It sounds like an inspirational Hollywood drama: In 1969, a jazz saxophonist takes a job teaching music at a destitute high school in inner-city Houston. Inspired by popular soul and funk revues, he turns his ragtag group of at-risk youth into the finest high school band in the country—and one of the most respected funk bands around. With their platform shoes, butterfly collars and wah-wah guitars, the Kashmere Stage Band shakes off the image of a staid, high school jazz big band, wins 42 competitions and records eight albums over the next 10 years. With the rise of hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s, producers and DJs rediscover and sample Kashmere’s music, introducing a new generation to the band that defied improbability to become cult heroes.
When documentarian Mark Landsman heard about Kashmere and the 2008 shows honoring their teacher, Conrad “Prof” Johnson, he knew he had to catch the celebration on film. Johnson, then 92, had suffered a heart attack recently, but he dragged himself from a hospital bed to attend. Many of his students hadn’t played in decades, but they dusted off their instruments and their old tunes to honor the teacher who had helped them not just survive, but thrive, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country.
The resulting documentary, Thunder Soul, which premieres March 11 at the South by Southwest Film Festival, isn’t just the story of a teacher and the band he built. The film explores how traditions are carried on and reconstituted by next generations. Johnson made Kashmere a success by pushing students to dig deep into the roots of modern-day funk and soul, turning them on to the great Texas tenor saxophonists of the 1940s and ’50s, and the cutting tone and syncopation of Texas-style blues guitar. Twenty years later, kids searching for the next big thing dug into Kashmere Stage Band records and found the raw material for their own cut-and-paste approach to music. Suddenly, owning a Kashmere record was like knowing a secret handshake; it meant you were in the inner circle of the hip-hop revolution.
At the center was Prof Johnson, who died barely 24 hours after the Kashmere reunion concert ended (how’s that for a Hollywood ending?). Like any teacher worth the title, Johnson introduced his students to the past, opened the door to the future and then got out of the way.