Huguette Thielemans, widow of Toots: “When the dogs heard his scales, they howled”

She says she is “really honored”, Huguette Thielemans. Honored that from this spring, Brussels is whistling harmonica tunes to celebrate the centenary of her late husband. Toots should indeed have celebrated his 100th candle on April 29. “I will probably be sad because I will often hear and see him, without participating in his life anymore. I miss him a lot”, recognizes the citizen of La Hulpe. “But all of that brings him back to life.”

“All That” is first and foremost an exceptional exhibition which opens on April 22 at the KBR (formerly the National Library). Instruments, passports, scores, nobility books, photos…: it brings together dozens of objects. Including the last harmonica of the star (below). Huguette Thielemans added a capital note. “I donated instruments and archives,” she confirms. This donation to the KBRet to the Museum of Musical Instruments followed the death of the jazz star in 2016. It includes 5 harmonicas, his first guitar, and a Gibson on which he played in his New York apartment. “I still kept two guitars, to see them, to live with. Those, I lent them”. Moved, Mrs. Thielemans hopes that visitors will “get a little into Toots’ life, get to know him better, because he was an incredible man”. What underlines for example a letter signed Barack Obama.” I say it: if something happens to me, I give everything to the museum”, promises the widow.

In the memory of Huguette Thielemans, Brussels remains the city of concert evenings, meetings, in large halls as in caberdouches. “He liked his city. We went to restaurants, meet his friends. Backstage, he was always well surrounded. I was part of the band. I had to share it a little”. In this little night music, the couple made a nice duet. “I was a public relation. He was more shy. He liked to see people after concerts but remained rather solitary”.


The rhythm of this frenzied score slows down over the years. “We lived everywhere. Including 30 years in New York”. In 1991, the iconic thick glasses met in La Hulpe. “In the end, he preferred calm. We were very village. We were very happy there. Toots was even honored with a statue there.” This life-size bronze sitting on a bench was inaugurated in 2018.

In addition to the exhibition, dozens of concerts will mark the century of the brilliant harmonica player. Including an exceptional meeting on April 29 in Bozar, the anniversary date of the composer of “Bluesette”. And a tomorrow that will sing all over Brussels, from the Mont des Arts to the Grand-Place via the park. “I am delighted to be there. We are going to talk about him. He will be in the spotlight,” smiles Huguette. “Inveterate fans from all over the world will be. Some had become his friends. They called him ‘grandpa'”. Among them, many come from…Sweden, where Toots stayed and toured with American stars from the 1950s. His mustache was recognized there long before it was recognized in the streets of Brussels. “It goes back to his first years of career: he provided music for cartoons. And even dubbing. So much so that the Swedes thought him their compatriot.” It is that in good Marollien, the jazzman spoke a nice melting-pot. “He loved languages. We tried to learn Japanese, but we quickly gave up.”

A language that Toots Thielemans did not speak was that of…dogs. “We had jacks and chihuahuas. When Toots was doing his scales, the dogs would howl. They always do when they hear the sound of the harmonica somewhere. Sometimes someone sends me a melody of Toots. Dogs go crazy.”

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