It's hard enough to believe that a single high-school stage band could win 42 out of 46 competitions entered throughout the '70s. It's even harder to believe that the same band that won those competitions did so by playing nothing but the rawest renditions of "Super Bad" and other classic funk songs of the era.
Band Director Conrad "Prof" Johnson came to the impoverished Kashmere Gardens school in and built a contest-decimating army of musicians from neighborhood kids called the Kashmere Stage Band. Many would go on to college with music scholarships, some became professional musicians, but all remember Prof and the life lessons he taught them.
Director Mark Landsman caught wind of the Kashmere Stage Band and Conrad "Prof" Johnson and set out to make a documentary to tell their story. The result is Thunder Soul, produced by Jaime Foxx. The film opens in Houston today.
Rocks Off: How did you initially discover the Kashmere Stage Band?
Mark Landsman: I was listening to NPR in my office in L.A. and I heard this huge wall of funk come across the radio. I just assumed it was one of the monster bands of the day, like the JB's or Bar-Kays, and the reporter came on and said these are 15- and 16-year-old high-school kids from Houston circa 1972, if you can believe that.
No, no, I can't believe that because they sound like professional musicians. Then Conrad "Prof" Johnson came on the radio and was telling the story of the band and how they were the only black high school band at the time, and I was just blown away.
So I Googled every Conrad Johnson that I could find in the Houston phone book and called the first one and said "Hi, I think I'm listening to you on the radio right now" and he said "Well no, this is Conrad Junior, you're listening to my father, but who are you and what do you want?"
I told him that I was a filmmaker and really inspired by his father's story and he said, "Why don't you take my father's phone number and call him up." I was so freaked out that I had Prof's phone number and it took me a week to work up the courage to call him.
He picked up the phone and said, "Who is it?" and I said "Prof, this is Mark Landsman the filmmaker" and he replied "Mark Landsman, what's wrong with you L.A. people? I've been waiting all week for you to call." That's how it all started. I was on a plane a couple weeks later to talk with him and start the process of making the film.
RO: Why is the story of the Kashmere Stage Band important to Houston?
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ML: This is a legendary music educator who created a powerhouse program from essentially nothing. He built this thing from the ground up, by the strength of his spirit, determination, perseverance and passion. Not to mention his career and musical talent.
He made such an influence on the lives of his students when they were teenagers and 35 years later, they had the inclination to come back from as far away as Portugal to honor him. It's the story of how someone can change lives and the power of music education, how that can affect a young person at a very critical moment of their lives.
Prof was like a father figure to these young people. They went on to become a powerhouse; they won 42 out of 46 competitions. They won most outstanding high-school band in the nation twice. First in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 while segregationist George Wallace was the governor. Here comes this all-black high-school band from Houston, Texas, and they take that competition by storm and they win.
RO: Why do you think this underfunded school and band program not only won competitions, but dominated most of them? How did this happen?
ML: I would attribute that to Conrad "Prof" Johnson. Prof was a professional musician; he was a significant saxophone player during the big-band jazz era. He could have gone out on tour and had a life as a successful musician, but he chose to stay home and teach music.
When Prof took the job back in 1969, he told the principal, "I'll take this job on one condition, that you let me treat these kids like professional musicians. Out in the hallway they may be 16-year-old knuckleheads, but in the band room they're professional musicians. We'll rehearse that way, we'll gig that way and we'll compete that way."
He took them into professional recording studios and pressed vinyl over the eight years so that there could be a record of their work and for the students to hear the power of the band and understand the level at which they were expected to play. Prof didn't mess around.
When Prof walked out of the room, they'd pick up and play Sly & the Family Stone or James Brown. Prof recognized that and instead of denying them, he nurtured that, and that's what made them so different from other bands. They took this popular funk music and infused it with jazz and that's what made them stand out and win competitions.
RO: So letting them actually play the music they were listening to at the time like "Super Bad" allowed them to destroy their competition?
ML: Absolutely. They were inspired. The other bands were playing watered-down Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey standards, and it was all stationary. Prof had his band choreographed with elaborate movements. They got an unforgettable show. Bands didn't do that then.
RO: With the all the attention and acclaim your film has received, it has helped foster a new amount of interest in the band, and they now perform regularly. How does that make you feel that they're back doing their thing?
ML: I love it. I think it's fantastic that Prof's music is alive and well. They play with just as much passion as they've ever had. It's beautiful. Prof was a Houston hero but he's also a national hero. We don't celebrate people like Prof enough in our culture.
RO: If people walk away from Thunder Soul having learned or experienced one thing, what would you want that to be?
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ML: How important it is to invest in music and art education. You turn kids on to that, to give them access to self-expression. If you deny a young person that, how do you expect them to get up in the morning and go to school? It's going to keep them excited about learning and help with their self-esteem.
That access to music and arts education in public schools should be a right, not a privilege.