When Toots Thielemans first received Charlie Parker’s music, it was from the hands of U.S. soldiers during World War II in his native Belgium. He had never heard anything like it.
“He was the master, the messiah, 50 years ago. That was the revolution,” the famed jazz harmonica player said from New York City. “All the musicians of my generation were waiting for a messiah like Charlie Parker.”
And when Thielemans made it to the United States in the ‘50s, it was Parker who gave his career a push, inviting him to take part in a two-week engagement in Philadelphia, performing alongside Miles Davis and Dinah Washington.
“Charlie Parker took me under his wing, those two weeks,” Thielemans said. “I say it modestly and with great respect.”
Two weeks later he joined George Shearing’s band as a second guitarist, occasionally playing harmonica.While on the road with Shearing, the bass player turned to Thielemans, who was whistling, and said, “Hey, man, you whistle better than you play.”
“I enjoyed whistling,” Thielemans said. “And I said, ‘Why don’t I whistle and play the same note on the guitar?’ ”
He no longer whistles or plays guitar because of limitations from a stroke and declining inner ear. But Thielemans, who turns 83 two days after his Wednesday night show in Spokane, compensates on the harmonica.
“My harmonica chops are fierce,” he said.
Thielemans doesn’t like to drop names, but they’re kind of hard to avoid for the six-decade industry veteran.
His career, which began in the 1940s, is highlighted by collaborations with generations of pop musicians. Playing the guitar and most prominently the harmonica, Thielemans’ chops have earned him a seat next to hit makers ranging from Quincy Jones to Billy Joel.
He didn’t land a lot of gigs because artists were looking to augment their bands’ instrumentation with a little- thought-of instrument like the harmonica. Thielemans stayed busy, he said, because people liked his sound and the way he sang lyrics through the harmonica.
“Every situation (just) happened,” he said from New York City. “I did not make any advances to Ella Fitzgerald or Paul Simon, ‘Hey, can I play with you guys?’ It was a succession.”
Keyboardist Kenny Werner joins Thielemans on Wednesday at Spokane Falls Community College for two sets. The two have performed together periodically since they were introduced 15 years ago. But the music remains fresh, Thielemans said, because they are both involved in many other projects.
“Almost call it two lovers that meet now and then,” he said. “Their relationship doesn’t become stale. Then it becomes work, and I don’t want to work.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.