The harmonica virtuoso also played with Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and more

By Jordan Runtagh
Updated August 23, 2016 02:25 PM
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Credit: Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Toots Thielemans, the jazz harmonica virtuoso best known for playing the theme to the iconic children’s television series Sesame Street, has died at age 94.

The Associated Press reports that he died in his sleep at a Belgian hospital, where he had been recovering from injuries he sustained in a fall last month. He had a familiar presence at international musical festivals for decades, until he retired from live performance in 2014.

Throughout a career that spanned over seven decades, Thielemans worked with jazz masters including Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald – as well as contemporary electric fusion artists like Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. In addition, he was a frequent guest player on pop-oriented albums by Billy Joel and Paul Simon.

He provided the haunting theme to 1969’s Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, but arguably his most famous contribution was much more sunny. That same year recorded “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street” to open the innovative PBS show.

Born Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Thielemans in Belgium, he survived the Nazi occupation of his country in his early years. By age 27 he was touring the world with major music names, playing guitar as well as harmonica. He scored a solo hit in 1962 with “Bluesette,” on which he whistled while accompanying himself on guitar. He memorably shared a duet of the song with fellow harmonica great Stevie Wonder at Sweden’s Polar Music Awards.

The royal family of his native Belgium issued a statement saying they were “deeply moved by the passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen. Condolences to his family and friends.”