Jim Self: A Fortunate Musician
By Zach Collins
In April of 2003, after several auditions and months of waiting for results, I decided to attend the University of Southern California to begin my master’s degree. I had auditioned for U.S.C., along with a handful of other schools, based on a recommendation from my undergraduate teacher, Richard Murrow. He knew Jim Self from conversations he had with him at conferences. I think Murrow felt a connection to Self since they both made their living as freelance tubists. When I finally made my choice there was certainly the relief that one might expect after months of weighing options, but there was also the uncertainty of a new city, a new school, and a new teacher.
Jim Self with his Yamaha 822 F at Basset Hall, 2003
As anyone who has ever met Jim Self knows, you are instantly at ease when you first meet him. I first met Jim when my wife and I were apartment hunting in preparation for our move to Los Angeles. He had invited us to a Hollywood Bowl Orchestra rehearsal and then lunch at a Thai food restaurant on Sunset Blvd. I said, “It’s nice to finally meet you, Mr. Self.” He replied in his customary way, “You can either call me ‘Jim’ or ‘Your Majesty.’” Suffice it to say very few people call him “Your Majesty.” Although accomplished, he doesn’t carry himself with an air. He’s laid back and confident, as any successful studio musician must be, but he is also down to earth, caring, and giving. In fact, my first Thanksgiving away from family was spent at the Self household.
Most tubists and euphoniumists know that Jim Self has established himself as a preeminent studio musician, recording for well over 1400 motion pictures, hundreds of television shows and records, and ten solo recordings. I knew these things going in to my studies at U.S.C. My familiarity with his name came from the cover of his Basset Hound Blues CD—Self collaborating with a crooning dog. It caught my eye as a high school and undergraduate student in T.U.B.A. Journal advertisements. What I didn’t know until I arrived in Los Angeles was the breadth of his playing career. While he is known as a recording artist, he performs just as much on a live stage (juggling the schedules of five orchestras) as he does on the sound stage. There is also his interest in jazz and his burgeoning career as a composer. It is this wealth of variety that I hope to present.
James Martin Self was born in 1943 to Helen, a homemaker, and James Warren Self, a factory manager in Franklin, Pa. The Self family moved quite a bit within western Pennsylvania and it was Oil City, now a town of about 11,000, which Self would call home for most of his young life. He lived there from 3rd grade until he attended college.
Serenading whales on the Fluba at Avila Beach, 2003
Jim was forced to grow up early. When he was six, his mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left her an invalid. After a few years, he and his younger brother, Joe, joined his older brother and sister, Bill and Barbara, in taking on full-time care of their mother. By the time Jim was 15 he had lost his father to surgery complications. Because he was essentially an adult by his teenage years, Self realized early on the importance of responsibility and hard work. He held several jobs during his adolescent years; he was a paperboy, assistant to the milkman, grocery store stock/bag boy, and lifeguard.
When Jim was in first grade his family lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Franklin. It was there that he had his first meaningful musical experience. His father would go over to the neighbor’s house, an African-American, and jam, playing four-hand boogie-woogie piano. Later, Self’s father encouraged him to play the guitar. His father gave him a Gibson ES 175 electric guitar when he was 9. He continued to play through college and still uses a guitar, at times, to compose. Since his piano playing is not very strong he can “think” better on a guitar than a piano.
Jim and friend John Velier age 17 in High School, 1960
His career as a tubist started in the eighth grade when the South Side Junior High band director, Gerald Keefer, invited him to try the instrument, knowing that Self had a musical background. Jim became accomplished enough on the helicon (by that time, already fifty years old and held together with airplane glue) that he was invited to join the senior high (10th–12th grades) band as a ninth grader. Self also performed in various ensembles outside of school including the Rocky Grove Volunteer Fireman’s Band, the Franklin Band, and the Oil City American Legion Band and qualified for district and regional bands. By his senior year Jim earned a spot in the Pennsylvania All-State Band, conducted that year by William Revelli.
Self followed the advice of his high school music teachers, Frank Puleo and Phil Runzo, and attended Indiana State College (now called Indiana University of Pennsylvania). At the time, the school was generally recognized as one of the region’s best schools to earn a music education degree. While he did not know what it meant to be a music educator, an education degree seemed like the logical degree to pursue in order to be a musician.
It was at I.U.P. that Self played on his first “real” tuba. It was a school-owned, 1950s era, three-valve recording bell BB-flat King. It was affectionately known as “Old No. 1.” The horn was the best horn that I.U.P. owned and was awarded to Jim based on his accomplishments. It served him throughout his entire time at I.U.P.
His applied lesson teacher at I.U.P. was William Becker, a trumpet player. At that time, all brass students at I.U.P., except for hornists, studied with Becker, something not so uncommon at the time. Most colleges did not have tuba specialists until at least the 1970s. Becker said, “Because my primary instrument is trumpet, I found myself researching all that I could about techniques and methods on all the other brass instruments.” Becker focused on the fundamentals with Self: tone, rhythm, phrasing, musicality, musicianship, and professionalism. “Jim was always a very serious student…rather quiet…but always intent about his goals in life. He was an industrious worker.”1
For years Self second-guessed his time at I.U.P. Would he have achieved more had he gone to a larger or more prestigious school, such as Eastman or Julliard? For him, those schools really were not an option since he had not even heard of them at the time he applied for college. He later came to the conclusion that his limited knowledge of what was available to him allowed him to go to a school where he “did everything;” he performed in the wind ensemble, brass choir, marching band, I.U.P. big band (known as the Mellowmen—he performed on guitar), college choir, Men’s (vocal) ensemble, and he performed on stage in the school’s spring musicals. In retrospect, this array of opportunities was fortuitous. He was a big fish in a little pond instead of the other way around. Self figures he might have failed if he had attended a bigger school, and he wouldn’t have had the multitude of experiences that he had at I.U.P.
