It was fall of 1999 and would be the only time I would meet him and hear him play. I had to get through the German Invasion first.
We had taken in a student from Newark, N.J., for a week, which ended up lasting six years. He was an exchange student in need of a temporary place to stay. We didn't adequately define the word "temporary."
He came into my office. I was on the phone. He said something about Germany and I said, "Sure. Fine." Apparently I had agreed to have yet another exchange student join our happy home; this one from Germany. Fortunately, it was clear that he would be with us for three weeks. I read that contract much more carefully.
The young man from Germany was delightful and added greatly to the multi-cultural experience known as our household. Three weeks went by rapidly and our German friend would be heading off to New York City for a few days along with his group of twenty-one other German kids who invaded Manchester that fall. That should've been the end of the story, but
The school only had two chaperones (including the teacher) and were desperate for a third. In yet another moment of weakness I agreed to accompany the kids to Manhattan. I had a friend who allowed me to stay on her uncomfortable couch while smothered by Yorkshire Terriers. For three days we did what you'd expect; went to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, visited Times Square, saw Blue Man Group and the Museum of Natural History.
At the end of three days I was beat. I bid farewell to the Germans and immediately rendezvoused with my nephew telling him that I had to unwind from spending three days with a group of 16 year old German kids. We opened the NY Times entertainment section and there it was; an ad announcing the greatest harmonica player ever playing at the Iridium next to the Lincoln Center.
My nephew, his girlfriend (now wife) and I got there early and secured a great table in front of the stage. I ordered dinner and glass of Stoli on the rocks and watched as Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore a.k.a. "Toots" Thielemans walked on stage. He was wearing his trademark black glasses with slightly tinted lens accented by his flowing white hair. He was accompanied by a guitarist and bassist whose names I don't recall.
Unlike most other harmonica players Toots played one instrument all night; a Hohner Super 64 Chromatic. Toots could play every key/position on a Chromatic; the rest of us change instruments to change keys. To say that Toots Thielemans was a master is practically an understatement. He was more than that. He was otherworldly. There are many great Chromatic players out there and they are all compared to Toots. "Yeah, so and so is good, but he ain't Toots".
Surprisingly, Toots might be best known for playing the licks for the Sesame Street song. One might think that this would be considered condescending for a man of his extraordinary skills and accomplishments; but they would not know Toots. Playing that piece knowing that kids everywhere would hear it every day might have been one of the most gratifying pieces he ever played.
He was a content man and quick with a smile. During the break at the show I went to introduce myself. He greeted me with that big smile when I told him that I play harmonica. "Do you play like me?" he asked. "Nobody plays like you," I replied. "Nobody." The smile grew.
I can still see him on that stage donned by red, velvet drapes as I sit in a comfy leather chair nursing a vodka on the rocks. That was 17 years ago. Toots passed yesterday probably with that contented smile of a life well lived. His horn blows no more.
Bob Stannard lives in Manchester.