, searching Shirley Horn vocal with various muted, anxiety-laden retorts to her enveloping melancholy; a sinister “Circle of Smiles,” the captivating main theme of the Dutch detective series Baantjer; and certainly not least of all, despite its being the last song on the disc, a mesmerizing, thick-textured rendition of “What a Wonderful World,” minus Louis Armstrong’s touching vocal, of course, but boasting a measured, lush atmosphere fashioned by Toots’s trusted late-life collaborator Kenny Werner, on synth and piano.

Toots Thielemans, ‘What Kind of Fool Am I,’ from his Guitar, Strings…and Things album, Recorded December 19, 1989. With Mulgrew Miller (piano), Rufus Reid (bass), Lewis Nash (drums). Produced by Kiyoshi ‘Boxman’ Koyama

So to Toots Thielemans, newly turned 90 years old, birthday greetings and wishes for many more to come are in order. Perhaps the Yesterday & Today collection might inspire newcomers to Toots’s art to dig deeper into his catalogue and appreciate what the man has wrought while he’s still with us. A few minutes into this collection alone will prove the truth of what Quincy Jones observes in the liner booklet, to wit: “I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best jazz has produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more.”

Toots Thielemans’ Yesterday & Today is available at



Toots: A Life, In His Own Words

Herewith a profile of Toots Thielemans cobbled together from two of the best interviews with him available online: "Pruning the Tree: Seven Decades of Jazz with Toots Thielemans,” by Terry Perkins at All About Jazz (April 13, 2004); and “Toots Thielemans: A Lucky Label,” by Les Tompkins (1978) at Jazz Professional Perkins’s questions are preceded by TP, Tompkins’s by LT.

TP: How did you first get interested in playing the harmonica?

I bought my first harmonica when I was 18 years old on Brussels. I had just finished my six years in secondary school and I had seen Larry Adler--who was pioneering the harmonica--in movies. So that gave me the idea to buy one. But I just wanted it to play popular songs as a hobby. At that time I didn't know about jazz.

TP: When did you first discover jazz?

It was 1942 during the German occupation. I can't say whether I discovered jazz or jazz discovered me! Ask many musicians and they won't know what to answer. Let's put it this way--I caught the jazz virus. It happened when I bought a record by Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers from the late 1930s. That's how far back I go. During the German occupation, we only had access to recordings done before 1940. So then I wanted to play jazz, but the musicians in Belgium told me to throw that toy away--meaning the harmonica--and get a real instrument.

Stevie Wonder, who introduced the chromatic harmonica to soul music, joins Toots Thielemans on the Thielemans classic, ’Bluesette’

TP: And that's when you began playing guitar?

Yes. Accidentally through a friend I got a guitar. And in those days, the inspiration for jazz guitar--especially in Europe--was Django Reinhardt and his recordings with Stephane Grappelli at the Hot Club in Paris. I had an old windup phonograph--I still have it--that I used to play his records. I took three guitar lessons, and then listened to those records over and over to teach myself how to play.

LT: I believe you started playing when you were three, but on the accordion. Was yours a musical family?

No, but my parents had a sidewalk cafe: every Sunday there was an accordion player and apparently I went through the motions, squeezing a shoebox. One of the regulars in 'the cafe said to my father: "I think you should get your son an accordion--that's what he's trying to do, with that shoebox." So they got me a little cardboard diatonic accordion--I still have it. I started to play the National Anthem, and things like that. It seems I was musically gifted-but my parents just never pushed in that direction.

‘Eyes of Love,’ Toots Thielemans and Quincy Jones. Says Quincy: ‘I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best jazz has produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry.’

LT: Of course, you didn't play jazz on the harmonica to begin with. That came later, I suppose.

A little later, yes. At that time, I played the hits of the day, which were "Beer Barrel Polka,” "St. Louis Blues" or whatever. I started fumbling around, trying to improvise. Then some friends introduced me to the records. Django Rheinhardt was my first idol; I've got a guitar like that again now. Yes, this was during the Occupation: it was difficult, but we got by. We tried to listen all the time, of course, to the English radio stations, but they were jammed very often, as you well know.

TP: When did you start playing music professionally?