Self finished his degree at I.U.P. in January 1965, one semester ahead of schedule. At the time, job prospects for a music teacher in western Pennsylvania were bleak. He was offered a band directing position in a suburban Pittsburgh public school that would have paid $4500 a year. It was a low salary, but he needed money and almost accepted the job.
Jim often talks of fortune. Before graduation fortune presented itself in the form of a U.S. Army Band concert. Self attended the concert in Harrisburg and afterward learned of an opening in the tuba section. Section leader Paul Scott invited him to Washington to audition. A few weeks later Self, performing on Old No. 1, earned a spot in the band.
In March 2003 Self was presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award, a university-wide honor reserved for only 290 of I.U.P.’s 120,000 graduates. At the ceremony, Self was presented with a fully restored Old No. 1. The tuba that helped him launch his career now resides in Jim Self’s music room in Hollywood.
Jim about age 9, 1955
THE U.S. ARMY BAND
Even before he joined the U.S. Army Band, Washington, D.C. was a special place for Jim. At age 11 he had the opportunity to visit D.C, and he remembers being struck by the majesty of the nation’s capitol with its monuments and historical sites. In 1963 he made the 225-mile trip from Indiana, Pa. to D.C. to stand on Constitution Avenue and watch the horse-drawn caisson carry President Kennedy’s body to Arlington Cemetery.
Self joined the section of the concert band after graduation in 1965. For $600, Self bought his first tuba, a four-valve Miraphone 186 CC negotiated through his entrepreneurial section-mate, Dan Perantoni. The other members of the section were Paul Scott, Bob Pallansch, Leo Hurst, and Chester Schmitz. Self credits these men, particularly Perantoni and Schmitz, for inspiring him to be a professional musician. Schmitz was the best tubist Self had ever heard. He could play anything. He remembers Schmitz having the agility of a flutist. Schmitz remembers Self as a “very pleasant, clean-cut kid from Pennsylvania,” but also “not yet ‘dry behind the ears.’”2
Self was closest to Perantoni. He admired the completeness of Perantoni’s musicianship. In fact, during their time in the band, he and Perantoni performed several gigs together with Jim on bass and Perantoni on piano. Often they performed as part of a quartet with a singer/guitarist and drummer. Their friendship has remained strong through the past forty years. They have worked together for many years through T.U.B.A. (and now I.T.E.A.) and even performed “Just Friends” together at the U.S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference in 2003.
Indiana State College Brass Choir 1962, Dr. William Becker, director
In the Army Band Self began to develop one of the skills that would prove to be most necessary for the line of work he would take on in Los Angeles: sight reading. Several of the first performances Self gave with the band were without rehearsal. Most of his band mates had read the literature before, but it was new to Self. Upon joining the band Schmitz “promoted” Self to fourth chair (Schmitz’s rightful chair). This was not so much an act of humility on Schmitz’s part, as much as it was an attempt to “join Dan in the coffee room while the band worked away.”3 At the time the band was in the midst of recording every march in the Army Band library. Most marches had two parts played by the top four chairs. Schmitz’s switching of chairs benefited both players as Schmitz got to play hooky, and Self gained the experience of reading a plethora of music.
One of the many fortuities of Self’s time in the Army came in the form of George Graves’ Dixieland Band. Perantoni was the regular member of the ensemble, and Jim served as his sub. When Perantoni left the Army for Amsterdam, Self took over the position. The Dixieland band was busy, performing six nights a week in Georgetown. At the time, military musicians were not permitted to join the AFM, and therefore couldn’t technically play freelance gigs. To get around this limitation, Self donned a wigand had a stage name. Jim did not know the language of Dixieland; he didn’t know changes and he didn’t know the tunes. But, as the pattern of his life would attest, he jumped in headfirst and learned through experience. Through Dixie gigs he learned to play by ear and play in time—both vital components to his career as a freelancer in Los Angeles.
It was during Self’s time in the U.S. Army Band that he recognized his desire to be a performer—not just a person playing freelancing jobs as a secondary income to make ends meet, but an artist. He wanted to be a full-time performing musician.
Jim’s position with the Army Band afforded him the opportunity to earn his master’s degree from Catholic University. The band was supportive and accommodating; they were willing to work around his class schedule. He enrolled in the fall of 1965. Catholic didn’t have a low brass instructor, much less a tuba teacher. Self studied with Lloyd Geisler, retired First Trumpet of the National Symphony. Geisler made it very clear that he had no desire to teach the tuba. Disenchanted, Self searched for an instructor who would be as passionate about teaching as he was about learning and performing. As fortune would have it, band mates Pallansch and Perantoni had connections to Harvey Phillips. Phillips took over as Self’s primary teacher in 1966.
University of Tennessee Tuba-Euphonium Studio, 1973, with Barney (the first) Basset Hound
STUDIES WITH HARVEY PHILLIPS
Self took a dozen lessons with Phillips from 1966–1967, during the height of Phillips’ freelancing career in New York. Phillips took on many students from the services during his years in New York, and he never charged them for lessons. Self primarily focused on literature in these lessons. While his studies with Becker at I.U.P. prepared Self fundamentally, he had not been exposed to too much of the serious tuba literature apart from the Hindemith Sonata. During this time Self had his first encounters with pieces such as Persichetti’s Serenade No. 12, Wilder’s Effie Suite, and Bozza’s Sonatine for brass quintet. Under Phillips’ teaching Jim also performed his first solo recital.
