First violinist Jim Sitterly was classically trained, and classic individual

Concertmaster Jim Sitterly performed on stage, in film, and all over the Peninsula

by Erin Waldner

Painter Dan Pinkham met violinist Jim Sitterly on the school bus when the two were growing up in Palos Verdes. 

“I knew him as the blonde kid on the bus who carried a violin case,” Pinkham said. “That was unusual then.”

A poster for a performance by Jim Sitterly of his violin concerto, conducted by celebrated movie score composer Elmer Berstein

“His sister claims when Jim was six, he saw Jack Benny on TV  and he was funny and he played the violin. Jim wanted to play the violin like Jack Benny,” Pinkham said. “That was his world then.” Pinkham said.

Sitterly’s daughter, Madeline Sitterly, said: “I think he was truly put on this planet to play the violin.” She added, “It was like an extension of himself.”

Sitterly passed away Jan. 31, at age 71, following a long battle with heart disease.

Over the years he learned other instruments, as well, including the piano and guitar. 

“His whole house is filled with instruments — all kinds of instruments from all over the world,” daughter  Alexandria Sitterly said.

Sitterly graduated from Palos Verdes High School and went on to study literature and music at UC Santa Barbara. In college he put together a musical troupe called Little Emo. Sitterly’s ex-wife, Michelle Van Vliet, said it was sort of a Renaissance performance group involving musicians, clowns and ballet dancers.

“They had quite a following,” Van Vliet said.

Cellist Marston Smith met Sitterly around 1975 when both were students at UCSB. They used to compete to see who could log the most practice hours. He said one day Sitterly said to him, “Heck, forget this. Why don’t you be in my band, Little Emo?”

Jim Sitterly and former wife Michelle Van Vliet.

“It was a pretty crazy group,” Smith said, recalling the time a woman dressed in a bumble bee costume chased Sitterly around the stage while he played “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Sitterly was serious about his calling, though, and earned a doctorate in musical arts from USC and remained a student of music his whole life.

“Gosh, he was hard working,” Pinkham said. “He was dedicated. I knew not to call him during certain hours. Up until the end he was practicing bow work.”

“He would practice every single day,” Madeline Sitterly said. 

Sitterly was classically trained but had varied musical interests.

“Not only did he have the classical thing but he could also improvise jazz as well as anybody and kind of meld the two genres beautifully,” pianist and close friend Sam Sorensen said. “He was somebody that I would always trust. Very honest. A brilliant violinist and humble.”.

Madeline Sitterly described her father as brilliant. She said he could watch a movie and within five minutes  play along with the soundtrack.

Sitterly was solo violinist for pianist and composer John Tesh and performed with Tesh in hundreds of concerts. 

Sitterly can also be heard playing on many movie and TV show soundtracks, including “Avatar,” “Star Wars: Rogue One,” “Jurassic World,” “Up,” “Inside Out,” “The Incredibles” and “Incredibles II,” “Zootopia,” “Mission Impossible” and “Lost.” 

Some of these gigs came through his association with composer and conductor Michael Giacchino, who has worked on many Disney and Pixar movies and has collaborated with “Star Wars” director J.J. Abrams. Sitterly often served as Giacchino’s concertmaster (the first chair in an orchestra’s string section).

Cellist Kevan Torfeh said Sitterly enjoyed making up songs while playing the guitar.

Torfeh and Sitterly met when they toured with violinist and conductor Henri Temianka in 1985.

“We’d hang out in the back of the bus — it was an RV — and got to know each other,” Torfeh said, adding that they bonded as the two “unhip” members of the tour.

In later years Sitterly taught violin at Harbor College, where he would also give recitals.

He gave private violin lessons, as well playing at weddings, funerals, corporate events and private parties. Torfeh played with him at times and said it was always fun.

“He loved improvising,” he said.

Sorensen said when they performed at parties in Palos Verdes guests always came up to Sitterly to say hi. 

“They all knew him,” he said, adding, “He’s been kind of a fixture in the area for a long time.”

Sitterly lived in San Pedro performed in Peninsula 4th of July celebrations and concert series.

Violinist Jim Sitterly on tour with toured with pianist and composer John Tesh. violinist.

“He was always there to play for events, for friends’ funerals, for friends’ parent’s funerals,” Pinkham said.

Pinkham recalled the time Sitterly showed up at his parents’ house to play a mini violin concert for his mother’s birthday. He brought a fellow musician who had just flown in from Australia. The two changed into tuxedos in the street and surprised Pinkham’s mom. When they finished performing they had to jump back in the van because they were performing that night with Johnny Mathis.

Pinkham said Sitterly had a great heart.

When Torfeh’s mom passed away Sitterly not only played at her funeral for free, he brought 12 musician friends with him.

To his daughters, he was a wonderful father.

“He was absolutely the best father imaginable,” Madeline Sitterly said. “He put my sister and I before himself, always, no matter what.”

Her sister said that as a father, Sitterly “was just pure magic.”

She said he always supported their dreams. She started surfing this year and one day, her dad left a voice message for her in which he sang, “Little Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys.

“I’m never, ever going to get rid of it,” she said. “It was the sweetest thing.” PEN



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Written by: Erin Waldner

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