I had been planning on being a mathematics teacher, but after I played professionally for the first time at the end of the occupation in 1944, earning my first $10 playing guitar in a tearoom, I decided to concentrate on music. Then when the bebop explosion happened at the end of the War, I knew I wanted to go to the United States and be a part of that.

Toots Thielemans’ closing theme for Sesame Street

TP: Your first visit to America was in 1947, right?

I came as a tourist with my uncle--my father's brother. As it happened, my last two days in New York City before I cam back to Brussels I had the chance to play on 52nd Street, which was the center for jazz. Bill Gottlieb, the famous jazz photographer had happened to hear me sitting in during a jam session in Miami, where my uncle and I first went on our trip. When we got to New York City, we met up with him and he introduced me to Howard McGhee--who was a fine trumpet player who was leading an all-star group at the Three Deuces--sharing the bill with pianist Lennie Tristano and his trio. Some of the other musicians in Howard's band were Hank Jones, Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson. Bill told them, "I've got this guy from Belgium who plays harmonica." Their reaction was, "Oh..." But I was accepted and got to sit in. An agent named Billy Shaw happened to be there as well, and after I got back to Brussels I would send him homemade recordings. He passed one of them along to Benny Goodman, it wound up on his turntable, and that's how I got the chance to tour with the Goodman band in Europe in 1950. But I couldn't continue with the band back to the States, because I still didn't have a visa.

TP: You joined pianist George Shearing's quintet soon after you arrived. How did Shearing end up hiring you?

That's a good story! In those days, I was trying hard to meet the jazz musicians in New York and it was hard to open doors. There were a few bars that were meeting places for musicians, like Junior's, which was right across from Birdland, and Jin & Andy's. In those days there were a lot of recording sessions, and guys would be doing three hours for Sinatra, another hour for a commercial, and meeting at these places in between. I was at a bar across from the Metropole, where Gene Krupa was playing, and Tony Scott, who was a clarinet and saxophonist, came in. I had already played a couple of Monday night sessions at Birdland--sitting in with Lockjaw Davis--and Tony must have heard me. In his very exuberant way, he told me he liked my harmonica playing, and asked me if I played the guitar too.

Toots and Peggy Lee, ‘Makin’ Whoopee’ on TV in the ‘60s

Tony was sort a jazz chamber of commerce back then, always trying to help a little cat from Minnesota--or Europe--trying to find a place to play in New York City. He said, "You got your harmonica with you? Come with me," and we walked up to Carnegie Hall. George Shearing's group was playing there on a double bill, opening for Billy Eckstine. Tony practically broke down the stage door, telling them he had to see George Shearing. Anyway, we got in; he took me to see George and introduced me, telling George, "Wait till you hear this guy!" I played "Body and soul right there in his dressing room, and when I was finished, Tony told him, "This guy plays the guitar too, George!" Tony knew that George's guitarist Dick Garcia, was going into the army. A week after that meeting, Shearing was playing the Rendezvous Club in Philadelphia, and I was playing with Charlie Parker's All-Stars, opening for Dinah Washington in Philadelphia at the same time. During one of the breaks, I took my guitar over to the club to audition for George. He hired me and I played with him for six years.

(Playing with Charlie Parker) was my first playing job in the States. A very memorable experience; I was the only white fellow in a black theatre. In Charlie Parker's group at that time were people like Milt Jackson, Miles Davis. Yes, I played both instruments in that band. As for Charlie Parker, he was a monster--he's still the boss, for me. He took me under his wing for a couple of weeks.

From the George Shearing years, Toots Thieleman plays guitar on ‘Black Satin,’ on Shearing’s Bossa Nova album (1962)

LT: What are your thoughts about your six years with George Shearing?

It was a steady job, and still good exposure--and it was good music at the time, I guess. It's still good music, but somehow I flew away a little bit from it. George is still a fine musician, of course. I stayed on there, because it was a good job, and I had no other; it was a matter of security, also. My leaving the band was a mutual thing, after that amount of time, George just wanted to change the faces around, and I was ready to jump in the pool. I decided, well, I didn't come to the States to be a sideman all my life. Then you have to start to wait for the phone to ring, and that's not easy. In the States, it can be rough--anywhere, for that matter.