Because of Phillips’ busy schedule, there were no regular times for lessons. For one particular lesson, Self was having an especially difficult time reaching Phillips to confirm their lesson. Short on time, Jim went ahead and boarded the train to New York. After arriving in the city, Self was finally able to contact Phillips just past midnight the night before his lesson. Phillips apologized, saying, “Jim, I’m sorry, I can’t teach you a lesson. I don’t have any time tomorrow. But, if you have a black suit, you can sit in the pit at the State Theater for Nutcracker.” Self bought the cheapest black suit he could find ($26). “I learned more from that than I would from any private lesson,” he remembered.4
Phillips’ career as a freelancer had an impact on Self. The idea of performing in numerous genres and settings such as symphonies, ballets, operas, bands, as well as teaching and recording was attractive to Self. “He told me at his very first lesson with me that he wanted to have the kind of schedule I had,” Phillips recalls.5
Self’s relationship with Phillips also resulted in his inclusion on the planning team for the First International Tuba-Euphonium Symposium in 1973. The team, comprised of Phillips, Self, Perantoni, Les Varner, Barton Cummings, Ron Bishop, Winston Morris, and others, did most of the planning over food and drinks in Phillips’ house. Self believes the First Symposium was the “single most important event for the tuba and euphonium.”6 Dan Perantoni remarked in the first T.U.B.A. Journal that the conference was important because it “made believers out of those who attended that the tuba could be used effectively in all types of music.”7 At least one hundred new works were produced as a direct result of the conference.
The conference was a meaningful event in Self’s career. He performed Alec Wilder’s Suite No. 1 for Horn, Tuba and Piano with the composer in the audience. Self was so nervous he forgot to acknowledge Wilder during the applause. “I’ve always felt embarrassed about it, because I was so nervous I forgot to recognize him at the end. I think that upset Harvey, but I was just nervous.”8
During the conference Phillips became very sick. He was supposed to participate in the premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Five Moods for Tuba Quartet along with Toby Hanks, Sam Pilafian, and John Turk. Self was notified the morning of the concert and was asked to fill in. “Like many of my experiences as a young musician I was thrown into difficult playing situations. While I was scared to death and felt I was the least experienced of the quartet, ultimately I did well and it gave me confidence for the future.”9
Self with George Graves (Banjo) Dixie Band at the Speakeasy, Washington, D.C., 1967
In 1967 Jim left the U.S. Army Band. He became an elementary instrumental band director in Fairfax, Va. and played bass gigs at night. He would teach from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon, go home and sleep for three hours, work from 9:00 at night until 2:00 in the morning, and then catch four more hours of sleep before starting the process over again. Self didn’t last long teaching band. He didn’t feel he was a very good educator for beginners and, due to keeping odd hours, was often irritable with the youngsters.
After leaving the Army Band Self’s freelancing work in D.C. grew. He performed on tuba as a sub for the National and Richmond Symphony Orchestras and on string and electric bass in dance bands around D.C. Over time, Self’s position as a substitute tubist in George Graves’ band grew to be a full-time position. Also, the band transitioned into a pop/jazz combo, performing at trendy clubs in D.C. as well as across the country. Self played mostly electric bass with this version of the band. While busy, Self constantly questioned his career in D.C. Freelancing was inconsistent, and he was often broke.
In 1969 Jim was offered the position of Assistant Professor of Tuba at the University of Tennessee. This offer was the result of acquaintances Self made with the brass faculty of U.T. while performing a six-week engagement in Knoxville with Graves’ band. Like the Army Band, the position at U.T. proved to be advantageous for Self’s future career. With the job came several performing opportunities including an active faculty brass quintet and a position with the Knoxville Symphony. Through these positions he learned much of the standard repertoires of both the brass quintet and the symphony orchestra, which would later serve him in his roles as chamber music coach at U.S.C. and principal tubist of five Southern California orchestras.
Under Self’s direction, the tuba and euphonium studio at the University of Tennessee thrived, maintaining a full load of fifteen students. At the university Self also created and led one of the first tuba-euphonium ensembles in the country, following the blueprint of Connie Weldon at Miami and Winston Morris, 100 miles west at Tennessee Tech. Through this ensemble Jim developed the arranging chops that would be the start of his later interest in composition.
In 1971 Self began the process of earning a D.M.A. This was not a requirement for Self, but rather, more of a personal goal. At the time there were only a couple D.M.A. programs in the country, and Self wanted to be one of the few. He knew that if he had to serve a one-year residency, it would make sense to be in a large city where he could gig at night. He limited his possibilities to New York and Los Angeles.
Fluba on Basset Hall Deck with the Tuba Window
California had been attractive to Self since he was a child. It was nothing like he had experienced in Oil City, Indiana, Washington D.C., or Knoxville. The name of Tommy Johnson, the accomplished studio musician from Los Angeles, was also becoming prevalent in the tuba scene. As with Phillips, he was intrigued to study with someone who did what he wanted to do. He chose the University of Southern California.
Self remembers Johnson demanded precision. “Lessons with Tommy were great—but a little laid back, as was his style. I learned most from Tommy by sitting next to him on gigs. Before Tommy I was a lazy player, sloppy and imprecise—that just wasn’t good enough for L.A. He taught me the importance of accurate playing.”10
Los Angeles made an immediate impression on Jim during his first eight-week long summer session. It was accented by Self’s first L.A. gig. Tommy sent him as a sub for a performance with the Quincy Jones Big Band, contracted by the renowned bassist, Ray Brown.
Self was granted a one-year sabbatical from U.T. to serve his residency at U.S.C. for the 1974–1975 academic year. During this time he was expected to perform in the student ensembles. At U.S.C. ensembles worked on a rotation basis, and Self was tabbed to play the first orchestra concert, which featured Petrouchka. As fortune would have it, he received his first studio call, and it conflicted with one of the U.S.C. orchestra rehearsals. Self contacted the orchestra director, Dan Lewis, and informed him that he would be unable to perform the concert cycle. Lewis protested the request, but Self’s persistence won out. New transfer student Gene Pokorny performed the concert.
