COLUMN – Meet Jimmy Elder: a musical ambassador

If Jimmy Elder ever decides to start a cult religion, his genesis story would be ready to go.

“I was born to Dvorak 9 — the Largo from the “New World” symphony,” he said. “My dad did his undergrad and master’s in music composition, so he was like this huge music nerd. He insisted that it be played while I was born.”

The piece is an expansive, epic portrait of the virgin America. It overflows with majesty and reverence, as befits the birth of a future tuba player. When we spoke, Jimmy told me that to this day, he loves classical music that conveys the sense of awesome scale heard in the New World.

Jimmy is a junior majoring in tuba performance and plays for the Thornton Symphony. I asked him how he became a musician. It turns out that he didn’t settled on being a music major — or even a tuba player — until late in high school.

“I hated the tuba, but my band director wouldn’t let me switch. So I got stuck on the tuba, and I’ve played that ever since. It worked out,” he said.

I asked how he decided to major in music.

“Junior year is when I decided that that’s what I wanted to do,” Elder said. “I just noticed that I was involved in a lot of extracurricular ensembles outside of my school’s band. I was in this Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble, and I was in this Colburn Wind Ensemble group. So after doing all of that, I was kind of putting tuba ahead of my schoolwork, in high school, which my GPA definitely reflects.”

But there was an important social component, too — something I noticed helps a lot of musicians make the leap from pursuing music as a hobby to working toward a career in it.

“When I was in high school, all the people I was hanging out with were people from these ensembles,” Elder said. “A lot of them all went on to become music majors. So you have this stream, where all your friends are becoming music majors. It seemed like that was the way to go.”

That made me curious about the sort of music that Jimmy’s friends were feeding him. I asked if there was any correspondence between the music Jimmy listened to and the different steps he’s taken in his musical career.

“I don’t think so. I keep my classical stuff, and then there’s everything else, like rock, or some pop or jazz. Those two are mutually exclusive, I think,” he said.

Elder elaborated that for much of his early life, he only listened to the classical music his dad put on the stereo.

“Some of my earliest memories are listening to Stravinsky — like Firebird, and The Rite of Spring.  The Rite of Spring is quite the piece to play for a 4-year-old kid!” he said.

Elder explained how his father would go into detail what was happening and what it symbolizes. “I was like, ‘OK, this is really terrifying, Dad!’”

Just as it took him a long time to set his heart on being a professional musician, it was only recently that Jimmy began to actively pursue non-classical music for himself.

“In high school, through my friends, social media and stuff, I started discovering stuff that wasn’t classical music,” he said.

The first song Jimmy bought on iTunes, he confessed bashfully, was “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. Yes, that one. Jimmy was quick to add that he’s moved beyond Top 40.

I asked what pulled him away.

“Spotify, honestly, and a new friend group,” he said. “Because, you know, after high school you don’t really see your friends from high school any more. That’s how I got introduced to stuff like Childish Gambino, who I like, and Chance the Rapper.”

But Jimmy still listens to the non-classical songs in his library with a musician’s critical ear. Indeed, he has recently been put on the spot to identify great examples of American pop music — because he serves as a conversation partner for Japan Exchange Student Support, a student organization that helps out Japanese students who study English at USC’s International Academy.

When I met Jimmy this week, he had just come from a meeting with his conversation partner, Nozomi. Nozomi is a jazz pianist. So, though Jimmy studies Japanese himself, he joked that music is an easy way to fill the time of his one-hour meetings with Nozomi.

“The only American band that she knows is Coldplay. And I don’t know any Japanese bands. So, we set up an exchange, where I’m going to send her artists that are similar to Coldplay. And she likes Japanese rock and jazz, so she’s going to send me some,” he added.

I asked, “You’re sort of like a diplomat of American music. So what do you pitch?”

Jimmy admitted that he’s having trouble narrowing it down. For now, he’s settled on only one name.

“Young the Giant. They have some good stuff. There’s something interesting about them,” he said.

“Do you fit the stereotypes of a tuba player in your music taste?” I asked — meaning music that’s all about the low end, with less emphasis on lyrics and melody.

“I don’t really like EDM and things like that, where it’s all about how much bass you can put in the music,” he said. I really don’t like that. When I’m listening to classical music though, for sure. Whenever there’s heavy bottom, like Mahler, Wagner, things like that with lots of low brass, I love it.”

It’s as though Jimmy is bilingual in both music and speech. When he’s working on tuba, he wants to hear tuba solos. But when he’s casually listening, Jimmy applies a totally different set of criteria. I asked him to start me off with some classical music recommendations.

“For sure, Respighi. He wrote this Roman Trilogy. Fountains of Rome—that one. I think it’s the third movement. There’s a huge tuba excerpt where it’s very low, very loud. That’s one of my favorites for sure,” he said.

I asked him for another recommendation.

“Prokofiev in Romeo and Juliet. The ‘Montagues and Capulets.’ That one is like a huge tuba excerpt. But it’s not like a technical excerpt,” he said, meaning it doesn’t simply show off the tubist’s speed and range.

Instead, Jimmy said, “You just have like these fat notes.”

Jimmy usually only listens to music when he drives — not when he does homework, like other students.

He added,“Actually, on that note, the one thing I do listen to the most when I do study, if I am listening to music, is minimalism, like Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, or John Adams, ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ or the Foxtrot suite.”

I could never listen to that and study. But Jimmy doubled down.

“It’s like, the same thing for like 30 minutes,” he said. “I don’t have to think about it. It’s predictable. It’s like, this groovy rhythm that I can just vibe to.”

Jimmy told me about his newfound pop tastes.

“I’m drawn to certain pop and rock pieces and I’m not to others. I like things that I have an emotional connection to. Lyrics in particular play a certain role. When I’m really feeling down and depressed, I like Sufjan Stevens. ‘Should Have Known Better’ by Sufjan Stevens,” he said.

He continued on, listing out the English indie rock band Glass Animals.

“They have a couple of songs that you probably have heard of before. They definitely released one of the greatest albums of the year. It’s called How to Be a Human Being. Glass animals, they kind of have … I never understand a word that the guy says, like the lyrics, but their music is so — it creates this atmosphere that I’m really attracted to,” Jimmy said.

I asked about the common appeal of Glass Animals, Sufjan Stevens and Chance, whom Jimmy had mentioned earlier.

“With Chance, I just respect him a lot as an artist. He’s very anti-label, he releases all his music for free, he never sells albums. Seeing how much he’s accomplished as a person is just incredible: When you listen to him, you’re listening to the product of how much he’s fought against the label system and things like that,” Jimmy said.

“Is that something you strive for in your own music?” I asked.

Jimmy suddenly switched musical languages. “Being independent? As a tuba player? No, not at all! I think as a tuba player I do the exact opposite,” he said. I try and strive to be like what everyone else has been. It’s kind of the opposite. I strive to be like — I’ll listen to recordings of famous tuba players, like Pokorny and Tim Buzbee. I try to make the sounds they’re making and be able to play the way they play.”

As a tuba player, Jimmy can’t help but love those classical masterworks with pounding, intense tuba. But his sideways introduction into the world of pop music has led him to fascinating, often contradictory musical tastes. He still loves intensity in music, but looks for it in the lyrics, the atmosphere or the musician’s character, rather than the bassline.

As much as Jimmy’s mental landscape is partitioned between the musical languages he speaks, his ability to switch registers with ease makes him an engaging ambassador — of music and culture alike.

Max Kapur is a junior majoring in jazz studies and East Asian languages and culture. His column, “Ears to Hear,” runs Thursdays.