Excerpted from Windham Hill promo material for Chez Toots

It's no secret that Jean 'Toots' Thielemans is the preeminent exponent of the harmonica in jazz. Thielemans took a simple instrument with folkloric baggage and brought it into the contemporary jazz ensemble, both large and small. However, non-jazz audiences are familiar with Toots also. Maybe he touched them with his mournful playing on the soundtracks of such movies as "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sugarland Express." Maybe Thielemans spoke to the child in them through his performance of the "Sesame Street" theme, which he also wrote. No matter what the medium, Toots Thielemans knows how to emotionally connect with listeners.

What is it about Toots that can move people? "A tear comes quickly to me," confesses the 76-year-old native of Brussels, Belgium. "That's the way my music is, I guess." It is the quality of being able to express the sweet and the bitter that is stamped onto Thielemans' playing and has made him a favorite worldwide.

Toots was always musical, fooling around with an accordion as early as age three. His knack for math had Toots working towards a career as an engineer. But Thielemans had discovered the harmonica as a teenager after seeing the American virtuoso Larry Adler in a movie. A respiratory ailment confined Toots to a long period of bed rest and the harmonica was put into a drawer. He began to teach himself guitar, but the German occupation of Belgium in 1941 forced his family to flee to France, where he heard BBC broadcasts of big band music.

When the Nazis occupied France, his family moved back home. By 1944, Thielemans was playing guitar in American GI hangouts in liberated Brussels. His fascination with things American led him to adopt the names 'Toots' after Toots Mondello, a saxophonist with Benny Goodman. A regular gig at Ma Maison, a Brussels nightclub saw Toots playing with or alternating with Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Stephane Grappelli. By now Thielemans was captivated by the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt. With the advent of bebop, Thielemans worked hard to adapt the harmonica to the demands of the form. In 1948, Toots visited America, sitting in with trumpeter Howard McGhee's band and with pianist Lennie Tristano. When they heard the sounds Toots was able to elicit from his chromatic harp, Toots easily won over any skeptics.

Benny Goodman toured Europe in 1950 with a group of young musicians that included Thielemans. It was an important showcase for a jazz harmonica player (the first of his kind) and in November of that year, Toots jammed with Charlie Parker in Sweden. Toots emigrated to the U.S. in 1950, jamming regularly at Birdland in New York City. A week at Philadelphia's Earle Theater with Parker's All Stars (Miles Davis and Milt Jackson were also in the band) had Thielemans playing with his idol again. Pianist George Shearing caught the show and liked what he heard. Toots became a member of Shearing's group, an association that lasted from 1951 to 1959.

During this period, Toots had also begun recording under his own name, and by 1958 had cut The Sound-The Amazing Toots Thielemans (Columbia), Man Bites Harmonica (Riverside) and Time Out (Decca). Thielemans proved to be a fine accompanist for vocalists as well, and through the years, his harmonica has complemented such diverse singers as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and many others.

In 1961, Thielemans recorded his most enduring composition, "Bluesette", which remains a staple of live sets by Toots to this day and has been recorded by scores of artists over the years. In 1964, Quincy Jones scored the movie "The Pawnbroker," giving Thielemans his first film credit. His film work includes "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), "The Anderson Tapes" and "Brother John" (both 1971), "The Getaway" (1972), "Cinderella Liberty" (1973), "The Sugarland Express" (1974), "The Wiz" (1978), and "Funny About Love" (1990), among others.

When Jones made his influential big band recordings from 1969 to 1973, Thielemans was an important part of them. Jones responded to Toots' melancholy feel, as well as a funky side to the harmonica master (reflected in Quincy's pet name for Toots: 'Stink'). Pianist Bill Evans asked Toots to share a record date in 1978, the result being Affinity, an album which went a long way towards validating Thielemans as a preeminent jazz artist. He recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson at the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival. The same year, Toots played on Ella Fitzgerald's great Brazilian album, Ella Abraca Jobim.

Brazilian music had intrigued Toots for years. He guested on bass phenom Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth album. The late composer Miles Goodman and Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves noted the affection Thielemans showed for Brazilian forms and harmonies, later building two successful Brazil Project albums around Toots, with composers and performers Ivan Lins, Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nasciemento, Luis Bonfa and others guesting.

More recently, Toots guested on pianist Fred Hersch's Jazz Impressions of French Classics. The introspective harmonica lent much to that music because French melodies are so dear to Toots (he can be heard on the soundtracks of "Jean de Florette" from 1986 and "Le Guignolo" from 1979). In that sense, his latest recording, CHEZ TOOTS was almost a lifetime in the making. As Toots says in his liner notes, CHEZ TOOTS is "a return to my childhood and early professional experiences."