Self was already questioning his place at U.T. around the time he started his studies in Los Angeles in 1971. Self was (and still is) ambitious. While he felt his time at U.T. was valuable and he gave a lot to the job, he had succeeded as a performer on a big stage in D.C. and often thought of getting back to that place. By the end of Self’s first semester of residency at U.S.C. he found he was making twice as much money teaching and gigging in Los Angeles than he made teaching full time at U.T. His decision was easy. He sent his letter of resignation in January of 1975.
In May of 1976 Jim Self completed his doctoral studies by performing a recital with the newly formed Los Angeles Tuba Quartet. He formed the quartet with Johnson, freelance trombonist and tubist, Don Waldrop, and then principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Roger Bobo. The concert featured various combinations of tenor, bass, and contra-bass tubas on pieces such as Schuller’s Five Moods, an arrangement by Self of Haydn’s Concerto in E-flat for Two Horns, and Devil Septet, a piece written by a young composition student from the Eastman School of Music named Eric Ewazen. The concert was a large enough event to garner a review in the Los Angeles Times, a feat for an ensemble of this sort and a testament to the virtuosity and reputation of the members.
At home, in front of the Tuba Window, Basset Hall
While it was (and still is) uncommon for musicians to get work in the studios soon after moving to L.A., Jim Self did have luck in gaining some early experience in the studios. He worked on one of his first films in 1975, Bernard Hermann’s score to the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, playing second tuba to Johnson. But studio work was sparse for Self at first. He pulled in funds from several different sources. One of the most reliable sources of income during his early years in Los Angeles was bass gigs.
Bass playing was part of his repertoire since his undergraduate years. At I.U.P. he played bass in a folk trio called the Talismen. With the Army, in addition to his gigging on bass with Dan Perantoni, he was enlisted to perform at state dinners at the White House with the Army Strolling Strings. He also played with various dance bands and combos in D.C. During his time in George Graves’ band his role morphed from Dixieland tubist to bassist as the band performed more pop and jazz.
Self also played dance jobs when he arrived in Los Angeles. For a year, beginning in 1979, Jim gave eight performances a week with Jon Hendricks’ “Evolution of the Blues,” a stage show about the history of black jazz. Jim, the only white performer in the production, was hired because he doubled on string bass and tuba and the show featured some Dixieland tuba. It was through this gig that he realized how lacking his jazz playing was. He was a decent section bassist, playing typical rhythm section parts, but he was not a jazz soloist.
Over time the bass gigs phased out. Contractors stopped calling Self as he turned down gigs with more frequency because of his emergent studio career.
Equal in importance to Self’s early survival in the Los Angeles freelancing scene was his membership in several Southern California orchestras. His first positions were with the Pasadena Symphony and the American Ballet Theatre of Los Angeles, which he was first contracted for in 1975. He joined the Glendale Symphony three years later. In 1986 he joined the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Opera, and in 1987 Opera Pacific. He has been principal of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra since its formation in 1991. He remains principal tubist with all of these orchestras, though the Glendale Symphony and American Ballet Theatre have performed with decreasing regularity and Opera Pacific folded in 2008.
The inevitable question that arises from reading this list is “how in the world does he juggle this load?” Most of his orchestras have minimum participation percentages that Self has to meet. For instance, Self has to perform 70% of classical concerts with the Pacific Symphony. “If I wasn’t a tuba player I couldn’t do this, because tuba is not needed on a lot of concerts or operas. So, I somehow, up to this point, have been able to rob Peter to pay Paul if you know what I mean.”11
Self feels that one of his biggest contributions to the Los Angeles music business, and particularly to the successors in his orchestras, is the establishment of principal positions for tuba. “I worked my buns off for twenty years making sure every job in L.A. was time and a half job for tuba. I got it in the contract. I was on committees. I did all kinds of stuff. I was an advocate for it. It wasn’t just for me, but for everyone that came after me. Tuba was paid as much as the first trombone. I don’t care that the trumpet made double scale or whatever, but the tuba had to make the same as the first trombone. That was my goal, and I got it in every contract.”12
Hollywood Bowl Orchestra Low Brass, c. 1998. L-R: Jim Sawyer, Bill Booth, Bob Sanders, Jim with Monica
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Jim Self was hired at several Southern California universities. He was instantly one of the most qualified instructors in the region after his experience at the University of Tennessee. In 1974 he was hired at California State University (C.S.U.) Los Angeles (where he taught future Los Angeles Philharmonic tubist, Norm Pearson), C.S.U. Long Beach, and C.S.U. Fullerton. He joined the faculty of C.S.U. Northridge in 1978. By 1984 Self had left these jobs due to his increasingly busy schedule in the L.A. studios.
He began his career at U.S.C. immediately after graduating with his doctorate in the fall 1976. He was hired as a chamber music coach and second tuba teacher. One of his favorite duties was co-leading the weekly master class, which he had helped with as a doctoral student. The master class blossomed into an event that was not just for the U.S.C. students but for other young tubists in Los Angeles as well. The class, which still meets on Monday nights, was used for presenting solo pieces, performing mock auditions, and reading ensemble music. Self and Johnson frequently invited local and visiting tubists, such as Roger Bobo and Gene Pokorny to visit.
Self, as president-elect of T.U.B.A., hosted the Third International Symposium-Workshop in June 1978 at U.S.C. The conference featured memorable performances by Roger Bobo, Brian Bowman, Larry Campbell, Floyd Cooley, Mel Culbertson, Barton Cummings, Don Harry, William Himes, Tommy Johnson, Michael Lind, Loren Marstellar, Dennis Miller, Wilfrid Mountain, Ray Nutaitus, Dan Perantoni, Zdzislaw Piernik, Robert Whaley, the United States Coast Guard Band Tuba Quartet, the Los Angeles Tuba Quartet, and the Matteson-Phillips Tuba-Jazz Consort. The “Mirafone/L.A. Tuba Quartet Composition Contest” netted sixty-five new compositions for the tuba quartet. At the time, funding was not nearly as strong as it is now for conferences and, consequently, Self lost a lot of his own money to run the conference.
