Name: Katie Thiroux
Occupation: Bassist, composer, improviser
Current event: Katie Thiroux is the Director of Next Generation Women in Jazz, an extraordinary educational program that comprises some of the world's elite female high school jazz players. It’s part of the iconic non-profit Monterey Jazz Festival’s education program, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this Fall. Go here for the full program.
If these thoughts by Katie Thiroux piqued your interest, visit her official website for more information about her work with Next Generation Women in Jazz as well as her own music. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When starting out, many artists want to "change the world" with their work. What was this like for you? What were some of your early ambitions and in which way were you able to realise them?
When I started playing music from a young age, I definitely wasn’t thinking about changing the world! Even when I got very serious about music by age 12, my goal was always to work to be better than before - I had not considered what impact my music could make.
As I grew, my goal became, how do I make people happy and feel something meaningful.
One of your top priorities at the moment is Next Generation Women in Jazz. Tell me a little bit about the project and why you feel so passionately about this topic, please.
The Monterey Jazz Festival “Next Generation Women in Jazz” is an international all-female audition based jazz ensemble. We meet a few times a year from all over the world and we focus on performance, music composition and socially navigating the music scene as a young female.
It is an honor for me to work on this project because I get to help these talented young female musicians find their voices and share their talents in a space that they are so often overlooked because of their gender.
What are the specific challenges women face in jazz? What kinds of stories are you hearing through your work?
The jazz scene is male dominated any way you look at it. The bottom line is, there are more male jazz musicians and what we are doing with the Monterey Jazz Festival is helping bridge that gap. I’ve heard it all but the stories I hear that upset me the most are when young girls have male classmates that tell them to quit and that they are stupid for even thinking they can play jazz.
The other side of it is - in our society women are expected to look a certain way, and that includes female musicians. So if you are not wearing a dress, hair and makeup you can also be ridiculed for not being female enough!
We've sadly become accustomed to gender barriers in most corners of the music scene. I wouldn't necessarily have expected them in jazz, though, a music which is about freedom and the elimination of borders. Over here on the European free improvisation scene, there have, since day one, always been many female performers, and they've taken on leading roles. Where does the issue stem from in jazz, do you feel?
I wholeheartedly agree and I think that is why I enjoy performing in Europe so much!
I think the issue stems from the U.S. school systems and the lack of support for the arts. It is very common for girls to stop playing music in school after middle school because it is not required or no longer offered in high school and therefore there is not a natural path to continue music.
I also do think that female students can feel intimidated by their male teachers as well and would choose to not be in that situation.
Do you feel as though male and female performers approach jazz and the act of improvisation differently?
I do think so, at least in the U.S. After teaching a lot of young female musicians I have found there to be a creative sensitivity that allows them to be more melodic and thoughtful as opposed to just spitting out pattern exercises from a book because “it works” over those chords. I find females to listen better and to be more instinctual.
I will add that the young male camaraderie and support from the other Monterey Jazz Festival programs is palpable!
What is the focus and message of your educational work for NGWiJ?
Most of what I impart is “how can we make The Music better.” Always serving the music and the musicians around you regardless of gender or race. When it comes to social aspects I of course help them through those situations.
I always tell them it comes down to projection and don’t get involved with irrational people, there’s no point. But, there are situations where you have to stand up for yourself (as long as you’re in a safe space) and tell someone what is up!
For many aspiring musicians, role models play an important role. What are some of the female jazz performers that can fulfil this role, other than perhaps well-known singers like Norah Jones and Dianna Krall?
We live in an amazing time so many varied visible and outspoken artists in all genres and the kids are listening! I think they are gaining power from main stream artists like Lizzo, Beyoncé and Doja Cat, people who simply speak their minds and happen to be women. It resonates with them.
For jazz specifically there are artists like Ingrid Jenson, Melissa Aldana, Regina Carter, Rene Rosnes, Dawn Clement and SO many others!
If I understood the concept behind your work correctly, you're starting to work with performers early on. What have been some of the most remarkable success stories of the project so far?
I get to meet these girls in high school. I would say the biggest success for each edition has been how quickly they make music together. It is a real world situation that I would be in as a professional - fly to a gig, meet the band and perform, all in a few hours!
The other success for me is seeing where they go after. Many of them are at schools in New York City and playing a few nights a week. To see them doing their thing on stage performing is what is remarkable!
You're active as a bassist yourself. Does your artistic work in any way feed into your activism - and vice versa?
When I am on tour I always add workshops and visit schools. I grew up getting these opportunities and I never knew how amazing they were until much later! I am lucky to have a lot of energy right now and it is my passion to give back as much as I can. I share a lot on social media and it has been a wonderful opportunity to help more people.
I feel a strong need to help people and my medium is music. I know I have done my best when someone walks away from a show and they tell me the music made them feel better.
If you compare the work you're doing with NGWiJ with your output as a musician, in which way do you feel as though music can also bring about change and lead to tangible improvements?
It might sound cliché or obvious, but I think that being a female and being out there and doing it, doing the work, I think that is leading to tangible improvements.
It will help even more when more major venues and festivals consider working with more female musicians.
For interested readers, what are books, websites, articles or other sources of information you recommend for them to educate themselves on the topic?
My biggest recommendation is to research female jazz musicians and go support them!