The Return of the Kashmere Stage band
Maybe it's some mysterious cosmological force that, outside the movies, only allows storybook endings to happen around Super Bowl Sunday. However, this particular story had nothing to do with the undefeated New England Patriots allowing the 11th-hour touchdown pass that gave the underdog New York Giants one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
This came from right here in Houston, in a quadrant of the city most people only know from rap lyrics and local news reports dominated by flashing emergency lights and crime-scene tape — if they even spare a thought for neighborhoods like Trinity Gardens at all, that is. It happened at a beleaguered school threatened with closure due to low test scores for several years now, and most recently in the news when a 2007 Johns Hopkins University study labeled it a "dropout factory."
Last Friday afternoon, around 30 former members of the Kashmere High School Stage Band gathered at the near northeast side school for a tribute concert in honor of their former band director and father figure, Conrad O. "Prof" Johnson. Under Johnson's baton, the Kashmere Stage Band dominated local, regional and national band competitions more thoroughly than the Patriots have recently dominated the NFL, winning 42 of the 46 contests it entered between 1968 and Johnson's retirement in 1977.
The band room at Kashmere contains so many trophies — some as big as six feet tall — they've long since spilled from atop the uniform lockers lining one wall onto the floor. Warming up on his tenor saxophone, 1973 KHS grad and former drum major Bruce "Rick" Middleton said Johnson was "more like a friend to the students in the band, but he was a firm leader. He treated the students like musicians."
Johnson, an alto sax player, wrote or arranged all of the Kashmere Stage Band's music and often showed his students the intricacies of composition and orchestration during after-school lessons at his home. His willingness to incorporate popular music of the time like James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone into the band's repertoire not only endeared him to his students, contest judges and even Count Basie (who once said Johnson's was the best school band he'd ever heard), it gave the Kashmere Stage Band an unexpectedly long shelf life.
As hip-hop became popular, DJs like Houston-born DJ Premier of Gang Starr realized the meaty grooves and sizzling horn licks Johnson devised for his band were ideal sampling material. The band thus became known to listeners like Eothan Alapatt, who told the assembled Kashmere students, faculty and alumni on hand Friday afternoon that listening to Houston rappers Scarface and the Geto Boys during his New Haven, Connecticut, childhood indirectly led him to the Kashmere Stage Band. (In those days, school bands often recorded albums as fund-raising tools; the Kashmere band did eight.)
"I wanted to know everything that created the hip-hop I loved so much," said Alapatt, who has released several Kashmere Stage Band albums and remix 45s, plus 2006's double-disc Texas Thunder Soul anthology, on his Los Angeles-based label Stones Throw and its subsidiary Now-Again.
"So I started digging for funk records," Alapatt continued. "After a few years of trying to go deeper and deeper, buying the rarest and most regional private-press joints that lined the crates of all the producers and DJs I knew and respected, I found the Kashmere Stage Band."
Alapatt then yielded the stage to the present Kashmere Stage Band, with director Adran Tyler on bass guitar, who warmed up the crowd with marimba-heavy Latin shuffle "Blue Bossa." The opening was a little stiff and what American Idol judge Randy Jackson likes to call "pitchy," but the smallish ensemble — about a third the size of the alumni band — built up a nice head of steam by the end and received a warm reception from the full auditorium.
"We're doing a lot of rebuilding at this point," Tyler, in his first year as Kashmere band director, said later. "That's why I'm glad they came here, so [the students] can see what they're capable of. These people went to the same school, walked the same halls and they were able to do all these outstanding things."
Introduced by current KHS principal Dr. Charlotte Parker, the alumni band filed onstage and began with a slow electric piano riff that built into the huge, brawny bebop/funk number "Zero Point." They followed with "Kashmere," written by Johnson, later sampled by DJ Shadow and featuring a long, limber solo by Middleton and some delicious drum breaks from Craig Green — who, as it turns out, was Adran Tyler's band director at southwest Houston's Johnston Middle School. By this point the alumni were eating it up, applauding after solos and shouting their approval. The students were a little more reserved, but for the most part were attentive and respectful.
Slow blues ballad "Lost Love" followed, with a melody reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's Taxi Driver theme and a forceful yet elegant solo from 1983 KHS grad Anthony L. Jackson, who came up through Johnson's instruction at his former student and Houston drummer Bubbha Thomas's summer jazz workshop and today is the principal saxophone in the former bandleader's namesake orchestra. (He later said he had just returned from a gig in Rome.)
