Two musicians I like passed away recently. Harmonica legend Toots Thielemans died on Monday, August 22 at 94; composer and pianist Irving Fields died Saturday, August 20 at the age of 101. Their longevity aside, they couldn’t have been more different.
Toots Thielemans (1922-2016)
Thielemans was by far the better known musician of the two. Born in Brussels in 1922, over his long life he worked with Charlie Parker, Elis Regina, Benny Goodman, and spent six years playing with George Shearing. His full name was Jean-Baptiste Frédérique Isidore Thielemans; thank goodness he was just went by “Toots”! He was known for his chromatic harmonica virtuosity–the harp had 3 chromatic octaves–as well as for a jazz standard, “Bluesette,” a waltz in all the fake books and which was recorded innumerable times. Even though he was a good jazz guitarist, playing a big hollow-bodied Gibson ES-175 electric, he was famous mostly for his harmonica playing. Toots was also an excellent whistler, which he did when playing the guitar. Musical satori came in 1940 when Thielemans heard a Louis Armstrong record, an event that changed his life.
I heard Toots many times in the 1980s when he performed with the remarkable pianist Fred Hersch. I recall that Marc Johnson played bass and Joey Baron played drums. When they launched into a ballad such as Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” the house would get quiet and many a tear was shed. The group could also cook up a storm. There is a fine Concord Records album from 1988 called Only Trust Your Heart that begins with a great version of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil.” Toots was a funny, happy man, and he had fans all over the world.
Here is Toots playing the moving Brel classic “Ne Me Quitte Pas”:
Irving Fields (1915-2016)
Born Yitzhak Schwartz on August 4, 1915 on New York City’s Lower East Side, he first sang in a synagogue for famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, then began piano lessons. Fields soon formed a band and started landing jobs on cruise ships bound for Havana. (Remember that Havana was a tropical playground during prohibition, and that the casinos and hotels were run by the Jewish mafia.) Hooked on Latin music, Fields would blend Latin rhythms with Jewish music and more. During the 1950s, Fields worked in Manhattan’s posh clubs like The Copacabana, Latin Quarter, and El Morocco. Hotelier Leona Helmsley once threatened to break his fingers if he wouldn’t become her house pianist. He had played “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” which Leona loved because her husband was named Harry. Fields could count among his fans a star-studded cast: Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Jackie Gleason, Kate Smith. Ava Gardner was also a fan, once dancing barefoot to one of his Latin songs. Fields was a quick read who could pick-up any style immediately; he played all requests.
I first found about Field’s famous record Bagels and Bongos from Alan Geik, widely regarded as the godfather of tropical Latin music in Los Angeles. (KCRW had a weekly tropical show featuring Cuban and Puerto Rican music, and Alan was one of the hosts.) The Skirball Cultural Center held an exhibition called “Jews on Vinyl” a few years ago that included the music of Fields, and a 2-CD set was issued by the Idelsohn Society called It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba that celebrates the cross-cultural Latin-Jewish musical history.
Here is Irving Fields doing a tropical version of “Havannah Negila”: