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Benson, Thielemans Honored as NEA Jazz Masters

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toots thielemans
Guitarist George Benson had a chance to reconnect with his jazz roots when he was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of its 2009 Jazz Masters. But it was another newly minted Jazz Master, Belgian-born Toots Thielemans, who provided the most moving moment at the NEA's annual ceremony to present the nation's highest jazz honor.

Thielemans, 86, accompanied by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, played a moving version on harmonica of “What A Wonderful World," which he dedicated to his “musical guru," Louis Armstrong.

Thielemans, whose harmonica has been heard by generations of children on the “Sesame Street" opening theme, said he got hooked on jazz during the German occupation in the 1940s, when he first heard recordings of Armstrong with the Mills Brothers.

“How are you going to follow that?" quipped another new Jazz Master, alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, 81, who took the stage Friday night at the Rose Theater right after Thielemans to perform the ballad “Body and Soul" with the orchestra.

Thielemans is the first European-born musician, harmonica player and baron (he was given the title in 2001 by King Albert II of Belgium) to be named an NEA Jazz Master. He recalled the warm welcome he received from African-American jazz musicians after he settled in the U.S. in 1952 — from singer Dinah Washington, who cooked him a soul food dinner, to pianist Billy Taylor, who let him sit in with his band at a New York club while he was waiting for his musicians' union card.

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