Late in 2006 director Mark Landsman was listening to NPR and they were doing a piece on the Kashmere Stage Band. “This incredible music came through my radio and I thought it was a bold, huge big band playing a 70s funk sound,” Landsman told Free Press Houston in an exclusive interview. “I thought it was the obvious, like The Bar-Kays, and the radio reporter says ‘Can you believe these are 15 and 16-year-old students from Kashmere Senior High School in Houston Texas?’”

Landsman saw in the story a fictional narrative, a group of kids overcoming adversity on the path to worldwide recognition, on the road to winning the national high school band championship in Mobile, Alabama in 1972 (then lorded over by Governor George Wallace). At the front of the tale was the band’s conductor Conrad O. “Prof” Johnson.

“I Googled every Conrad Johnson in Houston and came up with four names. I called the first one and asked him if he was the leader of the band I was listening to on the radio. No, he told me that was his Dad; I was talking to Conrad Jr. He gave me his Dad’s phone number. I was so nervous it took me a week to build up the courage to call him. Finally I called him, and he picked up the phone. He answered, I introduced myself and Conrad said ‘What’s wrong with you? I’ve been waiting a week for you to call.’”

Landsman flew to Houston and spent about five days interviewing Johnson, and met a few of his former students. A couple of the students took Landsman to lunch and told him “Prof doesn’t realize this but some of the guys are getting back together to do a reunion in his honor.” In fact members of the Kashmere Stage Band reunited for this first time in nearly 30 years in 2008 for said reunion concert, honoring the 92-year-old Johnson.

This info made Landsman change his strategy and upon returning to Los Angeles he contacted producers and financiers to back him on a documentary. Landsman still has a deal to turn the story into a non-fictional narrative in place at a major studio. “I was inspired by how Johnson changed these people’s lives. This is a perfect storm of a phenomenal music story, and a phenomenal story about human beings.” Johnson, who had played in Count Basie’s band, took a high school band and turned them into a funk fusion band. “Prof broke the color barrier, I was interested in that time period, 1971, 1972.” Indeed flared bell-bottoms and Afro hairstyles have never looked as right as they do in Landsman’s film, a documentary the construction of which he describes as “building the bridge as we walked over it.”

Thunder Soul combines found footage with contemporary footage Landsman shot of the band’s 2008 concert. Old clips include a segment where then Texas governor Dolph Briscoe awards the Kashmere Stage Band a check for ten-grand, money needed to complete expenses for a summer trip to Europe. “I did a full court archival press to try to figure out how to get obscure film footage of this high school band. I tried every source in Texas and many outside the state and nobody had footage of the band,” lamented Landsman who at that point was going to recreate the era through a series of excellent still photos. A couple of those photos accompany this story.

“Then about two weeks into editing I got a call from a production assistant we had used in Houston. He told me he was standing on a set with a director of photography named Greg Cook and about 30-years ago Cook was working with a reporter named Charles Porter [Porter was the first male black reporter at a television station in Houston, at KTRK.] and they’d shot a 30-minute 16mm documentary on Conrad Johnson and the Kashmere Stage Band and would I be interested in using it.” Landsman also licensed footage from a 1972 documentary named Wattstax. Additionally Landsman wanted to create some impressionistic footage “just to capture the vibe of the magnificence of the band.” This he did using 35mm to shoot silhouettes as well as an early 80s tube television camera that produced those classic electronic light streaks. Thunder Soul also combines the Kashmere Stage Band recordings with live music shot during the production.

As for Johnson’s career after Kashmere, Landsman smiled, “Prof never retired. He built a studio in back of his home and he tutored hundreds of kids from that studio. There was a saying – if you studied saxophone in Houston at that time somewhere along the line your path crossed with Conrad Johnson. He taught Joe Sample, Kurt Whalem, Bubba Thomas.” Thunder Soul isn’t the kind of documentary that exposes injustice or sets out to right wrongs. Thunder Soul is the kind of movie that provides inspiration by showing how one man provided that same kind of inspiration to generations of music students. Many of the Kashmere Stage Bands record albums are now available on CD. Thunder Soul opens in Houston this Friday.

— Michael Bergeron