By Norton Wright
Last Saturday night, I had one of those once-in-a-lifetime jazz experiences at the Kennedy Center’s small Terrace Theater as 89-year-old Toots Thielemans, supported by Kenny Werner’s arm, walked gingerly onstage, ensconced himself onto a stool, and then just blew everybody away. Amazingly, his harmonica embouchure is as strong as ever and with Kenny Werner’s sympathische piano, they gave us an hour of heartbreakingly beautiful jazz.
I’ve been listening to Toots for over a half century but had never heard him in person, so to encounter this icon so late in life was immensely moving. As with so many of those recordings with Stephane Grappelli, the sound of Toot’s harmonica always evokes for me that brave melancholy of times gone by – the Lost Generation of post-World War I, the 1938 Spanish Civil War, World War II and “we’ll always have Paris” from “Casablanca.”
The extraordinary highlight of the evening was Toot’s regaling with the tale of his Green Card arrival in America from Belgium to temp with the Benny Goodman Band, his finally winning U.S. citizenship, and his ongoing love for America. And then, to crown the story musically, he said he wanted to play a tune by Irving Berlin – with a touch of Milton Nascimento. And Toots then launched into a bossa nova blues take on “America The Beautiful.”
By the end of the number, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The guy behind us was sobbing, Suzie and I were likewise teared up, and the ensuing standing ovation for Toots and Kenny was so well deserved!
Ain’t jazz great!