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Katie Thiroux: Walking a Classy and Swinging Line

R.J. DeLuke By

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When I'm playing and I'm seeing the audience having a good time … They're excited and moving, I feel really good about the music. —Katie Thiroux
Katie Thiroux, a young musician out of Los Angeles, plays the bass and sings with equal conviction. Her musical experiences began with classical, but a career in jazz is what she eventually focused on and Thiroux—who received several accolades while climbing the tricky stairway of such a career—is making good strides.

A sideman on the contrabass with LA jazz groups going back to her days in high school, Thiroux is also a strong vocalist. Her study of voice is not a recent development. She had roles in the LA Opera and Opera Pacifica by the age of 10, and at age 12, was taking voice lessons from renowned jazz singer Tierney Sutton. One might think of Esperanza Spalding as an inspiration for combining bass and voice, but not so. Thiroux has always gone her own way and her journey to this point in her budding career is exclusive.

A shining example of where Thiroux stands today is in her first recording, Introducing Katie Thiroux, produced by drummer Jeff Hamilton. It's a collection of standards and a few originals done with her working quartet.

"It feels great to put something out that came so organically," Thiroux says. "No one told anyone what to do. I put the record out on my own. We're all really proud of it because we got to play what we wanted to play and do the songs we wanted to do, and the arrangements. It's a clear depiction of who we are. The tunes came together from stuff I had been hearing and playing for years. Like 'I'm Old Fashioned.' I probably first learned that when I was 14 or 15. You have to sit with material until you find your voice in it. I picked all the material... It feels great that the music is out there speaking for itself."

She met Hamilton when she was in high school and won the Los Angeles Jazz Society's Shelly Manne New Talent Award. It was a quick meeting, but a few years ago she went to see his trio play at a club. She stayed until late in the morning. there was a recognition, and the two spoke. She made it a habit to keep "bothering him," she says. "I would go see him play and ask him questions about Ray Brown, who is my ultimate hero. Jeff did so much playing with him. I took a couple of trio lessons with Jeff when I was still doing my master's degree. It blossomed into a nice friendship. It's been nice to have him around because he really, more so than anyone else I've met, really fosters young musicians."

The album features Thiroux's strong bass and smoky, swinging voice navigating tunes like "There's a Small Hotel," "Wives and Lovers," and "Shiny Stocking" with a strong sense of style, character and musicality. Her phrasing is evocative, never dull. It's a memorable start to a recording career.

The liner notes are penned by bassist John Clayton, a frequent colleague of Hamilton, but someone she met separately, at the Vail Jazz Workshop when Thiroux was in high school in 2005. Upon her return to LA after college and teaching, she reconnected and took some lessons from him, "or sometimes he'd say, 'Let's go for a hike.' I spent a lot of time with him and I'd get to ask him everything I needed answered."

Thiroux also had plenty of encouragement at home in a family full of musicians. She was playing violin at age 4, and it was her mother, a bassist, who suggested she tackle the large instrument when she was 8. Its been her instrument of choice, along with her voice, ever since. She took private lessons and played bass in the jazz band in middle school. Her high school, Hamilton High School, was an arts academy so her talents were nurtured further.

"I played classical music until I was about 12. I was singing too," she says. "I started singing jazz before I started playing jazz. I started studying jazz voice with Tierney Sutton. With all our lessons and practicing harmony, she said, 'You play the bass, why don't you play the root on your bass, and then sing the rest of the chord on top of it.' From there, it grew into a way for me to practice. I naturally started accompanying myself. Once I started transcribing bass solos—I just love doing that—I would transcribe Paul Chambers bass lines, and then transcribe Miles Davis trumpet solos. Then sing them and play them simultaneously."

While she had been involved in classical and opera singing for some years, "opera never moved me as much as jazz music. I didn't like having to do the same thing over and over again."