As a teacher, Self considers himself much more of a motivator than a technician. He would much rather work with a student to get him or her performing in a more exciting manner than to discuss their embouchure. His method in teaching is to give students a challenge, provide them with the tools to succeed, and encourage them to work towards conquering the challenge. His biggest goal in teaching is to “take the fear out of playing.” He accomplishes this by having his students play by ear so that it is “just you and the music.”13 Oftentimes, students don’t even read music in their first lessons; they play tunes by ear.
– L.A. Opera Low Brass with Placido Domingo, c.1995. R-L: Al Veeh, Terry Cravens, Domingo, Bill Booth, Jim with BB-flat Cimbasso (Minick “tubone”)
Self was fortunate to arrive in Los Angeles during the heyday of television and motion picture scoring. In the mid-1970s Universal Studios alone scored twenty-six television shows with full orchestras. Because he had displayed his responsibility as a student at U.S.C., Tommy Johnson felt comfortable sending Self as a substitute and extra tubist on recording sessions. By showing up prepared and doing a good job Self’s name made it on to the all-important contractors’ lists. Self had his first studio call, a TV show for Bob Drasnin, on September 17, 1974, the second school day of his one-year residency.
One of the most important parts about performing in the studios is pleasing everyone involved. There are many people to please including contractors, composers, and other musicians. “In addition to playing well, you’re dependent on people liking you,” Self says. “If you want to be asked back, the best thing is to have the bass trombone player say, ‘I like that guy.’ That’s the best thing, and he talks to somebody else, and he talks to somebody else, and over the years… I’ve had the fortune of that happening to me.”14
L.A. Tuba Quartet, Barnsdall Theater, May 1976. R-L: Tommy Johnson, Mirafone 185 CC, Don Waldrop, Mirafone 184 CC, Roger Bobo, Besson E-flat w/Mirafone Bell, Jim, Alexander F, Bob Henderson, Conductor
The fact that survival in the business is dependent on others’ opinions of one’s playing is a breeding ground for paranoia and jealousy. Self and Johnson always had the utmost respect for each other, but as Self’s career took off and he increased his share of the market, the competition between the two tubists, at times, put a strain on their relationship. The two were friends, appreciated each other as musicians, and there was plenty of work to go around, but the pressures in the workplace were high.
The most obvious instance of this was John Williams’ score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In 1976 Self received a call for a pre-scoring session for Close Encounters. The session turned out to be for the “conversation” between the space ship and the humans. Most scoring sessions happen after the film has been shot and edited so that the music can be synchronized with the visual. In this instance, the audio to the conversation, sounded by two oboes, contrabassoon, and tuba, was recorded first and the visual was created to sync up with the audio. Jim received this call because Johnson was on vacation.
The controversy was caused because John Williams also recorded a post-film version of the conversation with different music and different orchestration. Johnson performed this session. For months after the release of the film there was some question as to which recording was used. Because of the orchestration difference Self knew that it was his version that was used, but Johnson insisted it was his. Later, Williams intimated to Self that it was indeed the pre-score version that was used. Johnson never believed it.
There would be more controversy between the two in 1990. That year Jim took over as John Williams’ principal tubist when he was asked to perform on Home Alone. In 1993, Jerry Goldsmith scored Dennis the Menace. Johnson received the call to work on the score first because he was Goldsmith’s principal tubist. However, he had to turn the call down because he was previously engaged to record Tubby the Tuba with the Naples Philharmonic and Manhattan Transfer during the same time. Self took over the sessions. The incident caused friction between the two because, while Johnson remained Goldsmith’s principal tubist, Self benefited from the multiple exposed solos throughout the film. That is the unfortunate (or fortunate) way of the business. If the contractor calls, you say yes, because if you don’t, the next player will.
It should be emphasized that, despite the pressures of performing in the studios, and the bumps in the road, such as the Close Encounters incident, Johnson and Self were friends and did work together well. Self treasured the weekly U.S.C. master classes that they team-taught. The two also shared students, not letting their pride get in the way if the other’s words had more success than their own in reaching a particular student. Self dedicated his first solo recording Children at Play to Johnson. He considered Johnson to be like a big brother and the strong male influence that he always needed.
Jim has been disappointed in the direction that the recording industry has followed in recent years. Recording with full, live orchestras for motion pictures has declined. Television has been gone for nearly three decades. Union musicians went on strike in 1980 over residuals for scoring TV shows, and the business never recovered. Jim now thinks the strike was a poor decision. The union eventually settled for no residuals. During the months of negotiation, composers realized they could record with synthesizers, scabs, students, overseas, and in home studios. Live music never returned to television to the level it had been before the strike. The use of synthesized music and small pop ensembles has also bled into motion pictures as well. Self is most disappointed in the loss of residuals and work to non-union orchestras for motion pictures in recent years. Residuals constitute an important portion of studio payments. Successful scores, advertisement jingles, and records can continue to pay for months and years after their initial recording and the amount of residual money can often eclipse what the musician earned for performing the sessions. In recent years producers have opted to use non-union orchestras in Seattle, Salt Lake City, and overseas in an attempt to avoid paying residuals. Self takes umbrage with musicians that have undercut the efforts of the union. “It took fifty years or more for musicians to get pensions and to get residuals and to get health insurance, and a lot of people struggled to make that happen, and now we have people that don’t think that’s important. They think that everybody’s rich in Los Angeles.” The music budget for major films is never more that 1% of any film’s total budget, Self says. The argument that making music in Los Angeles is too expensive is a false argument.15
Jim Self at TubaChristmas Los Angeles about 1995, Dorothy Chandler Pavillion
Doubles are an important and lucrative part of studio playing. Not only are they necessary to add variety to the palette of sounds available to studio composers, but they also fetch the performer 50% over scale for the first double and 10% for the second. On a typical day you will find a large CC, small CC, and F tuba, BB-flat cimbasso, bass trombone, and mutes for those instruments in the back of Jim’s vehicle. At times he also carries an F cimbasso, euphonium, string bass, electric bass, and an amp.
