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Toots 100: Brussels launches centenary celebration of jazz giant’s birth

Toots 100
15:35 05/04/2022
Major exhibition and tribute concerts plus events and activities around the country

The Belgian capital marks the 100th birthday of Brussels jazz icon Toots Thielemans with a celebratory programme of events from April to December.

Toots 100 aims to be a comprehensive, diverse and fitting tribute to the virtuoso harmonica player, whistler and musical legend, who passed away in 2016.

When he retired from performing at 91, the dual Belgian-American national said he hoped he would be remembered as the ketje (local kid in Brussels dialect) from Brussels who grew up to be a citizen of the world.

Toots 100Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans grew up in the Marolles district and started playing a homemade accordion at the age of three, teaching himself to play the harmonica in his teens.

Inspired by fellow Belgian Django Reinhart, the youngster taught himself the guitar, although it was his mastery of the humble harmonica that was to forge his international reputation and establish the instrument as a legitimate voice in jazz. Quincy Jones, with whom he later collaborated extensively, said “he makes the harmonica sound like a saxophone”.

Jazz harmonica player Charles Leighton was equally effusive: “I used to think the chromatic had limits. But with the advent of Toots Thielemans, I have come to feel that the limitations are within the player. Because as far as I can see, Toots has no limitations.”

Having emigrated to the US in 1952, the land of his musical heroes, he played with all the jazz greats, from Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Stephane Grappelli. The musician also performed on film soundtracks, including Midnight Cowboy, The Pawnbroker, The Getaway and Looking for Mr Goodbar.  

Among his many recordings, Toots performed various musical genres with Billy Joel, Natalie Cole, Paul Simon, John Denver, Shirley Horn and Peggy Lee, as well as other musicians.

Toots 100

In the early 1960s, he composed Bluesette, which he performed either on harmonica or on guitar while whistling, a sound that was to become his personal brand. It became a worldwide hit and is now a jazz standard, having been covered by over 100 artists.

When he was ennobled in Belgium in 2001, he adopted the following motto on his coat of arms: “Be yourself, no more, no less,” a fitting description of how Toots lived and worked.

His widow Huguette Thielemans, the Private Toots Thielemans Foundation and the Brussels-Capital Region have joined forces along with dozens of other organisations to present the following tribute programme. While most events are staged in Brussels, some take place in venues across the country. See the full programme for details.

Toots 100

Toots 100: The Sound of a Belgian Legend

The Royal Library of Belgium (KBR) and the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) jointly stage this unique exhibition in the opulent setting of the KBR’s Palace of Charles Lorraine. After his death, the Toots Thielemans Foundation donated his personal archive to KBR, his instruments to the MIM. Now the two collections are reunited and shown in public for the first time. It’s an immersive experience – designed to entertain Toots novices and aficionados alike - with sound recordings, concert programmes, personal correspondence, sheet music and extensive musical and visual material.
22 April to 31 August, Place du Musée 11

Toots Thielemans 100th Anniversary Official Concert

To mark the date of his birth, Bozar selects musicians who knew him well to take the audience on a journey from his early beginnings as a musician to his American performances and his Brazilian period. The unique voices of Tutu Puoane, Brazilian artists Claudio and Ivan Lins, American duo Grégoire Maret (harmonica) and Kenny Werner (pianist and composer) and Belgian jazz great Philip Catherine join Frank Vaganée and Vince Mendoza, directors of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and the Metropole Orkest, for this one-off concert.
29 April, 20.00, Rue Ravenstein 23

Marching Bands

Brass bands and orchestras from all over Flanders descend on the Royal Park, Mont des Arts, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place de la Bourse and Place Sainte-Catherine. They will perform their own repertoire, supplemented by some special adaptations of Toots songs.
30 April, 14.00, Brussels city centre

Jazz Station

For International Jazz Day, the Jazz Station stages Toots Thielemans Revisited, a concert featuring arrangements of previously unknown pieces by Toots’ pianist Michael Herr.
30 April, 20.00, Chaussée de Louvain 193A-195 (Saint-Josse)

Brussels Royal Conservatory of Music

A Sunday afternoon concert by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and its harmonica player Olivier Poumay of the famous Toots Concerto, composed by Toots’ friend Roland Schoelinck.
1 May, 16.00, Rue de la Régence 30

Jazz Weekend

Jazz Weekend pays tribute to Toots in a number of concerts at the annual free festival in various squares of the city centre.
27-29 May, outdoor venues

Brosella Festival

The opening day of the Brosella Festival will be dedicated to the music of Toots who previously served as ‘godfather’ to this annual summer event in an open-air amphitheatre beneath the Atomium.
1 July, Théâtre de Verdure (Laeken)

Bal National/National Day

On the eve of Belgium’s national holiday, a mass Bluesette flute concert will be performed on the Place du Jeu de Balle. The following day, during the traditional Resto National, some of Toots’ favourite dishes will be served close to where his parents once ran a café.
20 July & 21 July, Place du Jeu de Balle


Written by Richard Harris