Inside her apartment, jazz bassist and vocalist Katie Thiroux plays one of her latest vinyl finds — a Pee Wee Russell album titled "Jazz Reunion."
“Even all these records and CDs that I have, I might have only listened to them once, and I gotta check it out again cause there’s always something different,” she says.
A wall in Thiroux’s apartment is lined with portraits of jazz greats: Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk.
It’s fitting that Monk is among her heroes. This weekend, Thiroux will compete in the annual Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition. Each year, the contest focuses on a different discipline. This year, the spotlight is on singers. And Thiroux is the only Angeleno among the 11 semi-finalists who come from around the world.
Winning the Monk competition is one of the biggest honors in the jazz world — it comes with tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships and a guaranteed recording contract.
Thiroux admits that competing with the best comes with its stresses, both before and after the event. “If you are the winner, there’s more pressure," she says. "People are looking at you like, What are you going to do next?”
As both a singer and bassist, Thiroux, 27, is a dual threat. She recently performed with the L.A. Jazz Society’s All-Star Big Band and shared the stage at Hollywood’s Montalbán Theater with jazz masters John Clayton, George Bohanon and Quincy Jones.
“It’s just kind of surreal to think I would ever be in that situation,” Thiroux says. “I’m just doing what I do. How cool is it that I get to do this with those people?”
Thiroux grew up in L.A. The daughter of musicians — her dad is a bassoonist, her mom a classical bassist — she started off playing classical. But she wasn’t any good at violin, she says. The first time she held a bass she knew it was for her.
“There was no right or wrong thing that I could do,” Thiroux says. “It was like my own voice coming out through my hands.”
Thiroux landed a full scholarship at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. These days you can find her gigging all over town with her band, the Katie Thiroux Quartet. She says the band formed after a particularly epic post-Thanksgiving jam session.
“We just kind of started playing, we had never played together as a group,” Thiroux says. “And we were taking little breaks to eat leftover Thanksgiving food and to rest. And before we knew it, it was four or five in the morning.”
The band's drummer, Matt Witek, says once he saw Thiroux perform, it became his goal to play music with her.
“She really does what she wants, when she wants, with no arrogance, just complete honesty both musically and professionally,” Witek says. “And you don’t have to know a lot about music or a lot about jazz in particular to enjoy our show because, like I said, it’s honest.”
As the Monk competition approaches, Thiroux says she’s not looking to psych herself out. But watching her rehearse, effortlessly fretting on her well weathered bass, singing with her eyes closed, Thiroux looks perfectly serene.
“You know, I feel prepared enough,” Thiroux says. “It’s just kind of like turning everything off and just going out there and do what I do.”