The cimbasso is an important part of Self’s instrument library whether playing an opera or a studio job. He utilizes the instrument, keyed in F, in both of his opera orchestras. His original cimbasso, which he called his “tubone,” was originally a BB-flat contrabass trombone that had an F attachment added to it. Larry Minick added a valve section in the late 1970s. He now has Yamaha and Kalison F cimbassi.
Self estimates that at least 50% of the motion pictures he works on utilize the cimbasso as a double. In the 1980s Tommy Johnson bought a CC cimbasso and began showing it around the studios. Composers liked the sound (or the power) and the contrabass cimbasso, in BB-flat or CC, has become a standard double for studio tubists. Self first recorded with the instrument in 1977 for composer Dennis Dreith. Self recollects that the Naked Gun movies were some of the earliest to exploit the cimbasso.
Jim has no problem admitting he is not a fan of the way the cimbasso is used in the studios. “So much of what we do now is just take this cimbasso and then blat away on it, you know, and I just hate that. I’ve played hundreds of sessions on cimbasso, and I’ve never had a solo. Never had anything pretty to play ever, and it’s just a percussion instrument. It’s just another bass drum!”16
Jamie and Jim at the Giza Pyramids, 2005
Bass trombone used to be an important double. It is most often used as a double when scoring TV shows, but since the 1980s those sessions have been few and far between. In motion pictures the bass trombone has declined in use (as a double) as the cimbasso has increased.
Jim Self with John Williams, backstage at Pacific Symphony’s concert of John’s Tuba Concerto, June 2004
JAZZ AND SOLO RECORDING
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, about the time of the TV strike, Self began to feel that he did not have an identity. He was showing up for work and doing a good job, but that was it—and it was not enough. He did not have an artistic voice. His perceived lack of artistry and his incessant desire to grow spurred him to learn jazz and produce solo records.
“One of the reasons I even went to L.A. was I had to see if I was good enough. I had to find out, ‘am I good?’ If I failed, I failed. I could either go back to Tennessee, or I could do something else with my life or whatever. I had to see if…can I play in the town, can I play in the same sandbox with Tommy and Roger? There was some need in me to prove myself, if you will. I knew they were doing phenomenal things that I didn’t have the technique to do, and I knew I probably never would. It’s not something you learn late in life. But jazz was something that I could do well, and so I focused somewhat on that, and it gave me a certain identity.”17
Fresh off of his 1977 European tour as tubist for Don Ellis, Self voiced his opinions on the importance of jazz when he authored “Reclaiming our Heritage” for the 1978 Spring/Summer issue of the T.U.B.A. Journal. In the article Jim advocated for tubists to assert themselves as the bass voice in pop and jazz ensembles as a response to the lack of “traditional” tuba jobs. Self believed that it might be an alternative source of work for tubists but that the challenge itself also had its worth. “I wish only to suggest a new way of thinking of tuba players, a way which offers (at the very least) a chance to improve their ears, to be creative, to broaden their understanding of music and their instrument—and maybe earn some income too.” He noted that, “the most obvious problem to overcome is learning to play by ear (faking, improvising). For tubists this seems to be a lost art. It must be revived—it is instructive and extremely satisfying. It is rare to find a tuba student who can play even simple melodies without music. Learning to memorize is invaluable and learning to play without music should be part of every musician’s experience.”18
Children at Play, Self’s first solo jazz effort, was released in 1983 to critical acclaim, chosen by High Fidelity as one of the year’s top ten recordings. He would release New Stuff and Tricky Lix, both jazz albums, in 1988 and 1990, respectively. In 1992 he released his first classical CD, Changing Colors which featured pieces from a variety of genres and styles including the Halsey Stevens Sonatina for Bass Tuba and Piano, Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, Op. 15 (arranged by Self), and Günter Kochan’s tuba quartet, Sieben Miniaturen für Vier Tuben. Six more solo recordings would be produced over the following sixteen years, five jazz and one classical.
Since 2000 Jim has had the aid of the “Fluba” in performing jazz solos. The Fluba is a flugelhorn-shaped tuba that was conceived by Self. The instrument was built by Los Angeles-based instrument maker, Robb Stewart. Stewart used the valve section of a Yamaha E-flat tuba and the slides and bell of an F tuba. Jim had the bell engraved to read “Fluba Made for Jim Self By R. Stewart Maker Arcadia 2000.”
“I have always loved the flugel horn, and my ideal jazz guys were Art Farmer and Clark Terry. I tried to play jazz on the tuba like them and, if you think about it, a tuba is just a big flugel horn. I wanted an instrument that projected to the audience hence my idea that I presented to Robb. For some reason I think more melodically on it than tuba.”19 Jim describes the sound as a cross between an F tuba and a cimbasso. The sound is direct, but mellow. Since receiving the horn in 2000 he has used it on his solo recordings My America, Size Matters, InnerPlay, and The Odd Couple.
At home with Harvey Phillips, Zach Collins, and Doug Tornquist, 2006
In the same way Self was inspired to grow as an artist and learn jazz, he also sought to express himself, without formal training, through composition.
