Toots Thielemans virtually introduced the chromatic harmonica as a jazz instrument. In fact, beginning in the mid-'50s, he never had a close competitor. Thielemans simply played the harmonica with the dexterity of a saxophonist and even successfully traded off with the likes of Oscar Peterson.
Thielemans' first instrument was the accordion, which he started when he was three. Although he started playing the harmonica when he was 17, Thielemans' original reputation was made as a guitarist who was influenced by Django Reinhardt. Very much open to bop, Thielemans played in American GI clubs in Europe, visited the U.S. for the first time in 1947, and shared the bandstand with Charlie Parker at the Paris Jazz Festival of 1949. He toured Europe as a guitarist with the Benny Goodman Sextet in 1950, and the following year moved to the U.S. During 1953-1959, Toots was a member of the George Shearing Quintet (mostly as a guitarist) and freelanced for the remainder of his lengthy career in music.
He first recorded his big hit, "Bluesette" (which featured his expert whistling and guitar) in 1961, and was subsequently in great demand (particularly for his harmonica and his whistling) on pop records (including many dates with Quincy Jones) and as a jazz soloist. Toots' two-volume Brasil Project was popular in the 1990s and found him smoothly interacting on harmonica with top Brazilian musicians. Heard on numerous movie soundtracks (including Breakfast at Tiffany's and Midnight Cowboy) and also on the opening theme of television's Sesame Street, Thielemans received Jazz Master honors from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009. He died in Belgium in August 2016 at the age of 94.