TP: You also have had a long relationship with Quincy Jones over the years, playing on many of his recordings.

I met Quincy when I was still with Shearing, and he was playing third trumpet with Lionel Hampton. We became friends, and more than ten years later when Quincy was doing his first movie soundtrack in Hollywood, he asked me to come out and play on it. Later, in the mid- sixties when he started doing solo albums for Creed Taylor, he called me again to record with Ray Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Herbie Hancock. By that time I had already recorded “Bluesette,” which was me whistling and playing guitar at the same time. Back then, I really didn't want to travel so much. So that meant I had to do commercials, play bar mitzvahs and do things like the Dick Cavett TV show. I ended up doing really well in the studio, but I was doing everything but jazz. I told him that I hadn't played jazz in a year and I didn't think I could do it anymore. Basically, he told me I had to be at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey at 9 o'clock. So he got me back into jazz, and he still calls me for sessions today.

LT: Apart from the harmonica, the other distinctive sound that people know you by is the whistling with the guitar. How did you get on to that?

Well, that came about just like that. I was whistling all the time, when I was working, and the bass player with George Shearing said : "You should do that on record some time." I always liked the sort of scat that Slam Stewart did with the bass--this hum-what-you-play kind of thing-reproducing some kind of way the same sound that you play on the instrument. So I started it: the whistling and the guitar are basically an octave apart. Then I made a little record like that. Especially in Sweden, it was very popular. Yes, I had to work on some details of it--like not blowing into the mike, and stupid things you do. It got some attention, and it was lucrative, in that they started to use me for whistling for commercials. And I've used it on records with people who like it such as Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones.

Toots Thielemans and Paulinho Garcia in an impromptu performance of Jobim’s ‘Wave,’ at the Jazzy Christmas Concert in Singapore, December 8, 2008

TP: In the 1990s, you recorded The Brasil Project, two volumes of music featuring you with musicians such as Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil. What is there about Brazilian music that attracts you?

I first went to Brazil in 1972 to work with the singer, Elias Regina. But I've always felt that in the harmonies of Brazilian music--especially bossa nova--there are great similarities to bebop. And on Jobim compositions like "One Note Samba" and "Wave," the melodies are based on bebop chords. Brazilian composers like Jobim and Lins are melodic geniuses - they write melody that lasts. Charlie parker and the other beboppers wrote themes, but nobody outside of a jazz scat singer sings those. So that evolution in jazz harmony and melody is what attracted me to Brazilian music.

LT: You've also--in latter years, particularly--become very well known for your ballad playing.

I love ballads. Really, I didn't realize that, but I'm a ballad player, I guess. The fast numbers are spectacular and exciting, but the real feeling comes through the ballad.

LT: And you've done some ballad playing with Michel Legrand . . .

Just the one with him--"My Funny Valentine".

LT: But you played some of Michel's ballads on a Rita Reys album, arranged by Rogier Van Otterloo, didn't you?

Oh, yes, that's right. And in Holland there are a few records that I released, but maybe only in Holland. With Rob Franken playing the piano, we did a pretty nice version on—“The Summer of '42.” I thought Rob played very well on that. With the electric piano and the harmonica, somehow, there's that carpet, and he plays it so fluidly, you know. It's a wave of sound that comes.

LT: Really, Toots, you've built up quite a reputation as an accompanist, as a filler-in behind singers.

Yes, I like it. Well, it's part of working, you know, but it's nice work. It's easy work, and it's usually financially rewarding. Peggy Lee, Paul Simon and other sessions now and then behind pop singers.

LT: Yes, you came over here with Paul Simon, didn't you? That was a very nice TV show you did with him, from Bristol.

It was cold, too; it was in December, and there was practically no heating. We did it in a big square house or something. As I played a note on the harmonica, I could see all the air coming out of my mouth. But I enjoyed it very much.

Toots Thielemans joins Paul Simon on ‘I Do It For Your Love,’

LT: He gave you a fair amount of playing space. Paul would appear to be quite a jazz enthusiast.