“When I went to Tennessee as a professor, they called me an ‘Artist in Residence.’ I could never stomach that, because I was not an artist. Thinking about the hierarchy of music, improvisation and composition are the very pinnacles. I’ve struggled to be better at those things. I knew it would make me a better musician. It’s very cool now that I’m writing, even though I rarely make any money at it. Now I feel that a part of me is artistic now.”20
Mucho con Huevos—Self at home with Winston Morris and Gene Pokorny after Big Stretch recording session, August 1995
Self began composing in the same way that he began playing Dixieland with George Graves and jazz in the late 1970s: by diving in headfirst. In fact, Self composes in the same way that he plays jazz solos. But, instead of performing the melody on his Fluba, he writes down the melodies he hears in his head.
Many of Jim Self’s compositions have been the result of requests from friends and colleagues. Self’s composing career started with a request from friend, Burnie Dillon, to write a Tusch, a fanfare written to honor a conductor, for Dan Lewis (of previous Petrouchka and Pokorny fame), then conductor of the Pasadena Symphony. Over the years he also used his solo recording projects as a motivation to compose. Courante, written for tuba, trombone, and alto saxophone is an example of this. It was written in 1991 for Bill Booth (trombone) and Doug Masek (saxophone) and was included on Changing Colors.
Self sees value in composing for himself and for his students.
“I don’t make money out of it, but I’ve had a ball doing it. And I think it’s made me a much better musician. And that’s why I encourage every student to start writing when they’re young. Again, to break down the wall, there’s nothing to be afraid of…. I was almost fifty when I started really writing. If you’re starting at twenty, just think what you will be when you’re fifty…you know? You never know where your life is going to go, so, keep it reasonably broad, you know? Unless you’re in the New York Philharmonic, you can’t be too tuba-centric.”21
With Winston Morris, receiving ITEA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, ITEC, Cincinnati Conservatory, June 2008
Self’s self-mantra of getting out of the established “box” of tuba playing (orchestral excerpts, Vaughan Williams Concerto, etc…) and trying something new (jazz, composing) has had an effect on students he has instructed as well as musicians he has touched via his performances, recordings, and compositions. “After the first time I heard Jim Self playing on the famous movie soundtrack Close Encounters, I was completely petrified by his gorgeous sound, and I started to investigate about this “great man,” Sérgio Carolino recalls. “Later I discovered this amazing musician also plays jazz, he composes and writes many interesting articles showing all his knowledge—‘WOW! What a versatile man!!!’—I wanted to be like him.”22 In the words of Harvey Phillips, “with his attitude and ability there is no line drawn in the sand that he can’t step over.”23
Self’s multitude of musical ventures has left very little time for hobbies. What time he does have he devotes to two interests: building his home and flying. He bought his house, located in the hills above Hollywood, in 1975 for $46,000. For twenty years he made a few additions including a kitchen and a living room, making the space more comfortable and livable for his wife Jamie, whom he married in 1987, and his stepdaughter Yasmin. The addition he is most proud of, though, is “Basset Hall,” built in 1996. The room was designed by Self and his cousin, architect Gary Martin, so that the room would be large enough for the fundamental of a BB-flat tuba to resonate (36 ft). The room features a high ceiling (including a balcony), soundproofing, non-parallel walls, and even a tuba window at the peak of the roof. In all, the home has evolved from a 900 square foot bungalow to a 3300 square foot house with a music room capable of hosting concerts (which it has!) and worth enough that Self “could not afford to buy it today.” It is a haven for Self. “To have a place to play the tuba in the middle of a big city is a luxury.”24
Self began flying lessons in 1985, earned his private pilot’s license in 1986 and his instrument rating in 1987. “It is a great escape for me. For many years I had frustrations of the competitive world of a L.A. freelancer. When I would go flying I completely forgot all that stuff. If I would get two or more days off I would split to San Luis Obispo or San Francisco or take Jamie to gamble in Laughlin, Nev.”25 Self owns a 1973 Piper Arrow, which he had the tail number changed to “412BA” (For-One-Tu-Ba). Self has logged over 2000 hours, crossed the U.S. eight times, and landed in all U.S. states except North Dakota, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
At Tommy Johnson’s 70th birthday party—hungry for Pat’s brownies: R-L: Norm Pearson, Gene Pokorny, Tommy, Jim, Ron Davis, 2005
Self feels that 2008 was a landmark year in his life and career. He reached the age of 65 in August, an age he wasn’t sure he would reach. He also experienced several significant musical milestones during the year.
In April he had his first orchestral piece, Tour de Force, premiered by the Pacific Symphony. The 13-minute work was commissioned by the orchestra and dedicated to patrons Sandy and John Daniels. Self set out to write a piece that is interesting for both listeners and performers. He wanted to write a particularly fun tuba part. “Brass players…we’re bored to death in an orchestra 90 percent of the time. You know, we played more notes when we were in high school band. So we’d like to have some stuff to play, some challenge, some high notes, something a little hard, and something that brings us out, maybe solos. So I tried to stick all that stuff in there.”26
1973 Piper Arrow with tuba on the tail and new number 412BA (for one tu-ba)
As a composer, Self has always relied on rhythm to drive his compositions and provide interest. Tour de Force is no different. He used odd meters and implied mixed meters (through the use of accents) throughout the work. For harmonies and voicings Self drew from his jazz background. Overall, the piece has a “commercial” sound to it, a term that Self doesn’t shy away from. In fact, he often employs the term himself when he describes his style. After all, it’s what has been in his ears for the past four decades.
