By LISA EASTMAN
Judge Jim Johnson has a love for not just the law, but music too.
Judge Johnson practiced law for about 35 years, was a district judge for 10 years and taught business law at Kansas State University for 22 years. He also played in the original Topeka Jazz Workshop Band and almost made his music a lifetime career.
Johnson keeps busy in his retirement. He enjoys reading, gardening, traveling and sailing. He also plays both the drums and trumpet. A self-proclaimed “crossword puzzle fiend”, he can frequently be found working on one in his office. He is especially proud of his backyard Koi pond, that he claims he was talked into by his daughter.
In the Navy, Judge Johnson, then known as Seaman Johnson, was stationed at The Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif., just across the bay from San Diego. Johnson played the trumpet in the Navy’s number one jazz band.
“That’s the Navy’s best and I felt pretty good about playing lead trumpet,” he said.
He played in L.A. with different bands and got involved in Les Brown’s band. Les Brown was a star in the music world, performing with Doris Day, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Johnson was, in his words, “mightily interested.”
After the Navy, Johnson returned home to Kansas and attended the University of Kansas. He came home one day and heard from his roommates that he had missed a long-distance call from New York City. It was 1957, and according to Johnson, “I had a life-changing decision to make.”
“I was at the University of Kansas getting ready to enroll in law school,” Johnson said.
He returned the call and was greeted with, “Hey, man, you want a gig?”
When he heard that the offer was that of playing lead trumpet for the legendary “Les Brown and His Band of Renown,” he decided that he just might have to think it over.
Johnson was already aware of what the rate of pay was after his days with the bands in L.A.
“Les would only work you 2-3 nights a week and the rest of the time is yours, TV gigs or whatever you want to do,” Johnson said. “This was the 1950s and they were getting 50 bucks for a half-hour rehearsal and $100 for a half-hour recording. It’s good money so I had to think about that.”
One of the other things he thought about was the story of a fellow trumpet player, Rafael Mendez.
“He was an excellent trumpet player, maybe the best all-around trumpet player I’ve ever heard,” he said. “I knew him quite well. He was caught in a revolving door, it banged him across the mouth, split both lips and his career was over. That was one of the things going through my mind. I thought, if I take law, they can’t take that away from me.”
In the end, the law won.
Judge Johnson was recruited out of law school by local attorney Bob Royer. In 1960 right after his law school graduation, Johnson bought a brand new Oldsmobile convertible and headed to Abilene.
Les Brown died in 2001, and at that time was named in The Guinness Book of World Records as the leader of the longest lasting musical organization in pop music history.
When questioned about whether he ever thought about the life he would have had if he had given a different answer to that 1950’s phone call, Johnson replies,
“Oh, have I ever,” he said. “It would have been fun to see what would have happened.”