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Legendary tuba player talks his 40+ years career as studio musician in Los Angeles and his collaborations with John Williams, including the “Voice of the Mothership” solo in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his work on Home Alone, Hook and Jurassic Park
Tubist Jim Self is one of the true legends among both the international tuba community and the Los Angeles studio musicians. In a career spanning more than four decades, Jim has performed internationally as soloist, orchestral player, chamber musician and studio musician. He performed in more than 1,500 film and television soundtracks and can be heard playing solos on many of them. He has been John Williams’ principal tuba for 25 years (from 1990 to 2015), performing solos on such scores as Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Hook and Jurassic Park. Above all, he performed the iconic “Voice of the Mothership” tuba solo as heard in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). He’s currently principal tuba for four orchestras—the Los Angeles Opera, Pacific Symphony, Pasadena Symphony and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He still performs occasionally as a studio musician for film scores and played 2nd tuba on the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy from 2015-2019. John Williams has referred to him as “one of the greatest instrumentalists of his generation”.
Born in 1943, he grew up in Oil City, Pennsylvania and started playing the tuba during his teen years in the high school band. He later enrolled at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and studied under William Becker. After graduation, Self was student–teaching in Pennsylvania, and in 1965 he auditioned for the US Army Band in Washington, D.C., and won a post. There, he met and performed together with Dan Perantoni, Chester Schmitz and Bob Pallansch, who would all became future talents and some of the greatest tuba ambassadors in the world. While in Washington, Jim earned his Master of Music under tuba legend Harvey Phillips at Catholic University. Phillips, together with Los Angeles Philharmonic principal tuba Roger Bobo, was among the first tuba players in the world to get out of the back rows of the orchestra and show the versatility and the capability of the tuba also as a solo instrument. “Roger and Harvey were the leaders of solo literature for a long time,” said Jim Self in an interview with the International Musician magazine in 2019. “They took things to a new level. And then, of course, every generation after that has just improved upon it.”
Jim then began teaching at the University of Tennessee and worked on his doctorate during the summers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with another tuba legend: John “Tommy” Johnson, who was already seen as the greatest tuba virtuoso in the world thanks to his work as a studio musician for the film and television industry—Johnson was the soloist on the iconic main theme from Jaws. Self later established in Los Angeles to finish his residency and also began to work as a freelance player for recitals and casuals. He became good friends with Tommy Johnson, who started recommending him for studio gigs. Self initially started to sub for Johnson mostly for television work, but the most important call came in 1976, where he was asked to perform a huge solo for John Williams in the pre-records for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind—he’s the “Voice of the Mothership” during the conversation between human and aliens.
That solo made history and turned as a huge boost for Jim’s career, as he started to get more and more work in the film scoring business during the late 1970s and throughout 1980s with many other composers, including Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and Bill Conti—among the film scores he performed in that period there are such classics as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Rocky series, Poltergeist, Ghostbusters, Predator and Die Hard.
In 1990, Jim Self became principal tuba for John Williams and played solos for the film Home Alone, which became a huge international box office success and now a timeless Holiday classic. He remained in that position for 25 years, performing for John Williams in such film scores as Hook, Far and Away, Home Alone 2, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Sabrina, The Lost World, The Patriot, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse.
The collaboration between Jim Self and John Williams didn’t stop just at film score recordings—Self also performed on the E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 20th Anniversary live concert in 2002 at the Shrine Auditorium, played principal tuba for the album American Journey and the Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma (both recorded in 2001 with a Los Angeles studio orchestra), and, as part of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, he performed many times in concert with John Williams conducting. In June 2004 he was featured soloist on a concert where he performed the third movement from Williams’s Concerto for Tuba with the Pacific Symphony conducted by the composer.
Besides his work for Williams, Jim Self also became principal tuba for other top Hollywood film composers as Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, John Debney, Randy Newman. He performed in many film scores including Edward Scissorhands, Avatar, Toy Story 1, 2 and 3, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, The Fugitive, King Kong (2005), Sleepless in Seattle, The Addams Family, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, Ratatouille, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. He can be heard playing solos in Jerry Goldsmith’s Dennis the Menace (1993) and James Horner’s *batteries not included (1987), Casper (1995), and The Mask of Zorro (2005).
Besides his work as orchestral tubist and studio musician, Jim is also a composer—he has about 60 titles for brass, string and woodwind chamber music, works for band, orchestra, solo tuba and trombone. The Pacific Symphony commissioned him to write a feature work for the orchestra called Tour de Force: Episodes for Orchestra. The 13-minute piece was premiered at the Segerstrom Hall in Orange County on April 2008, to great acclaim. Jim also loves jazz music and wrote many original pieces and arrangements in that genre.
Jim released 18 studio recordings over the years, featuring works for brass ensemble, jazz duo and solo instrument. Many of those albums feature his fellow studio musicians like Malcolm McNab, Warren Luening, Jon Lewis, Dan Higgins, Pete Christlieb, Doug Tornquist, to name a few, but also such jazz greats as Gary Foster, Francisco Torres, Ron Kalina. His compositions and arrangements span from classical symphonic music to jazz and fusion. A recent classical recording, Flying Circus, features exciting original music for brass quintet.
His most recent album, The Light Fantastic, features Jim and jazz guitarist John Chiodini performing their own original compositions and arrangements, including an homage to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the title track, and a lovely rendition of John Williams’s “Moonlight” from the film Sabrina.
Jim also continued his life as a teacher both in American colleges and in masterclasses and clinics around the worlds, mentoring the next generation of young tuba talents. He holds a DMA from USC’s Thornton School of Music where he is an adjunct professor of Tuba and Chamber Music. In addition to that, Self and his wife Jamie have endowed tuba and brass quintet scholarships at University of Tennessee and his alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, as well as another tuba scholarship at the University of South Carolina.
His incredible career has often been lauded and recognized with many awards—he was three times voted the Most Valuable Player Award for Tuba by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) and named Emeritus winner in l987; in June 2008, Self was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Tuba-Euphonium Association (ITEA) at the Cincinnati Conservatory. He has been past president of the ITEA and also presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to John Williams in 2002, during the recording session of Catch Me If You Can.
In this long, engaging conversation, Jim talks about his extraordinary career as studio musician and his many years performing for John Williams. He recollects recording the iconic solo for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his work on Home Alone, Hook and Jurassic Park, offering insightful comments and reflections about playing for John Williams, but also about the music itself. He also talks about his work for Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, his friendship and early years playing with tuba legend Tommy Johnson, the role of tuba in film music and his life as a composer.
Special thanks to Jim Self for his immense kindness and generosity. Visit his website to learn more about his incredible career and musicianship and also to buy his albums: https://www.bassethoundmusic.com