If not a jazz enthusiast, a man who respects a jazz player. He likes something bluesy well-played, and he hears--he has his own taste, but he likes good musicians and treats 'em right. From what a musician can do, he knows exactly what he wants, or he squeezes the guy until he gets that particular result that is good for what he hears. Believe me, I have so much respect for him. He sees everything and he hears everything. Like, in a stage presentation, the decor, the setup of where things go, the visual thing and the sound thing--it's all his. The same with his records. Of course, he's in a position to spend six months to make a record: "Okay--we'll go to Atlanta for the string section. We'll go to London for this part." For eight bars, they come to London.

LT: Would you say you get the most kicks in a small group context, rather than, say, on a massive studio date?

I do, yes. Unless it's arranged by somebody who's very sympathetic. It's not a matter of how much you write; it's how right it is, and how comfortable it feels to play against or with. Harmonica is a very special instrument, to start with.

LT: Have you found some fresh musical motivations recently?

Really, I feel very stimulated, I must say. I've learned a lot from Rob Franken. I've been playing and listening for thirty-seven years, and somehow he has a beautiful . . . synthesis, do you say . . . I hate to call it a system; you know, all these scales you're taught--the melodic, minor melodic, pentatonic and all that, and the substitutions--sometimes it's a little easy to call it a system. And I went on a crash diet of pentatonic scales, and stuff like that, to find variations from some of the old bebop runs into chord progressions. Sometimes, after playing many years, a musician's mind gets stiffened in a certain direction, from which you cannot detach yourself so much. I've been fortunate, I think, to be able to . . . cleanse myself of old clichés a bit. But it cannot sound like you're just trying to be hip. I set myself to figure out all the progressions, mostly of the standard songs: how to play "Stardust" in a pleasing way, in what I would call the "modern melodic" concept. In which John Coltrane is still the boss. If he'd left only one solo for me, it would be with Miles Davis--"Some Day My Prince Will Come.” The chorus he does on that record is a textbook for the next fifty years, for me, to my ears. Because melodically the Herbie Hancocks and all the guys spread out from that root. But John played so much stuff that has not been absorbed yet--that's still flying out there, you know.

Toots Thielemans, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ with Kenny Werner on synth and piano (2001)

LT: Well, I've felt it's a pity that a lot of musicians emulated only one side of his playing, instead of studying the whole. Thank goodness there are now ample signs of what you advocate being applied.

If anything, that's my little message--listen to it all. I mean, that's what I do. Again, you have to give yourself a John Coltrane shower, so to speak, and let the drops stick that suit your own personality. In my case, I may have a little originality of my own. My roots are different; I'm a French-speaking Belgian who grew up on French music--Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf and all that. So that's bound to leave you something. Like, "Bluesette" is a French song; there's not one blue note, not one syncopation in it--it's a musette waltz. But I used chords like Charlie Parker; when guys like Charlie played the blues for a while, they started to get away from the basic blues chords, and made the cycle all around. Which is what "Bluesette" is: you start in the key, then you're in a cycle of fifths, and then you jump right again. That's why the song keeps turning around, and is so easy to play all the time. Different ways, too.

LT: You seem to move about from place to place a great deal. Do you find it heavy going sometimes?

The hardest thing is stress, really. When things are going in a smooth way, when everything is handled properly, there's no problem. I just sit on my chair and play. These days, the phone rings all the time, and I'm booked pretty solid for some months ahead. Since my wife died, I'm a little in a daze; now I have nobody, really. I could stay home and relax, but what would I do home?

LT: Playing is totally in your blood, I'm sure, and you've got to do what you do so well.

That's it. The thing I really hope to be able to say is that I've made, if not one complete good LP, at least separate spots here and there that, in total, leave enough of a picture of what I do well. And that I can objectively say that I did my best with my given talent from upstairs. That seems very important to me right now. The shortage of records under my own name has been partly my fault. It's a matter also of finding material and knowing what to record. Or finding the right producer, really; I've always found producers who were more like fans--they leave me too much of a free hand. Because I really don't know what to do with myself on record. I have to have somebody to say: "No--not that", instead of saying: "Oh, that was great, Toots, yes." A producer I’ve found in Holland seems to know what he's after, and will argue about it. The accent in this thing will be on beautiful songs--and the little tear, you know.

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