Joe Wyatt
Published July 17, 2019

While towing a U-Haul trailer to Austin in 1989, Jim Laughlin pulled into a gas station at the Washington Street exit on I-40 and, quite unexpectedly, abandoned his road trip and embarked instead on a lasting adventure at Amarillo College.


“While I was stopped, I ran into a friend who told me about a job just a couple of blocks away, so I went on over and applied,” Laughlin said. “I will celebrate 30 years at Amarillo College in August.


“I thought I’d spend maybe two years here,” the accomplished professor of music said. “But somewhere along the way the people of the College and the entire Amarillo community became more than my friends; they became my family.”


Laughlin, a native of Del City, Okla., completed a master’s degree in music education in 1987 at Wichita State University. He spent two years as a high school band director before setting out on that abbreviated trek to Austin and the University of Texas, where he had planned to pursue a doctoral degree in music.


Instead, Laughlin fortuitously became part of the AC fabric. But by then the woodwind virtuoso was accustomed to altering his path in ways that kept music and teaching at the forefront of his professional aims.


A lifelong jazz aficionado, Laughlin also was intrigued by science and originally contemplated the study of chemistry. Additionally, upon completing his master’s in music, he was accepted into law school at the University of Texas.


“I just naturally kept gravitating back to music,” Laughlin said. “For me, music is a part of who I am. I love teaching it and working with students of all ages. I love the first day of the fall semester when new students arrive on campus.”


After joining the AC faculty, Laughlin did acquire his doctoral degree in music education through the University of North Texas. He has never looked back.

Today he teaches a wide range of classes, from freshman music theory to audio engineering. He directs the AC jazz bands and gives numerous lessons on the same instruments he has played during 29 years as a member of the Amarillo Symphony: saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet. He has also taught flute.


“I appreciate Amarillo College so much – for the diversity of our students and the diversity of what I get to do each day,” Laughlin says. “No matter what class it is or what level of performance, when you see that light bulb come on for your students it’s very rewarding.


“For me, a good educator is someone who is able to work with the students while wearing many different hats. We have to motivate, encourage, inspire and be problem-solvers. I think our fantastic music faculty does all of that very well.”


“We have countless former music students who are successful – as performers, music teachers, in church music and many other endeavors.”


Busy though they are, very few of Laughlin’s former students likely keep a schedule as jam-packed as his. On a typical day, once he has taught multiple classes, given a private lesson or two, and likely led a rehearsal of the Jazz Ensemble, Laughlin may attend a rehearsal or performance of his own.


“I perform a lot, literally every weekend,” he says. “Playing for the Amarillo Symphony means I have to practice, practice, practice. Our conductor, Jacomo Barios, has high standards. I have to work very hard to stay on top of things.”


He also stays on top of the local jazz scene, plays plenty of gigs himself, and he originated and still coordinates June Jazz, a series of free outdoor summertime concerts that draw hundreds on Tuesdays to AC’s Washington Street Campus.


Laughlin is also in demand beyond Amarillo. He directed the All-State Jazz Ensemble in Tulsa in 2007, and he annually judges music festivals like the Oklahoma Secondary State Jazz Competition. Each summer he travels to Cincinnati, where a group of prominent music theorists, like himself, grade advanced placement music exams and exchange teaching methodologies.


“I find out how are they teaching music theory at places like Julliard, how it compares to how I’m teaching at AC,” he said. “It’s really beneficial.”


He even accepted an invitation in 2014 to attend an Educators’ Workshop hosted in San Diego by the U.S. Marine Corps, a sort of boot camp designed to provide selected educators with first-hand knowledge to impart to inquisitive students.


“I jumped at the chance because I’ve had students who expressed interest in military music careers, but I never really understood the audition process,” Laughlin said. “It was a very valuable, fun and enlightening experience.”

Although Laughlin came up short on his bygone sojourn to Austin, he’s been going the extra mile and, thanks to a classic case of serendipity, serenading Amarillo ever since.