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Jim Self: The Tuba Takes Center Stage

Jim Self of Locals 47 (Los Angeles) and 7 (Orange County) has performed internationally as a soloist, chamber musician, orchestral tubist, and studio musician for 43 years. He’s recorded on more than 1,500 soundtracks and has performed tuba solos for major films and hundreds of TV shows. His skills as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, doubling on string and electric bass and bass trombone earned him a reputation as an exceptionally versatile player. At 75, he is principal tuba in four orchestras—the Los Angeles Opera, the Pacific Symphony, the Pasadena Symphony, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. This month, he will release his 15th CD of original classical scores, titled Flying Circus: Music for Brass Quintet.

He’s recorded on more than 1,500 soundtracks and has performed tuba solos for major films and hundreds of TV shows. His skills as a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, doubling on string and electric bass and bass trombone earned him a reputation as an exceptionally versatile player. At 75, he is principal tuba in four orchestras—the Los Angeles Opera, the Pacific Symphony, the Pasadena Symphony, and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. This month, he will release his 15th CD of original classical scores, titled Flying Circus: Music for Brass Quintet.

Jim, who routinely works with union players in Los Angeles, says all his albums have been produced on Limited Pressing Agreements, adding, “It’s the fair and right way to do it; I’ve been a strong union person my whole career.”

A protégé of the great tubists Harvey Phillips and Tommy Johnson, Jim has been part of the movement to elevate the status of the oft-caricatured tuba from its anchor at the back of the band to one of distinction as a solo instrument, front and center. As a young tubist Jim entered a small, exclusive world of enthusiasts, who would go on to make big changes for the tuba in the brass world. He says he owes his career to Johnson, his University of Southern California (USC) professor and the first tubist to play solos on film scores. He was inspired by William Becker, trumpeter at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, his first brass professor, and Phillips, who was his teacher in the mid-1960s. Phillips was behind the now worldwide TubaChristmas tradition, in which hundreds of tuba players descend on cities around the globe to play free concerts.

Jim grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he started playing tuba in junior high. He entered Indiana University of Pennsylvania initially to become a band director. In 1965, he joined The US Army Band, where he met Dan Perantoni of Local 301 (Pekin, IL), Chester Schmitz, and Bob Pallansch, all tuba players who would not only go on to have distinguished careers but whose mastery of the tuba would educate listeners and elevate the status of the instrument.

During that time, Jim received a master’s degree from Catholic University, and for five years he taught at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In the summers, he began doing coursework with Johnson at USC, working toward his doctorate in musical arts. Eventually, in 1974, Jim moved to LA to finish his residency. In the meantime, he was doing gigs, dances, and casuals. “I was making more than I was as a professor,” he says. Only two weeks after relocating, he got a call to sub for Johnson on a TV show. From then on, and throughout the ’70s, he was busy doubling on bass and bass trombone. He says, “It was a period of growth for me.”

In 1976, Jim was again called to sub for Johnson on a new film John Williams of Locals 47 and 9-535 (Boston, MA) was scoring for Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As it turned out, his tuba would famously voice the mother ship in the communication sequence with the oboes and contrabassoon. “That one day’s work turned into a huge boost to my career. It helped me work with all kinds of other composers and do more film work.” It also launched a 40-year working relationship with Williams (25 years as principal tuba). He says, “Jerry Goldsmith’s Dennis the Menace was a big score for me tuba solo-wise, as were several other Williams’ films, like Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Jurassic Park, and Hook.

Beyond Oompah
Jim says, “Back in the ’50s, [the tuba] was just oompah, a band instrument and almost no one would play it solo. Now, because all these players are coming up and all these great solos are being written, there are composers writing interesting tuba parts in symphonies. The great composers of the 19th century, they might’ve had tuba parts, but they were not solos, ever. Apart from Stravinsky, those kinds of pieces were not written when I was young.” He says, “Later, there were only a couple famous works. Vaughan Williams’ Tuba Concerto in 1954, and then in 1955, Paul Hindemith wrote the Tuba Sonata.”