Thiroux grew up in a time when jazz wasn't popular for most kids, but she was different. In Los Angeles, she listened to jazz programming. "There was this awesome program on the weekends called Bebop in the Morning. I would drive to my classical bass lessons and listen to it on the way there. It was recordings with Bird and Diz. And when I'd get done with my lessons, it would still be on. I loved it. I loved the bebop. That was my first exposure. That, and listening to Lionel Hampton. From there, I got into Ella Fitzgerald. It was around the time when Ken Burns was putting out all those segments [Jazz on PBS] It was kind of popular and readily available. I didn't have iTunes or YouTube. I loved going to record stores. I would pick stuff up and if I liked it, I would research what other records there were. I had a tangible relationship with the music growing up," she explains.

"When I first heard Israel Crosby with Ahmad Jamal on Live at the Pershing, it kind of changed the way I felt about the bassist's role in a group. I loved listening to it and transcribing those bass lines. Also Scott LaFaro is another big one. He's in a league of his own in terms of the sound he gets from the instrument, the note choices in the soloing and the time feel. Ray Brown, he just does something to me. He's my ultimate feel."

For vocals, she was drawn to Anita O'Day. "I love her tenacity, her delivery, her aggression when she sings. The subtlety, her time feel. She's tops. Tierney Sutton, of course. She has great pitch and great time. She's had an interesting career and she's getting to do what she wants to do. Chet Baker is another big one. And a singer in Portland, Nancy King. I met her when I was at the Port Townsend Jazz Workshop. I went there three years in a row and she was teaching there. I fell in love with her singing."

While still in high school, she was doing jazz gigs with some of the better musicians on the LA scene. She was steadily gravitating to music as a career. "I kind of never really thought about doing anything else," she says matter-of-factly. "I was pretty book smart in school, but I didn't apply to any schools. I went to the live audition for Berklee College of Music and they offered me a full presidential scholarship, with all tuition and room and board paid. It was kind of a no-brainer."

At Berklee, where she befriended people like saxophonist Melissa Aldana, she was immersed in music, but also fostered a desire to be well rounded in her education.

"It's got so many different directions," she says of Berklee. "It's not just arts. You have to make with it what you want out of it. I did get to practice a lot. I went through it quickly. I did it in three years. For me, I always like having a broad range of education. So I took advantage of the liberal arts classes there. They were all taught by the surrounding schools, like by Harvard professors and Boston University professors. So I took a lot of art history classes and other English classes. Just to not always have my head in the music. To know there's another world around you. But definitely [a good thing was] the practice room interaction, playing with other people and meeting people."

After graduating from Berklee, she was offered a teaching position at one of Berklee's International Schools, Universidad de San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, teaching bass and voice. Her inclination was that she wanted to return home to LA, but decided it was an opportunity she should grab. It worked out well. "There all these students so enthusiastic about jazz music," she recalls. "They really wanted to learn and soak it up. It was the same curricula as Berklee, so I was familiar with it. I put myself in there and was a professor for a year. I had 30 students and a couple ensembles and it was an amazing experience. To not only teach that many students, but to be involved on the other side of it—the administrative work, dealing with people and learning more relationship skills."

Unlike many musicians out of Berklee, Thiroux didn't feel the gravitational pull to New York City. She'd done some good gigs in Boston and would travel to New York to sample what was there, but she knew her preference was LA. At Berklee, she got the chance to do a tour in Germany with Terri Lyne Carrington and after graduating also played with the drummer in Uruguay. "That was a great experience. Through her, I met Dr. Billy Taylor and the three of us did a trio concert together." She became good friends with pianist Benny Green. "It's great to have people who can give sage advice, always there to answer a question, or to hear you out." But Thiroux was still bound for home.

"A lot of it had to do with weather, but with the day-to-day duties of life I just thought I'd be happier in LA. I tried to see how New York felt. Go there and play there. But I realized it wasn't for me. You can still have a presence in New York City. I go there about once a month, playing with my group. Or I play with the pianist Larry Fuller. Luckily with the record, there's been a lot of press. So I feel it's totally necessary to live there, even though people call it the jazz capital of the world. For me, it's nice. You go there for a couple days a month, experience it. Play. Go to a couple shows. Then I can come back to California."

The California girl is fine with that arrangement. "There's kind of an uprising of so many young musicians. Even in high school, these kids are so serious," she notes. "So it's nice to go out to a club and there will be young students in the audience. People are excited about it here."
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