L.A. Studio Legends: Jim Walker

Legendary flutist discusses his life as a studio musician recording hundreds of film and television scores, including his many collaborations with John Williams on The River, Jurassic Park and Memoirs of a Geisha

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There are few other musicians around the world who are as versatile and brilliant as flute legend Jim Walker. From classical to jazz to television and film to the concert hall, Walker has brilliantly showcased his incredible musicianship for 50+ years.

After completing classical studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and a stint in the US Military Academy Band at West Point, in 1969 Jim Walker landed the prestigious post of Associate Principal Flute at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Eight years later, he won a position as Principal Flute at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the first works he performed with the L.A. Phil was the Symphonic Suite from Star Wars by John Williams as conducted by Zubin Mehta for a now-legendary recording for Decca Records.

Despite always wanting to become a classical musician and the prestige of the position, Walker continued also to explore different and alternative venues to perform and push his music-making to further levels. The lively club scene in L.A. pushed him to further explore his love for jazz music and to form his own jazz quartet called Free Flight, with flute, keyboard, bass and drum performing jazz/classical fusion pieces. The group appeared on the Tonight Show, The Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and the Playboy Jazz Festival. Their recordings have always received rave reviews and are unique on the music landscape.

Jim Walker’s jazz quartet Free Flight

Around the same time, Walker started to become very active also as a studio musician for film and television recordings. His first major prominent part was assigned to him by John Williams in 1984—the composer picked Walker as soloist for the score of the film The River, directed by Mark Rydell and starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek. The blues-y, almost jazz-like tone required by Williams’s compositions for the film put Walker on the spotlight, showcasing his exquisite playing both as soloist and in duet with acoustic guitar (played by another legendary studio musician, Tommy Tedesco). For that score, Walker was given a prominent soloist credit both in the film and the soundtrack album (something that would become a regular habit in the following years, showing Williams’s immense respect and admiration for the members of his orchestra).

Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek in “The River” (1984), directed by Mark Rydell, with music by John Williams featuring soloists Jim Walker (flute), Tommy Tedesco (guitar) and Warren Luening (trumpet)

From that moment on, Jim’s career as studio musician skyrocketed, becoming one of the first-call flutist in Los Angeles for almost three decades. He was part of the flute section in virtually all of John Williams’s recordings in Los Angeles (often together with Sheridon Stokes, Louise Di Tullio, David Shostac, Geraldine Rotella and Heather Clarke) until 2008, including some of Williams’s biggest hits such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Home Alone, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Walker can also also be heard as soloist/1st flute in scores such as Amistad, The Patriot, Catch Me If You Can and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Jim Walker has performed in literally thousands of film and television scores from the mid-1980s until 2010. His versatility and incredible dexterity was appreciated by some of Hollywood’s top film composers including Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Elmer Bernstein, Randy Newman, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, Michael Kamen, James Newton Howard, and his playing can be heard in box office hits such as Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Finding Nemo, but also beloved classics like Awakenings, Edward Scissorhands, Cocoon.

Illustration by Gianmaria Caschetto © 2020

Jim Walker is now committed to teaching more than ever. As he was filled by great teachers during his upbringing in native Kentucky and his formation years (he studied with renowned flutists such as Harold Bennett, James Pellerite and Claude Monteaux), Walker today gives back to young flute players and aspiring future talents as Professor of Practice and Coordinator of Flute Studies at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and Professor of Flute and Chamber Music at The Colburn Conservatory of Music. Jim has taught hundreds of flutists at these renowned institutions. Many of them have gone on to successful orchestral careers, holding Principal Flute chairs in major symphonies from Phoenix to Boston to Beijing. Jim is also the founder of Beyond The Masterclass, a full week of seminars he hosts annually at the Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles which combines the traditional masterclass environment with special seminars designed to expand a flutist’s horizons outside the “flute performance major” mentality that exists at most music schools and conservatories.

Jim Walker performing with students of the “Beyond the Masterclass” series in Los Angeles

Because of the pandemic emergency, this year’s edition was held from July 19 to July 25 exclusively through live-streaming seminars and lessons. The ending recital included exquisite performances by Jim Walker (accompanied at piano by Bryan Pezzone).

In this in-depth conversation, Jim talks about his musical life, from his upbringing in Kentucky to his arrival in Los Angeles as the Principal Flute of the LA Phil and his work as a studio musician for films and television scores. He talks extensively about his many collaborations with John Williams, including his soloist work on The River and Memoirs of a Geisha, but also the very challenging parts he had to perform in scores such as Hook and Jurassic Park, offering his own detailed look on Williams’s music as seen from the performer’s unique point of view.

Many thanks to Jim Walker for his kindness and generosity. Visit his website jimwalkerflute.com for more information about his career and his activity as teacher.

Special thanks to Pietro Rustichelli for the help and collaboration.

Jim Walker at the Colburn Faculty

List of musical excerpts featured in the episode:

. John Williams, “The Hotel” from The River (1984)
. Free Flight, “Paganini Caprice (Caprice No.5)”, from the album The Jazz/Classical Union (1982)
. John Williams, “The ‘Float'” from Catch Me If You Can (2002)
. John Williams, “The Pony Ride” from The River (1984)
. Johannes Brahms, Symphony No.1, Mvt. IV, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini; Jim Walker, solo flute (live recording from 1981)
. Free Flight, “Blue Rondo à la Turk”, from the album The Jazz/Classical Union (1982)
. John Williams, “Princess Leia’s Theme” from Star Wars – Symphonic Suite (1977), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta
. John Williams, “The Throne Room and Finale” from Star Wars – Symphonic Suite (1977), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta
. John Williams, “Love Theme from The River” from The River (1984)
. John Williams, “Main Title (Rain Clouds Gather)” from The River (1984)
. Jerry Goldsmith, “Practice” from The River Wild (1994)
. John Williams, “Growing Up” from The River (1984)
. John Williams, “Sierra Leone 1839 and the Capture of Cinqué” from Amistad (1997)
. John Williams, “Blowing Off Steam” from Far and Away (1992)
. John Williams, “Cinqué’s Theme” from Amistad (1997)
. John Williams, “The T-Rex Chase” and “T-Rex Rescue and Finale” from Jurassic Park (1993)
. John Williams, “Joe Sr.’s Passing” from Far and Away (1992); Judd Miller, electronic wind instrument
. John Williams, Concerto for Flute (1969-1981), London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin; Peter Lloyd, flute
. John Williams, “Confluence” from Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
. John Williams, “The Patriot” and “Ann and Gabriel” from The Patriot (2000)
. John Williams “The Arrival of Tink and Flight to Neverland” and “Pan is Challenged” from Hook (1991)
. John Williams, “The Mine Car Chase” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
. John Williams, “Remembering Childhood” from Hook (1991)
. Jerry Goldsmith, “The Neighborhood—Day” from Poltergeist (1982)
. John Williams, “Young Friends Farewell” from The River (1984)
. John Williams, “The Patriot (Reprise)” from The Patriot (2000)

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