Toots Thielemans was born as Jean Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans on 29 April 1922 in the working class Marollen district of Brussels. His parents ran a pub in the Hoogstraat.
At the age of three he started playing the accordion entertaining visitors to the flea market on the Vossenplein. He discovers the harmonica at the age of 17 also learning to play the piano and the guitar. In the war years he becomes fascinated by the jazz music that the Americans bring to Europe.
"When I first heard Louis Armstrong on an old record player I was enraptured. The jazz virus had bitten me."
Thielemans's first idol was the Belgian Django Reinhardt, who cultivated his own style of jazz influenced by gypsy music. In 1950 Thielemans gets his chance: to tour Europe with Benny Goodman. Two years later he immigrates to the US becoming a US citizen five years later.
In Philadelphia he becomes a member of Charlie Parker’s All Stars and works with the George Shearing Quintet for six years. As Jean isn't a handy name for a jazz player he is christened Toots after Toots Mondello and Toots Caramata, two celebrated jazz saxophonists.
In the early days Thielemans was paid 15 dollars for concerts in what he labelled mafia restaurants.
In 1962 whistling and on the guitar he record "Bluesette" that becomes an enormous hit. It is later covered by countess musicians. Thanks to the royalties Thielemans calls it his 'social security'. Later he also records a version on harmonica. The musician gains fame as a harmonica player especially in the world of films recording soundtracks for "Midnight Cowboy", "The Getaway", "Turks Fruit" and "Jean de Florette".
He performs with the greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, George Shearing as well as Billy Joel and Paul Simon. Thielemans's fame at home only comes later. In 1981 he plays Jazz Middelheim. A performance of the Brabançonne, the Belgian anthem, following Belgium's win against Russia at the 1986 World Cup is memorable. Later the establishment rains honours on him, he's nominated as one of the Greatest Belgians and gets his own street named after him in Brussels.
A film by Pierre Barre and Thierry Loreau "Toots Thielemans, l'incroyable destin d'un ketje de Bruxelles" is devoted to his life in 2008. In 2012 he is named "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honour to befall any jazz musician in the US. His 90th birthday in 2012 is celebrated in style when he plays his harmonica for the king.
During his career he released over 30 records. He died in his sleep on Monday at the age of 94.