They closed with the swinging, double-time funk/rock/soul hybrid "All Praises," with Santana-esque guitar solos, a flash of "Eleanor Rigby" and Middleton's demonstration of "circular breathing," which he said he learned from Grover Washington Jr. The saxophonist held one note for an impossibly long interval — several minutes at least — as conductor Craig Baldwin cavorted about the stage, the other horns rocked their instruments back and forth in time to the beat and the crowd, students included, went absolutely apeshit. Not to put too fine a point on it or anything.
When the ensuing standing ovation died down, finally, principal Parker recognized Conrad Johnson, sitting front row center, and the ovation started right back up again. The tiny, exceedingly frail gentleman, who had been wheeled into the auditorium earlier as L.A. filmmaker Mark Landsman's camera crew rolled away, was helped to his feet and managed to address the crowd.
"All I can say is... thank you," he rasped. "We appreciate the fact you like our music."
Barely 48 hours later, as most of the country's attention was focused on the Super Bowl, Conrad O. "Prof" Johnson passed away. He was 92 years old, and his music was still affecting young lives.
"I ain't really interested in that kind of music. They had some uptempo stuff, but I like music you can really dance to," said KHS senior and Chamillionaire fan Horace Harris after Friday's performance. "But it was a good show."
Freshman Bernardo Resendez agreed, to an even greater degree. A Lil Wayne fan, he admitted he also hadn't given jazz and funk much thought before Friday.
"But," Resendez added, "I'm going to start." — C.G.
Since the demise of the Soul Rebels Brass Band's packed Monday-night shows at Almeda Boulevard joint the Libra Lounge, the New Orleans/Houston brass-band scene has been fairly quiet. (Or at least hard for Racket to find.) That changed Saturday, when Bohemeo's hosted a Mardi Gras weekend party starring the Voodoo Brass Band, a group I had not heard of.
What's exciting to me about the VBB is that they proudly claim Houston (and Houston alone) as home on their MySpace; that was not the case with the New Birth nor the Soul Rebels, both of whom claimed the Big Easy wholly or in part as home.
The show was hosted by the Surviving Katrina and Rita Project, the hugely ambitious ongoing oral history project in which the people victimized in that surreal summer document their own histories. Folklorist Pat Jasper is one of the project's planners, and she booked the VBB at this show.
Before they took the stage, she confessed that she didn't really know what to expect. "Brass bands are like mariachis — you never know who is going to play at any given show," she said. "They are event-based groups."
When the band took the stage at Bohemeo's, I only recognized Soul Rebels tuba man Damion Francois — a thirtysomething guy who looks like a relative of Bun B. Francois was accompanied by a bass drummer who looked to be in his thirties, as well as two trumpeters, a snare drummer and a trombonist who appeared to range in age from 13 to 20. I was told that at least one of them was enrolled at TSU, also the alma mater of the Soul Rebels drummer/leader Lumar LeBlanc.
Tentative at first, the band hit its stride when the rhythm section launched into the rollin' beat to "They Don't Know," the Soul Rebels' graceful and magnificent instrumental from their 2005 album Rebelution. By the end of the tune, everybody in the little coffee shop was clapping to the beat and stomping their feet.
Jelly Roll Morton once said that for jazz to be jazz it must have what he called "the Spanish tinge, " and "They Don't Know" has that, even more literally than Morton meant. Morton was using "Spanish" as a catch-all term for music from Latin America, but the textured horns and amazing crescendo of "They Don't Know" remind me of the utterly dramatic music you hear amid the bloody grandeur and glittering spectacle of a plaza de toros in Madrid.
But we weren't in a Castilian plaza de toros, we were in Telephone Road's Plaza Tlaquepaque. A couple of weeks ago, I wondered in this space about what form Houston's next signature sound might take. Could this be a hint? You have to think that Houston's one of the only places on Earth where you can hear New Orleans brass band music in a coffeehouse with a Spanish name across from a Thai restaurant in a plaza named after a Nahuatl-speaking Mexican saint.
Former Los Skarnales bassist Nick Gaitan, whose new genre-melding group Umbrella Man followed the VBB on the stage, is already soaking up the influence. "I am thinking of adding another drummer to play with Beans [Wheeler] in my band," he told me. "I really love the rhythms these brass bands jam." — J.N.L.
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