Legenday High School Band reunites in One-of-A-Kind Documentary Film
When an acclaimed high school stage band reunites after 30 years to pay tribute to the legendary band director who lent his musical genius and unmatched showmanship to transform a group of students into the ‘baddest’ high school stage band in the country, you take notice.
If you are a independent filmmaker out of Los Angeles, you take your camera and let it “roll like a snowball” to create a one-of-a-kind documentary that captures a slice of life never before seen on film.
That is what Mark Landsman, a filmmaker out of LA, did when he heard a radio segment featuring former Kashmere High School Band Director Conrad O. Johnson on National Public Radio in 2006.When Landsman first heard “this incredible sound” coming through his radio speakers, he thought it was a funk band like the Bar-Kays or JB’s or a similar funk band from the early 70s.”I was shocked when the announcer said that the band was comprised of 15- and 16-year-old high school students from Houston, Texas, circa the early 1970s, and literally got goose bumps that young people could make that tight and professional of a sound,” says Landsman.
After listening to the interview with the group’s band director, Conrad O. Johnson, called “Prof” by his students,” Landsman immediately searched for every Conrad Johnson he could find on the Internet.
The first call he made put him in touch with Conrad Johnson’s son.
“When the man answered, I said I think I was listening to you on the radio and the man said he was Prof’s son and encouraged me to call him,” shares Landsman.
Despite the urgency to make contact, it took Landsman a week before he worked up the courage to make the call.
“When I called, Prof picked up the phone and I told him I was Marks Landsman a filmmaker from LA and he said “Mark Landsman what is wrong with you man, I have been waiting all week for your call,” shares Landsman.
Within two weeks Landsman was on a plane to meet Johnson and start a process that would culminate in the creation of “Thunder Soul,” a documentary film project chronicling the history of the legendary stage band and its legendary director.
“The rest is history,” says the LA filmmaker.
The film earned several audience and Best Documentary awards at several independent film festivals.
At the Los Angeles Film Festival, where the film played to a packed audience, the screen was raised at the end of the film revealing 30 members of the legendary stage band who flawlessly brought to life the music that won them acclaim in the 70s.
“Grown mean and women were running down to the front of the stage to dance. People were going crazy,” says Landsman.
As Landsman took in the audience’s excitement, a woman walked up to him and said, ‘My uncle would have loved to have seen this.’
“I asked her ‘who her uncle was,” and she said, ‘Marvin Gaye.’
“I literally welled up with tears,” says Landsman.
A number of people from the entertainment industry were at the festival that night garnering attention for the documentary, including executives with Roadside Attractions, who later signed as distributors of “Thunder Soul.”
Within days of the festival, Jamie Foxx also signed on as executive producer of the documentary after his assistant brought the project to his attention.
“Jamie loved it and this story hit home for him really profoundly. He is from Terrell, Texas and grew up learning music in the church, and his music experience really paralleled the experience of a lot of these band members,” says Landsman.
The documentary film is set to premiere on Sept. 23 in select cities nationwide. For information, visit http://thundersoulmovie.com.
Empower Magazine was recently granted an exclusive interview with two members of the legendary stage band to discuss the events that reunited band members after 30 years for a one-of-a-kind tribute to their high school band director and culminated in the making of the documentary film, “Thunder Soul.”
Craig Baldwin, a member of the band, served as conductor in the film for the stage band reunion. Fellow band member, Reginald (Rollo) Rollins, serves on the board of directors of the Conrad Johnson Music and Fine Arts Foundation. Various members of “Thunder Soul,” the Kashmere High School Stage Band, took part in the making of the soon-to-be-released documentary film project.
Q. Share your first recollections of hearing the stage band perform.
My sister and I were singing a Temptation’s song when my mother came into the room and told us to be quiet because the Kashmere Stage Band was coming on TV. When we walked away I heard this beautiful sound and came back in the room and saw this little guy with an insane amount of people around him. I remember saying at that moment “I want to be in that band.”
What impact did Conrad Johnson have on your life?
Me and a friend of mine drank a beer before school and went back on the campus and Prof was coming out of the band room and walked past us and then stopped in his tracks and turned around and told us “Hey man I can’t have that in my band,” and we asked him what he was talking about. He didn’t say anything, but gave us that look like you know what I am talking about and then kind of looked at us and smiled and just walked away. From that point on I never drank again when it came to that stage band. From that point on it was all about the music.
What do your believe led him to set aside his own professional music aspirations?
I believe the transition occurred for Prof when he decided that he was going to stay home and be with Bertie, his wife, and be a family man.
