Rock and a Not-So-Hard Place

If he hadn’t found the perfect parking spot outside a restaurant in suburban Chicago years ago, Jim Johnson might never have discovered his ideal career.

The Regis alumnus was visiting family, and when everybody went to dinner one night, he pulled into a space outside something called School of Rock. “I said, ‘I’ve got to go inside and see this place.’ And they told me about the program,” in which aspiring Mick Jaggers and Joan Jetts — both young and not-so-young — learn electric guitar, drums or vocals, and perform live shows.

“I said, ‘Do you have this in Denver?’”

Turns out, they did. And a few months later, Johnson was running it.

The premise is simple. School of Rock offers several programs, grouped by age and musical acumen. Most programs include private lessons, regular group rehearsals, and chances to perform live — sometimes for parents and friends, and sometime for large, public audiences.

"Music has always been a part of my life. And so, for Christmas of 2020 — I got told that I was going to School of Rock and I got really excited."
- Vada, 12, vocals, guitar, bass, percussions, keys — 2 years with School of Rock

Three School of Rock students on stage. Student on the right is singing into a microphone. Student on the left is playing the guitar. Student behind them is on the drums.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Lucas T., Matthew L., Vada M.

In Denver, the School of Rock House Band — students audition to join — often plays public events and recently opened for Film on the Rocks at Red Rocks Amphitheater. And Johnson is hoping a School of Rock performance band can add musical accompaniment to some Regis sporting events.

Not all of rock stardom is family-friendly, of course. Guitar-smashing, hotel-room trashing and other nonG-rated pursuits associated with the rock lifestyle are not included in the curriculum. And for younger kids, S.O.R. does change lyrics when necessary. “But most of the time we’ll play it as written as long as there’s artistic merit,” Johnson said. Sometimes in performances that artistic merit comes with a parental warning, he said.

Proving that art indeed imitates life, School of Rock pre-dated the Jack Black movie by five years. The first School of Rock opened in 1998, fittingly, in Philadelphia — home of American Bandstand and Chubby Checker.

It didn’t take long for locations to pop up all over. One of the first schools west of the Mississippi opened in 2008, also fittingly, in Denver — site of the first North American performances by Led Zeppelin and Queen. (The latter, by the way, took place in the Regis Field House.)

Now, there are more than 300 Schools of Rock worldwide, 10 in Colorado. Music had long been a big part of Johnson’s life, from piano lessons starting around age 5 to playing keyboard in a band while a Regis student and after graduating in 1996. He also learned the ins and outs of event staging, starting when The Samples came to campus in 1993.

“The Field House was looking for volunteers to help with a Halloween show my sophomore year,” Johnson said. “I’d been on stage many times but I’d never seen how a show comes together. I ended up working backstage and hosting the band. It was a really cool experience.”

It was not exactly the experience he set out to have — on paper at least — when he enrolled at Regis. Johnson’s parents wanted him to attend either a Catholic high school or college. Growing up outside Chicago, Johnson knew the reputation of Hinsdale Central High School’s jazz band. So he penciled in Catholic education for college, and that paid off. First he got to travel with the Hinsdale jazz band, even sitting in with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Tonight Show Band from the Johnny Carson years.

Then he found his home, in Colorado. When it came time to choose a Catholic college, he didn’t hesitate. “My dad grew up in Denver. I already knew what Colorado and Denver were like and I decided Regis was the place for me.”

"The main thing is that I like performing. I see all these people here who have been doing this for a long time, and I want to become that level."
- Logan, 12, guitar — 2 years with School of Rock

Jim Johnson sits down in front of his students from the School of Rock
TOP ROW STANDING LEFT TO RIGHT: Wolf S., Vada M. BOTTOM ROW SITTING LEFT TO RIGHT: Lucas T., Hendrix D., Matthew L., Logan C., Grace F., Ashlynn H., Addie R., Clayton Z. FRONT: Jim Johnson

He began his Regis career as a biology major on the pre-med track, but quickly figured out that wasn’t for him. Before the end of his freshman year, he was in a band. “A philosophy professor was our singer. We did a set at Ranger Day.”

After he graduated in 1996, Johnson worked days at a brewery and played music at night. The band did well, performing frequently in Evergreen, at Herman’s Hideaway and the bar that became the late, lamented Local 46 in northwest Denver.

Eventually, Johnson yearned for a steady income and stability. That’s when he started on the path that led him to event planning. He learned a lot, and earned steady paychecks. But something was missing.

“I had a great job with the city [of Denver] managing event facilities. But I needed to get back to what I was really enjoying,” Johnson said.

So in 2008, a few months after that fateful dinner outing, he took over management of Denver’s School of Rock; in 2014 he bought the franchise. Johnson hasn’t forgotten the Jesuit values that distinguish a Regis education; he’s a proponent of scholarships at S.O.R., and set up a non-profit to administer them. “Yes, it’s a for-profit business and I have to provide for my family. But I want to provide the experience in music I had and those opportunities are not available in school anymore.”

“This is the best part of my life. I love drumming, and honestly, being here is a lot of fun, and the people here are great. My instructors have just been amazing.”
- Wolf, 17, drums — 2 years with School of Rock

Student is sitting down on stage playing the bass
Ashlynn H.

Most of S.O.R.’s little drummer boys and shredder girls won’t go on to rock stardom, and don’t intend to. The majority just want to have a fun, cool experience, Johnson said.

Whatever their career goals, Johnson’s School of Rock students learn valuable lessons, from being at ease on stage to the keys to success in any field. “Talent is overrated,” Johnson said.

“There’s no substitute for hard work and patience.”