The renaissance really began, he says, in New York with Bill Bell of the New York Philharmonic and the much-celebrated Harvey Phillips. “There’s the old guard, like Roger Bobo—the famous LA Tuba player who was part of it. In the ’50s and ’60s, they were soloists who got the whole movement going for tuba.” The International Tuba and Euphonium Association (ITEA) originated at McSorley’s in the East Village, where all the tuba players would hang out after concerts. Today’s players in New York City include Marcus Rojas of Local 802 and Ibanda Ruhumbika of the house band Stay Human for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

“Roger and Harvey were the leaders of solo literature for a long time. They took things to new levels. And then, of course, every generation after that has just improved upon it. Now, colleges have tuba departments and faculty members,” says Jim.

In his position at USC, Jim has been active in the crusade to advance tuba in the brass world. He says, “The tuba is as important as the trumpet, the trombone, or the French horn, as far as I’m concerned—especially in the hands of these players that we have all over the world now.”

In short, the tuba is regaining momentum. According to Jim, “There are great tuba players in Japan, China, Australia, and all over Europe. Sergio Carolino, from Portugal, is phenomenal and Roland Szentpali, of Budapest.”

Since the ’70s, Jim has been campaigning for tuba players to “reclaim their heritage.” He explains, “There were a lot of tuba players working before the war. Then, the electric bass came along, and amplification, and the tuba just kind of got buried in the popular music world.”

As professor of tuba and chamber music at USC, Jim has taught some of the best tubists playing today, including USC professor and Local 47 member Norm Pearson, principal tuba for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and top studio tubist Doug Tornquist of Locals 47 and 7.

“In jazz, the tuba is still coming into its own,” Jim says. Great proponents of the tuba in jazz, like Red Callender, Howard Johnson of Local 802, Bob Stewart, and a number of “trad” and street players have made pioneering efforts in showcasing it as a lead instrument. Jim has added much to the idiom. “I’m pretty busy as a classical player. As an artist, I’m making jazz records. I’m passionate about improvising and playing tuba so I started making records and all kinds of cool things with jazz and this is how the majority of people outside of Los Angeles know me—as a jazz musician.”

A few years ago, he invented the fluba, a tuba-sized flugelhorn. Jim explains that he designed the instrument so the sound would go directly out toward the audience, instead of upward. “I just thought it would be a really fun solo instrument, like a flugelhorn would be for a trumpet player.” Laughing, he says “Somehow when I pick it up, I just sort of pretend I’m Art Farmer or Clark Terry, one of these great players.”

On Composition
With the TV strike of 1980, work dried up for studio players. Jim says, “I went from doing 39 movies in 1979 to six movies in 1980. It didn’t pick up again until 1986.” During that time, he began dabbling in solo work. He had always wanted to be a jazz player, saying, “I had learned to be a good improviser on tuba.”

“I’ve always felt that the real art in music is composing and improvising. It’s very interesting, I didn’t start composing until I was almost 50 years old. I had this mistaken idea that I had to be Mozart or a genius to write music,” he says. “But I started doing little things and pretty soon I was writing for all my albums and then I started writing chamber music for friends and groups.”

Jim says he wants to write music that reaches listeners. “If I write music that’s fun to play, not boring, and not too far out harmonically, audiences like it. A lot of my music has a sort of dance quality to it. It drives my music. The number one thing in my writing is rhythm—complex rhythms, often shifting meters and odd meters.”

He’s composed 65 different pieces of music—for brass, tuba duos, and woodwind and string quintets. His most important work is a 13-minute piece written for the Pacific Symphony, Tour de Force: Episodes for Orchestra, which has been transcribed for wind ensemble and co-premiered by the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania Wind Ensemble.