He knew a lot of music greats, such as Thad Jones, Joe Sample, Mel Lewis, Count Basie, Grover Washington Jr., Ronnie and Hubert Laws and Arnett Cobb, who was Prof ‘s best friend, and played along side some of them. They heard about us and when they would come to town they would come to the band room to listen to us play.
Describe the magic and innovation of Conrad Johnson.
He was one of the most innovative musicians you would want to meet when it came to conducting and directing and listening, he was a great listener. He tailor made the songs for us, while other people were playing chart music. He was a seamstress and he made it work and wrote songs specifically for us or rearranged a song and stylized it for the Kashmere Stage Band.
After rehearsals, the drummer would start playing a beat, the bass player would start playing a beat, and then Prof would hear that and he would go and write a chart and then bring it back and then incorporated that funky groove that they were playing and all of a sudden that Kashmere sound started getting purer and purer by the moment.
Q. What made the band so special?
Kashmere was the first all black band to start participating in what was formerly all white band contests and when they hit the stage they walked out with big Afros dressed in black three-piece suits, with ties, and got everybody’s attention just by their looks. That came from Prof.
Then when they hit that first note, it was a sound that no other band had ever heard before. Then they started throwing that choreography around and moving their horns and trumpets up and down, and no one else was doing anything like that back then. From 1969 to 1977, the band won 42 of 46 contests and recorded eight albums.
Prof taught us to be students of the game. He studied the greats like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, The Dorsey Brothers and people that you wouldn’t think he would listen to like James Brown and Sly Stone. He was brilliant enough to merge all that energy together and come up with this melting pot and see what it smells like when you open it up. Prof was a showman too, and he would put on a show and jump across the stage, he would do things to entertain the audience. He took the Thunder Soul Marching Band sound and added an element of jazz funk and rhythm that no one else was doing back then. And from that point on, as he was often quoted as saying, ‘It just rolled like snowball.’
Q. So the Kashmere Stage Band sound and legacy preceded you?
Yes, we came later, but the band started in 1969 and they created a type of music and the whole Kashmere Stage Band idea and went on to do some extraordinary things, performing at a level that no one had ever seen before. People had never seen anything like it they had a sound that was so powerful and were blowing bands off of the stage to the point other bands were intimidated.
The legacy had grown by the time we got there, but it was up to us to maintain it and live up to what these guys had created. The previous graduating class of band members would always come to the next class and get in our faces and tell us “You Better Not Lose.” It had becomea band tradition.
Describe what inspired the initial reunion of stage band members after 30 years.
Mingo Walton, a band member, had a cassette recording of one of our last national competitions at the Reno Jazz Festival and pulled it out and converted it to a CD, and that is what brought us all back together. I made a call to Craig to tell him we are putting the stage band back together to perform two tribute concerts for Prof and told him he was going to find and bring the band members back together and I would handle the business side of it. We had just began preparing for the reunion concerts when Prof received a call from LA filmmaker Mark Landsman expressing interest in doing a documentary film. All of this emanated from a 99 cent cassette and here we are about to premiere this documentary film under executive producer Jamie Foxx.
What was the most memorable part of reuniting with fellow band members?
For me the most memorable aspect was directing a bunch of professional musicians who are now PhDs in different fields and brilliant minds when it comes to music, and here I am I can’t read a lick of music and they are trusting me to do what Prof did for us. My guiding source was Conrad Johnson and I was channeling what Prof used to do, it was a collective effort of each of us and the mindset of each member. I just wanted to show Prof that we could still do it.
Share your impressions of the documentary film.
The documentary will make you cry. Even when I discuss it right now, chills start going through me. I really have to commend Mark Landsman, never once did he ever stop the film and direct us to do things a certain way, he just let the film roll and captured it just the way it was.
People do extraordinary things in life all the time, people write books about it, tell stories about it, make movies about it, but people don’t get to relive it. That is what we are doing, and that never happens. We did this back in the 70s and now it has come full circle around and we are in the stage band again and we are reliving it again after 30 years.
Sum up your feelings about Conrad O. Johnson and the legacy he left behind.
He was more than just a band director to us. the education, the mentoring, all those things we don’t get today. I don’t know how he had time to have a moment for himself, a moment for his family, a moment for us, but he did and he gave us his all and poured his soul into us.
We have to make sure that before we expire that the world knows who Conrad O. Johnson was and to ensure his youth foundation lives on. The intent now is to prepare Conrad O. Johnson type shows and go out and show them that it was not just a fluke. The band is hot, it is kicking right now and is entertaining.
For general information about the Foundation e-mail foundation@conradjohnsonfoundation.