Kismet in Kashmere
'Thunder Soul' brings the generations back together
"It was the bomb. It was the lick. It was the baddest band in the nation ...."
True musical masters are fortunetellers, truth-seekers; they see beyond the possible. Same could be said of teachers. Same could be said of filmmakers. This is the true story behind the coming-together of the documentary Thunder Soul, about the Kashmere Stage Band – a Houston high school jazz band – and the music director that led them.
"In 2007," begins Thunder Soul director Mark Landsman, "I'm listening to NPR, and this music came on – this powerful, driving, huge funk sound. And David Brown from KUT in Austin, who was doing the report, came on and said, 'Can you believe those are high school students from Houston, Texas, circa 1971?' The hair on my arms raised up."
This mysterious band had made quite the name for itself, taking this powerful sound to national high school stage-band competitions and wiping out all rivals for a period of about 10 years. "When someone tells you that there is an album called Texas Thunder Soul," says Brown, "you have to listen, don't you? It's such an audacious title." What Brown heard lived up to its titular audacity and inspired him to contact the man behind Stones Throw Records' reissue of the Kashmere Stage Band catalog, musicologist Eothen Alapatt (aka the musician Egon). Alapatt, in turn, put Brown in touch with the horse's mouth himself: Conrad O. "Prof" Johnson, the original director of the band back in the day. He was close to 90 years old.
"I went down and met him," relates Brown. "He took me to his studio in the back that was covered – remember that pressed white acoustic paneling from the Sixties and the Seventies? – covered in that. He told me about going to see Otis Redding and coming back inspired. He asked the kids if they thought that they could do a show band like that."
Brown turned this visit into the compelling piece of radio that grabbed Landsman's ears, and Landsman then took a similar trip to Prof's. He was to learn that there was so much more to the KSB story.
"He reached into our soul. He could see the future inside of us."
Gaila Johnson-Mitchell was the Kashmere Stage Band's flautist from 1976 to 1978. Like a number of her band alum, she remained in music, eventually becoming a high school band director herself. This footsteps-following meant that she stayed in touch with Prof through the years. "It was an honor when he called and said, 'You have some great stories; I want you to talk to Mark.' So I began telling what it was like to be in that time, that era, when everybody wanted to go to Kashmere."
As one of the few girls in a predominantly male environment, Johnson-Mitchell has a take on the scene that adds a depth gauge to some of the more controversial and tender parts of the story. Much of her input – perhaps due to her continued relationship with Prof – propels the film's narrative forward.
"I used to tease Prof about all the boys; he always said it was an all-male band. And I would say, 'There's girls in here.' At 17, I would tease him: 'You're always with the boys. Wouldn't that be funny if a girl had to tell what really happened in here?'"
"There were three women in the reunion band; it was predominantly male," says Landsman. "But Prof insisted that women be included." Part of the reason Prof spent more time with the boys, as explained in the film, was that so many of the young men at Kashmere had no fathers or father figures at the time.
"He was a tough, tough dude," says Landsman. "And he was 90 pounds, 5 feet. You know? Ninety pounds. There was a player, Hilton Joseph – this guy was probably 6-foot-4, maybe 300 pounds. And Prof is up in these kids' faces, holding ground."
Prof revealed to Landsman that he had his choice of positions in the district, and that when he was offered the Kashmere gig, he had one condition: "'That you allow me to treat these kids as professional musicians and nothing less.' And that was it," says Landsman. "He took them out; he trained them; they had the discipline of professional musicians."
Unlike the music programs at the white schools, swimming in funding and equipment and bopping with big-band and swing, the Kashmere Stage Band played the music of the day, and more importantly, of these young people's reality. Prof wrote scores and arrangements for them, melding jazz, R&B, and soul power. He brought the funk. And by honoring the music of his students' present, what he did was ensure their place in the future.
Once Landsman was given Prof's blessing to tell the story, the director went back to L.A. with the idea of a fictional piece. "I didn't even think of it as a documentary. I cut it as a fiction trailer, then pitched it to these producers and they freaked out. But they said: 'Our slate's full right now; we can't touch this at least for a year or so. Do you have anything else?' And I said 'Well, I just got off the phone with Prof's foundation, and these guys are talking about putting together a reunion of the band.' And that was all I had to say. The producers were like, 'Well, enjoy it.'"
"We're doin' it for the man: We're doin' it for Conrad Johnson."
Just as Conrad "Prof" Johnson had amassed his squad of elite performers 30 or so years earlier, and just as original Kashmere band members Craig Baldwin and Reginald "Rollo" Rollins were beginning to contact alumni to make the 2008 reunion to honor Prof a reality, Landsman, too, began to assemble his team: sound designer Andy Hay (Chris & Don: A Love Story and
Coachella); the graphics team of Mark Parayno and his company, Sansrival Studios in L.A., whose animation work brings yearbook pages to life; and editor Claire Didier.
"Claire is a brilliant, brilliant editor, and her hand is all over this," says Landsman. "She has a particularly incredible gift with music. She allowed the music to dictate everything. This is a film about the power of music to inspire people, to change people's lives, to help them access aspects of their soul, to uplift individuals to uplift the community, and we wanted the music to be all over this thing. She just happens to have this incredible kind of gift for cutting the music and also kind of letting scenes breathe."
Didier's editing not only honors the music, it becomes the music. Her deft handling of seamless transitions between old and new, her literal use of visual and musical segue, her willingness to slow things down – all provide an emotional backbone to the story. Her editing is as soulful as the content.
Initially, says Landsman, "I was a little flipped out that we didn't have footage. ... It's a motion picture, and I didn't want to just creatively animate photographs." Then the impossible happened: A call came out of the blue from a cameraman with the local ABC affiliate telling him that legendary African-American anchor/reporter Charles Porter had produced an unreleased 30-minute documentary called "Prof and the Band." "This guy respected Prof and the program so much, he donated the film," says Landsman of this treasure trove of footage, of band competitions, of trips overseas, of life at Kashmere. "He gave it to us."
"Timing. Prof had such great timing. While the hood was going through changes, while America was going through mutations, you could depend on Prof's solid timing."
The acquisition of the footage from the Seventies was but one "of many yeses," says Landsman. "That's how the film unfolded. I would say, 'It's just so strange what's going on; I really feel like there's like a higher hand here,' 'cause, you know, all of this kind of stuff is happening that you could never plan or predict. ... Literally the day we filmed on Prof's birthday, at his family's barbecue, the day we showed up to start filming the week leading up to the concert was the day that he was admitted into the hospital.
"I reached out to David Brown the other day. I sent him an e-mail saying, 'David, I can't help but think, I keep thinking that had I not been listening to the radio at that particular moment on that particular day to you, this whole thing might never have happened.' Timing was essential." Says Brown: "I can't take any credit. Mark Landsman took the story and really made it something special by bringing together all of these people and reintroducing the Professor so many years later. It's more than just telling a story about what happened a long time ago. It's ensuring that the reunion band is going to keep on keepin' on." The past, the present, the future is now.
Lone Star States, World Premiere
Saturday, March 13, 11am, Paramount
Monday, March 15, 6:45pm, Lamar 2
Friday, March 19, 2:30pm, Paramount