A legendary bass player who died almost two decades ago indirectly influenced Katie Thiroux’s decision to inject a healthy dose of standard jazz content into her concerts and recordings.
“I learned a lesson, by way of Ray Brown, that it’s a good idea to play songs that people know, so they feel like they’re a part of what’s going on. Also, they’re just amazing songs.”
The Los Angeles native said sharing a new take on a familiar melody, or set of lyrics, can be fun for both performers and audience members.
“It’s something we can all connect with,” Thiroux said. “Ultimately, I really make music for people to enjoy it. That’s the whole point to it.”
The bassist/singer/bandleader compares the best tunes of the Great American Songbook to the classical works she first encountered when she started studying violin at the age of four.
“Sometimes I’ll listen to a George Gershwin song, or Harold Arlen, and think to myself, ‘Wow. There’s nothing you get to do that’s better than that.’”
“What’s better than [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony, or the Ninth Symphony? It’s so timeless in that way.”
In accordance with her family’s rule, Thiroux spent four years of her early childhood pursuing the Suzuki method, which uses violin as the foundational instrument of musical instruction.
“Honestly, I was really bad at violin. Especially when there’s other little kids around you that are sawing away at it and playing concertos already by age six,” she admitted.
“Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but as soon as I got my hands on the bass, that was finally it for me.”
That transition was made easier by the fact that both her mother and her older brother played bass. Plus, her mother imparted some pragmatic advice from her own experience.
“She just suggested—and I’ll never forget this, because it was so vivid—‘Why don’t you try the bass, because someone always needs a bass player, and you always make money.’”
At the age of eight, thanks to a “wonderful, mentoring teacher,” Thiroux found her musical future.
“As soon as I held the instrument it was just like when a little kid holds a baseball bat for the first time and says, ‘This is it.’ That’s what it felt like for me.”
As well as the bass, the young Thiroux was learning to master another instrument—her own voice.
“I was really lucky to grow up in Los Angeles, where there happened to be a lot of music going on all the time. I was able to study with wonderful teachers and get to be in really great children’s choirs.”
When she was 10 years old, one of the choirs Thiroux belonged to functioned as a sort of “farm team” for the Los Angeles Opera.
“So I was in this choir and got hired to sing in the world premiere of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, which was pretty cool.”
Thiroux wasn’t destined to be an opera singer, partly because of a voice some writers have described as clear, but not particularly big.
“I agree. It’s more conversational, I guess. Almost like a horn. That’s how I feel about it. But I love lyrics. I love, love, love telling a story. I feel badly about this, but if I don’t like a song, it’s usually to do with the lyrics,” she said.
Throughout high school, her orientation as a bass player was definitely toward classical music. She even intended to pursue that trajectory in university, except for a “thought knocking on the door” questioning that choice. Eventually, she realized she really couldn’t see herself “sitting in the back of an orchestra for the rest of my life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but, for me, it wasn’t the feeling.”
Enter jazz. More specifically, enter one particular tune in her parent’s eclectic record collection. It wasn’t by Ray Brown, or any of the double-bass jazz giants with such names as Clarke, Carter, Mingus, or Haden. It was by vibraphonist and swing band leader, Lionel Hampton. And it was anything but highbrow jazz.
“It was really one cut I heard of his called ‘Rag Mop.’ It was so silly, but fun and swinging, and there’s a lot of people in the band,” Thiroux said.
“I couldn’t tell if they were making the song up on the spot, or what was going on, but it was just so fun. I was like, ‘Wow, I should start listening to this music more often.’”
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history—a full-ride scholarship to Berklee College of Music; gigs in Monterey, California, and practically everywhere else with a jazz festival; extensive touring and teaching; two CDs and a third in the wings.
This month, Thiroux will travel the farthest north she’s ever been, to present a Jazz on the Wing concert for Jazz Yukon. With her will be longtime friends and collaborators, Glenn Zaleski and Matt Witek, on piano and drums, respectively.
Next summer, she and Witek will inaugurate a week-long jazz camp on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
At just 31, Thiroux has a clear understanding of why she does what she does.
“The reason I play music is to help people, to help humanity. As long as that remains a goal and an endpoint, I will continue to play music.”
The Katie Thiroux Trio will perform Sunday, March 24 on the Yukon Arts Centre mainstage, beginning at 7:30 p.m.