Tour de Force was received positively by the audience and the press. Orange County Register music critic, Timothy Mangan, remarked, “Self has written a 13-minute work that takes joy in the athletic possibilities of the orchestra, and he finds time for a little blissed-out mellowness as well.” Later he paraphrased the work:
“The language is jazzy. Self gets some good grooves going and writes particularly well for percussion. Two quieter sections feature an unusual combination of harp[s, three alto flutes, flugelhorn and tuba, a sound worthy of Stravinsky. Amid the snazzy mayhem, Self cuts away at one point to a kind of unison bebop, very cool. It really gets going in the end, makes a fun racket (perhaps the heavy brass and percussion rather outgunned the strings, but never mind) and the crowd enjoyed it. Mission accomplished.”27
Self’s solo recording came full circle with the production of The Odd Couple. The CD mirrors Self’s first solo recording, Children at Play; both feature harmonica virtuoso Ron Kalina. After twenty-five years Self feels more spontaneous and confident as a jazz player, but he is proud of his freshman effort. “The first album was more ‘arranged’ (mostly by me). The new one was collaboration by Ron and me and mostly just tunes and improvising on them—more of a real jam session, live concert-like recording…. In some ways these are bookends on my determined drive to play jazz on the tuba—and proof enough (to me) that the trip was worth it.”28
Self made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in December. He performed second tuba to Gene Pokorny on Symphonie Fantastique. Self was floored by the precision of the ensemble. “While I have had a lifetime of playing with great musicians, this was something special…. I grew up listening to all the great Chicago Symphony records but never dreamed that I would get to play with them. I’m a lucky guy!”
In June Self received affirmation of his extensive and diverse contributions to the tuba community when he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. Emcee Winston Morris began the ceremony by describing a job advertisement that required the applicant to have a doctorate and experience in the following areas: classical performance, leading master classes on standard solo literature, jazz performance (including Dixieland, Big Band, and Bebop), teaching jazz improvisation, recording for motion pictures, orchestral performance, military band performance, arranging/composing, and doubling. There was only one choice—Jim Self.29
Self’s multifarious and international influence was evident in the musical tributes paid to him. The ceremony featured performances of Self’s compositions by friends, colleagues and students from around the globe including Sérgio Carolino, Ron Davis, Norm Pearson, Gene Pokorny, Demondrae Thurman, and, myself, Zach Collins.
Spending four years in Los Angeles with Jim as my teacher gave me a greater appreciation for what it takes to not just be successful but to make a lasting contribution to tubists around the world. Just like Self’s lessons with Phillips, our lessons were hardly ever at any regular time. Our lessons could be moved due to studio calls, a busy opera run in Orange County, or a solo performance out of state. But, Self always made up any missed lessons, and, most importantly, he always gave me his full energy and attention. No matter how little sleep he had or how much driving he had done, he always had more energy than I did for our lessons, and he always had creative ways of getting me to think outside the box. It was amazing to me then, and still is now as I watch from the other side of the country how many jobs Self juggles. He is no longer the thirty-one-year-old graduate student that needs to take every job he is offered so he can pay rent. He is a sixty-five-year-old artist who has accomplished about as much as one musician can and is still, after thirty five years, one of the most in demand musicians in Los Angeles.
As many milestones as Self reached in 2008, he shows no sign of slowing down. Self already has session dates with Barbara Streisand, Diana Krall, and John Williams for 2009. The U.S.C. Wind Ensemble will be featuring Self as both performer and composer in March. They will be performing his brass ensemble piece, Polarities, and Self will join the ensemble to perform his composition, On the Wing, written for solo tuba and band. Self will also perform the entire Ring cycle with the Los Angeles Opera.
Just as Self’s career as a freelance performer continues as strong as ever, it can be counted on that Self will also not slow down any time soon as a creative musician. Perhaps Dan Perantoni sums it up best when describes Self’s career: “Jim has big ears and was never afraid of anything. He also is very disciplined. I am not surprised that he has turned into one of the best tubists in the business. His special interest is jazz—a real Be-bop player. Jim is also a serious composer. His recent composition Tour de Force: Episodes for Orchestra is terrific-a must hear! So you see—Jim is a complete musician. I am proud of my little brother. He does it all!”30
Thank you to William Becker, Sérgio Carolino, Winston Morris, Dan Perantoni, Harvey Phillips, Chester Schmitz, and Robb Stewart for taking the time to contribute to this article. Most of all, thank you to Jim Self for providing me full access to any and all materials and for answering countless emails necessary to write this article.
1 Becker, William. Email interview. 6 January 2009.
2 Schmitz, Chester. Email interview. 15 January 2009.
4 Self, Jim and Carole Nowicke. “Oral History Interview of Dr. James Self.” Unpublished manuscript. International Tuba Euphonium Association, 2001.
5 Phillips, Harvey. Email interview. 21 January 2009.
6 Self, Jim. Email interview. 31 December 2008.
7 Perantoni, Daniel. “From the President.” T.U.B.A. Journal 1.1 (1973): 3.
8 Self and Nowicke.
9 Self, 31 December 2008.
10 Self, Jim. Personal interview. 21 July 2008.
11 Self and Nowicke.
12 Self, 21 July 2008.
14 Self and Nowicke.
16 Self, 21 July 2008.
18 Self, James. “Reclaiming Our Heritage.” T.U.B.A. Journal 5.3 (1978): 12-14.
19 Self, Jim. Email interview. 5 January 2009.
20 Self and Nowicke.
21 Self, 21 July 2008.
22 Carolino, Sérgio. Email interview. 16 January 2009.
24 Self, Jim. Email interview. 8 January 2009.
26 Mangan, Timothy. “Tuba dude takes the plunge as a composer.” Orange County Register. 16 April 2008.
27 Mangan, Timothy. “Hahn impresses, quietly, with the Pacific Symphony.” Orange County Register. 18 April 2008.
28 Self, 5 January 2009.
29 Morris, Winston. “General Introduction.” Jim Self Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony. Unpublished manuscript. 2009.
30 Perantoni, Dan. Email interview. 21 January 2009.
Dr. Zach Collins is Assistant Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa.