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As the sun starts to drop on Tuesday evenings in June, the crowds on the grass in front of the music building at Amarillo College begin to swell. There are millennial couples with young children and octogenarians in khaki shorts and short-sleeved buttoned shirts. Middle-school kids are laughing. Dogs on leashes are never far away.

They sit in their lawn chairs, sometimes next to friends, but often next to strangers simply in the search for a good spot. Some have coolers to open a drink or a sack of munchies. A few open up a paperback book they’ve been reading. 

On calm evenings with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees, the crowd can push to 1,200. They are as relaxed and mellow as the music they came to listen to.

“It’s almost iconic,” says Mark White, executive vice-president and general counsel at Amarillo College. “It’s just a well-loved event.”

It goes by the alliterative title of June Jazz, and it’s just what the two words say it is. It’s jazz music and only in the month of June. It is the idea and inspiration of AC Music Professor Dr. Jim Laughlin, who has done almost everything in the 27 years of the event except name it.

“The name came from one of our English teachers who suggested ‘June Jazz,’” he says. “It kinda stuck.”

So has the event, free to the public, for more than a quarter of a century. Each Tuesday in June, from approximately 7:30 to 9 p.m., local jazz musicians and a few from elsewhere perform this uniquely American genre of music for aficionados or just those who like to unwind with others in the dusk of a summer evening.

“The biggest thing I get is communicating something,” says Sean Vokes, a jazz pianist who once upon a time was noted for the flute. “You’re communicating an idea with the people you’re playing with and get to have fun with the people in the audience. Maybe ‘fun’ is not the right word, but an emotional connection musically.”

The Improvisation

There would be no June Jazz without Laughlin, for whom seemingly spur-of-the-moment major life decisions have seemed to work out swimmingly. McLaughlin, a native of Oklahoma City, was a young high school band director years ago. He was barely scraping by.

The school district’s lawyer, himself a former band director, was well aware of his intellect. He encouraged him to take the LSAT, the admissions test for law school candidates. It would be a career change, but one that seemed to fit his aptitude and a chance to make much more money as an attorney.

Laughlin aced the LSAT and was accepted to the University of Texas Law School. What was to be his first day of law school was almost like a scene from a cheesy movie.

“I was walking to the law school from the parking lot. I was on a sidewalk that became a ‘Y,’” he says. “To the right was the school of law and to the left was the school of music. I already had my master’s in music and I stood at that Y. I thought, ‘Do I want to go to law school or stay in music?’”

Laughlin remembered what a friend told him once, that we don’t choose music as much as music chooses us. Laughlin never made it to law school.

“I just couldn’t get away from music,” he says.

It wasn’t long after that Laughlin came through Amarillo from Oklahoma City. He was headed to San Angelo to see a friend, and then on to Austin. He stopped for gas at I-40 and Washington Street. Maybe it was fate, coincidence, or divine providence, but while getting gas he ran into a fellow saxophone player. In conversation, he told Laughlin there was a job opening teaching woodwinds at Amarillo College, which was two to three blocks to the south.

Much like the fork in the sidewalk at UT, Laughlin headed south on Washington and filled out an application. He was hired about the time he handed in the application. Laughlin never made it to Austin.

He thought he eventually would. He could see himself in Amarillo for two years. That was in 1989. He and wife Tammy now have a home in Timbercreek Canyon with Palo Duro Canyon as their backyard.

“Jim deserves some kind of medal,” says Dee Miller. “First of all, he’s a talented musician. He’s humble—he doesn’t want the accolades that go with arranging the bands. He’s considerate, gracious. He’s the kind of person you would want as your next-door neighbor. You can count on him.”

Miller and his twin brother, Oth, who turned 90 in November, endowed June Jazz with sponsorship money in 2018. The money, among other perks, allows for Laughlin to pay the musicians for their time and talent. The Millers have been faithful attendees since 2008.

“It’s the diversity of jazz, No. 1, and the bands have some very talented people,” Dee says. “You get a little bit of everything, and it’s the largest crowd that attends a performance of local bands in Amarillo. You see all kinds of people out there. You start talking to people you don’t know, introduce yourself, and you have a connection.”

The Introduction

The introductions didn’t take long in the early days of June Jazz. Those performing numbered about as many as those who listened. Laughlin had spent a summer in graduate school at the University of North Texas in the mid-1990s, where he enjoyed a Dallas-area series called “Jazz Under The Stars.” 

Laughlin wanted to try something similar here. In 1996, he invited five or six musicians to perform in the amphitheater space connected to the music building at AC. About a dozen people stopped to listen—some out of appreciation, some out of curiosity.

Laughlin was motivated to continue the series on his own time, during the summer vacation between semesters. The series was not part of his job, but part of his being.

“I just love jazz,” he says. “I’m that person that won’t go away. I just kept on and on and on. Every summer I hit the morning shows. I hit other media and put flyers out. I kept people talking about it, and really it’s been yard signs and word of mouth more than anything.

“First, it’s a free gift to the community. It’s in a safe environment and a nice location. Everyone can spread out. Kids can run around. It’s just a different kind of crowd. June Jazz is really a family crowd.”

It also gives Laughlin a chance to showcase his favorite genre of music in the heart of country music with rock ‘n’ roll not far behind. It’s hard to pin down the exact origins of jazz, though New Orleans and the late 1800s when Buddy Bolden started his first band in the Crescent City seem to be the accepted beginning.

“It’s a developed taste,” Laughlin says. “There are as many different styles of jazz as there are performers. You can get into instrumental jazz, modern jazz, jazz that originates from different cities. It’s like food. People develop a taste to certain kinds of food. If you go to a restaurant, there are so many different dishes and flavors. That’s jazz. There are so many different styles.”

Vokes is from a musical family. His parents are both trained musicians and music teachers. His father, Robert, was Juilliard-trained in New York. He went to high school in North Plainfield, New Jersey, with influential jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans.

A former band director at Amarillo High School, Sean Vokes has played all genres, but jazz is unique. He describes the tension and release of a piece, much like that in a movie or book. And then there’s something else, too.

“Jazz is different because of the improvisation to it,” he says. “You have these musicians creating ideas. Some are pre-scripted, but you respond musically in a certain way. In order to have improv, there has to be more than one person. These people need each other to exist in that context.”

The Experience

Who knows how many among 1,000 in the audience can dissect jazz in that manner? But it doesn’t really matter. So many from different walks are there because they enjoy the experience. Former West Texas A&M President Dr. Russell Long and wife Natrelle rarely miss.

“We love every bit of it,” Natrelle says. “The attraction, of course, is the music. It’s the kind of music Russell and I really like. They are so good, and we’ve listened to them for a long time. But also, just being outside in the shade and the little kids are great to watch.”

This year, June has four Tuesdays. The last five-Tuesday month was in 2021. A couple of summers before COVID, Laughlin tried to stretch June Jazz into an abbreviated July Jazz, just without the name. In addition to added expenses, crowds dwindled.

“That’s one of the top 10 questions I get—‘Why is June Jazz just in June?’” Laughlin says. “Well, it’s because of the name.”

So, beginning June 4 throughout the month, musicians including Polk Street Jazz, The Martinis and others will set up while many spread out. June Jazz has come a long way from the early days when Vokes was among those who played for a handful of listeners.

“I guess a lot of the growth has to do with consistency and quality and Jim has been just determined to make it work,” Vokes says. “I mean, who doesn’t want to sit out on a nice June evening in the Texas Panhandle, hang out with family and friends and listen to some good music?” 

Army jazz band to open June Jazz

June Jazz is always known as a showcase for talented local musicians, but this year’s season kicks off with a little outside talent in the form of the heralded 77th U.S. Army Jazz Band.

“There’s certainly plenty of opportunities for local groups, but an outside band is bringing in an outside culture, some new things to the community,” says Mark Clark, development officer at Amarillo College, whose focus is arts and entertainment. “We know the military bands are world class, so that’s something we’re going to try to continue in the future with the other branches.”

The 40 musicians of the full 77th Army Band are based out of Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, but regularly splinter off into smaller groups. For June Jazz, the “Pride of Fort Sill” will bring 14 musicians to the outside stage at Amarillo College—three saxophones, four trombones, three trumpets and a rhythm section. 

“We’re excited about it,” says Sgt. Daniel Rogers, press officer for the 77th Army Band. “We can play a lot more jazzy stuff and it gives us an opportunity to get deeper into the music.”

The 77th Army band has performed 491 “missions,” or events, since the start of 2023. These range from a bugler playing “Taps” at a memorial service to a variety of school and holiday concerts.

“Those in the jazz band enjoy traveling,” Rogers says. “We have people who are music educators and some who were musical performance majors. This is what they signed up to do.” 

The life of a gig musician in the civilian world can be a tough job, and he says the military option offers more than just income. “Now you get paid and have benefits. So if you want to get paid for a living, this is not a bad gig. Instead of us sitting in the office or playing at a military ceremony, we can also be a traveling group of professional musicians. It’s really cool,” he says.

According to Army policy, the taxpayer-funded band will perform at no cost for free-to-the-public events like June Jazz.

Author

  • Jon Mark Beilue

    Jon Mark worked at the Amarillo Globe-News from 1981 until his retirement in 2018. He spent 17 of those years as sports editor, and the last 12 as the newspaper’s general columnist. Beilue received 16 statewide and national awards for his work. He has written five books—two are collections of his columns, and the other three are on Amarillo lawyers Wales Madden and Robert Templeton, and Canyon girls basketball coach Joe Lombard. Beilue is a native of Groom and graduate of Texas Tech University. He and wife Sandy have two adult sons.

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