But his music probably has stuck with them: his trademark harmonica heard on an opening theme song to Sesame Street, in the plaintive Moon River solo in the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or as the mournful tones in the Midnight Cowboy Theme. 

If one is old enough, the catchy whistle that was in just about every Old Spice commercial of the 1970s certainly brings back memories.

But Louisville audiences do not have to rely on memories. At 87, Thielemans, the Belgian jazz artist well known for his guitar, harmonica and highly accomplished professional whistling, will make a rare appearance in the United States at this year’s UofL Jazz Week.

Thielemans’ only other U.S. concert this year will be at the Lincoln Center – making the 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 28, event in Louisville very special, according to Mike Tracy, head of UofL’s jazz studies program.

Bar none, Toots is one of my favorite musicians, Tracy said. When I need a lift I listen to a handful of artists, and Toots is at the top of the list. I believe his music and spirit is universal and touches all who listen.

I have tried to find ways to get him to UofL for at least 10 years, and finally everything fell into place, he said. I could not be more excited.

Born in Brussels, Thielemans played the accordion at age three before moving on to guitar and harmonica. A chance jam session in 1949 landed him jazz with luminaries Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Sidney Bechert and others.

Benny Goodman included Thielemans among a group of young musicians in a 1950 tour of Europe. The Belgian later moved to the United States to join Charlie Parker’s All-Stars. Over the years he has played and recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones and a roster of other musical heavyweights, and he has earned their praise.

I can say without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time, Quincy Jones has been quoted as saying about him in 1995. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry. We have worked together more times than I can count and he always keeps me coming back for more.

The National Endowment for the Arts honored Thielemans as a  2009 NEA Jazz Master. His concert will culminate a week of performances at UofL.

My challenge in programming is to offer as diverse a program as possible keeping in mind we want artists who can also interact with our students, Tracy said about putting together the 17th annual Jazz Week program.

Our goal is to bring to our campus artists and educators from the world of  jazz who have lived the music and are able to share their experiences – musical and personal – with our students and audience, he said. 

We add emerging artists who are looking for new avenues of expression, international artists who have been touched by our music and in turn meld into their own styles, Tracy said. Our students and alumni learn by performing and interacting with the range of artists.

2010 Jazz Week performers include:

  • International Night, Renato Vasconcellos Ensemble, Brazil, Roberto Lapo Gessaghi, Argentina, and Open World Jazz Ensemble , Russia, 8 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 24
  • Adjudicator’s Night and Jazz Ensemble II, 8 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25
  • Valery Ponomarev, trumpet, who performed with Art Blakey, 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 26
  • Saxophonist Houston Person, a sideman with such greats as Etta James, Lena Horne and Lou Rawls, and UofL’s Jazz Ensemble I 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 27.
  • Toots Thielemans with pianist Kenny Werner at 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 28.

All concerts are at the School of Music’s Margaret Comstock Concert Hall unless noted otherwise. Tickets for the Wednesday through Sunday shows vary from $5 to $25 depending on night of performance.

For ticket information, call (502) 852-6907.

(Editor’s Note: The Sandi Russell vocal concert scheduled originally for 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 23, has been canceled due to illness.)