NEW YORK — Jazz harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans quipped that his legs don't work but his mouth does after he was pushed onstage in a wheelchair to a standing ovation during the first of two Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts this weekend celebrating his 90 years. And once he put his harmonica to his lips, he more than lived up to his words.
Thielemans, who has been in poor health, had only played once this year at a summer jazz festival in his native Belgium and had canceled all his other U.S. dates. JALC programming director Jason Olaine said that up to the last minute, the producers were not sure whether Thielemans would even be able to play at the tribute concerts.
But energized by an enthusiastic audience and his musical friends, Thielemans rose to the occasion. Among those paying tribute were American jazz pianists Herbie Hancock and Kenny Werner, and three Brazilian stars, guitarist-vocalist Dori Caymmi, pianist-vocalist Eliane Elias and guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves — all of whom appeared on Thielemans' two Brasil Project" CDs in the early 1990s.
Thielemans, who turned 90 in April, was the first musician to create full-fledged jazz improvisations on the harmonica. But he's also made his mark in pop culture — as the whistler on the Old Spice commercials; playing harmonica on the themes for Sesame Street" and the film Midnight Cowboy;" and in performances with Paul Simon and Billy Joel. He was ennobled by Belgium's king as a baron in 2001 and received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award in 2009, the highest U.S. jazz honor.