When describing his work, Jim uses terms like eclectic and versatile, which extends to his use of instruments. He and Johnson were the first players to introduce the cimbasso in recording sessions. “Now, it seems like half the movies that you play on, you play tuba and cimbasso. It’s a double; it pays more money and a lot of these people like to have this loud, edgy kind of a sound,” he says.

“I love classical music and most studio work for me was classical, but with a commercial bent.” For his last CD, Floating in Winter, he partnered with guitarist John Chiodini of Local 47. Before that, with trombonist Francisco Torres of Local 47, he produced a Latin album titled ¡Yo! “He’s a wonderful trombonist who knows the Afro-Cuban style intimately—and the trombone player and composer for Poncho Sanchez, who as far as I’m concerned, has the greatest American Latin jazz band.”

Jim was greatly inspired by the playing of trumpeter and band leader Don Ellis, whose complex stylings he draws on to compose. After decades of studio playing, the odd and shifting meters—unusual time changes that Ellis used—had become second nature to Jim and are now a major part of his writing technique. “It made me a better reader. Jazz and jazz harmonies often show up in my music, as do many dance forms.” Jim, who has played virtually everything—symphonic, opera, ballet, jazz, and rock n’ roll—likes to create interesting challenges for performers. Naturally, the tuba parts are never simple bass lines or whole notes. In a Jim Self quintet, all parts are equal.

Down to Brass Tacks
“When I teach I emphasize learning to use your ears, to play what you hear in your head, to learn melodies, to improvise—and to compose.” He insists that his students learn to compose as well. He says, “I waited 30 years and I don’t want them to fall into that same trap.”

“I’m trying to make [students] more than just tuba players. I’ll let the other teachers teach them the basics: all the literature and orchestral excerpts. When I teach, I focus on training their ears, because tuba players are notoriously bad at that. They’ve come up playing in high school bands. They never get any cool things to play. I try to make them do what it took me 50 years to learn. I do think that improvisation in itself, whether jazz or any kind of improvisation, is a new level for tuba players to reach—and to play well. It’s always been a part of my DNA and I want it to be part of every tuba player’s DNA.”

For the would-be studio musicians in LA, Jim says they must be classically trained, but obviously able to play wide-ranging material, including commercially viable music. He says, “Be able to read anything. Be able to sometimes play changes, improvise, and transpose on sight. Ninety-nine percent of the time you never see solos before you get there. When you’re starting out, at an early age, learn melodies and learn piano.”

Jim imparts some practical marketing advice: “Like Harvey Phillips taught me, you’ve got to get out there and ‘politely’ promote yourself. You’ve got to put yourself in situations where you’re heard; you may get the break.”

A Legacy of Work
Jim is happy to let the young guys do the studio work these days. “When I was in the studios, I was working three jobs a day. It was really just crazy for many years. I have a little more time to commit to composing. I have a nice pension, thanks to the union, and because of that I can afford to make records,” he says.

Admittedly, he says, “I’m a music-holic. I don’t know any other way to live.” Years ago, he bought a Piper Arrow small plane­—and had a tuba painted on the tail. “I used to fly Bill Booth, my buddy who’s a great trombone player [of Local 47], to the Pacific Symphony from time to time, which is 50 miles away.”

Jim has cut back on his teaching. “I want the connection with the kids—that’s important to me,” he says. “I sort of planned my career this way a little bit. I wanted to keep my tenured orchestras. I play almost every week in one of those ensembles playing great music in great halls.”

Jim and his wife Jamie have endowed multiple scholarships for young players. He says, “I’ve had a successful career and have all I need.” They plan to continue to sponsor scholarships and musical projects. He’s endowed a creative award at the ITEA, as well as a tuba and a brass quintet at his alma mater Indiana University of Pennsylvania and University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was on the faculty. He’s endowed scholarships at Tennessee Tech University, the University of South Carolina, and Indiana University. “This year, we are setting up one at the University of Kansas and the University of North Texas.” And he adds, “There will be more. I think it’s a way to push things forward.”