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Jazz aficionados remember legendary harmonicist Toots Thielemans

The jazz musician, whose work can be heard on the soundtrack for the movie 'Midnight Cowboy' and the 'Sesame Street' theme song, among other work, has died.

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    Belgian musician Toots Thielemans poses for a picture at Laeken Royal Castle in Brussels in 2014.
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Jazz musician Toots Thielemans, who played the harmonica, has died. 

Mr. Thielemans’ work appeared on such well-known pieces of music as the opening credits for the children’s program “Sesame Street” and the soundtrack for the movie “Midnight Cowboy.” 

He recorded the song “Bluesette” in 1961 and the song became well-known also. 

According to The New York Times, Quincy Jones called Thielemans “one of the greatest musicians of our time.” 

The Belgian musician’s full name was Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidore Thielemans and he worked with Benny Goodman on a concert tour of Europe in 1950, which Associated Press writer Lorne Cook calls his “international breakthrough.” When he came to America in 1952, he became part of jazz musician Charlie Parker’s All Stars. 

Thielemans was awarded the Jazz Master Award in 2009 by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. 

According to the AP, the royal family of Belgium said that it is “deeply moved by (the) passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen.” King Albert II had bestowed on Thielemans a title of baron in 2001. 

The Christian Science Monitor writer Amy Duncan noted that Thielemans’ selection of instrument was an unusual one in the jazz genre.

“Every now and then, in the world of jazz, there emerges an instrumentalist who has chosen not to play the usual piano, trumpet, saxophone, drums, bass fiddle, guitar, and so on,” Ms. Duncan wrote. “Toots Thielemans picked the harmonica, of all things.” Yet Thielemans “has done wonders with it,” she wrote at the time.

Peter Keepnews of The New York Times also noted that Thielemans’ harmonica was far from the norm. 

“Thielemans [was] one of the only musicians to have a successful career as a jazz harmonica player,” he wrote. “His distinctive sound on the chromatic harmonica was Mr. Thielemans’s primary claim to fame and, especially, to fortune.”

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