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Affair of the Harp

Master harmonica player Toots Thielemans blows into St. Louis


Any time you hear a sad harmonica on film or TV, there's a good chance you're listening to Toots Thielemans. He has played haunting melodies for the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, as well as tunes for the French films Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He says filmmakers come running to him "when the guys die -- when Dustin Hoffman dies in Midnight Cowboy, I play. In Jean de Florette and Manon, when Yves Montand and Gérard Depardieu, when their characters die, they bring out the harmonica."

Maybe you can't hum these songs off the top of your head, but there's at least one number made famous by Toots that you know by heart -- the theme from Sesame Street. Yes, it is Toots' harmonica that has been asking, "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street," for 30 years now. At every concert stop, he reports, the folks beg him to "play Sesame Street."

Film and TV are just day jobs for the harmonica master; Toots' real milieu is jazz. He can make his chromatic harmonica tell all kinds of stories, and he has recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones and many others. The native Belgian recalls one of his first U.S. gigs, at a black theater in Philadelphia in 1952. Back then, he was known as a guitarist who occasionally picked up the harmonica, and it was the guitar he played when he did the Dinah Washington Show with the Charlie Parker All-Stars, featuring Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson and an awed Toots, fresh off the boat. "Here I was, playing with my idols," he says.

The veteran performer says he hasn't gigged in St. Louis since 1953 or '54, when he played the Congress Hotel with the George Shearing Quintet. The charming king of the jazz harp, who will turn 79 during the final show of his Jazz at the Bistro gig on Saturday, says he hopes that "maybe some of the people I met or the friends I had 50 years ago, if they're still alive, might come."

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