Back in the 1970s when it was rare to have an all-black band, especially one with a black band director, Houston’s Kashmere Stage Band reigned as the baddest funk band in the nation. They swept national and international competitions in Europe and Japan and had a technical proficiency and soul that could not be duplicated. More than merely playing instruments, the Kashmere Stage Band was a show band – dancing, grooving, moving their horns in ways that made other bands envious.
“The recording was just a facsimile. The magnificence in the band was in the live performance.”
The Kashmere Stage Band was entirely a reflection of one man’s vision: Conrad O. Johnson, known to his band as ‘Prof. O’ or simply ‘Prof.’ Born in 1915, Conrad Johnson attended Houston College for Negroes, then Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. Though he could have been a professional musician or worked anywhere with his qualifications, he took a job in Houston to stay home in the Fifth Ward and teach music to high school students.
In the film, Thunder Soul produced by Jamie Foxx and directed by Mark Landsman, the members of the Kashmere Stage Band reunite for the first time in over 30 years to play a tribute to Conrad Johnson.
To the band members, Prof was more than a band director. Many of the men in the band gravitated to him, not having father figures in their lives. ‘He didn’t just teach us the music. He taught us how to be men.’
He was a mentor to students and encouraged them to become disciplined and set high expectations for success.
The band’s success and the spirit of winning at Kashmere High School spread to other teams like ROTC, football, basketball, and debate team, and led to students’ higher achievement in the national honors society and attaining scholarships. The Kashmere Stage Band was a source of pride for the school and the community.
The film alludes to harassment from a new principal and administration and decreased funding leading to a rocky end of Conrad Johnson’s relationship with Kashmere High School. But the focus is more on his achievements and legacy and less on his setbacks with the school administration.
As the band students reminisce upon their glory days in Kashmere Stage Band, a sense of pride emerges from their narratives, a pride that comes from the 1960s and 1970s black power era of round afros and proud platform shoes and from the confidence of knowing that even at such a young age, you can compete with anybody.
The band’s reunion performance in the film showed that “they still got it” – the Kashmere Stage Band could wow a crowd in 2008, just like in the 1970s.
Two days after the performance, the band received news that Prof had passed in his sleep. But before he left, he understood that ‘his legacy was safe.’
His career included 37 years of teaching and an impressive stint as a band director. He was married 52 years. He had just celebrated his 92nd birthday and greeted his great grand children. He lived a full life and was fortunate to share his love for music with everyone within his reach.
Since 1999, The Conrad O. Johnson Music and Fine Arts Foundation has brought music education to over 40,000 youth in Houston. And since the Kashmere Stage Band reunion performance, they have officially reformed as the Kashmere Alumni Stage Band.
Prof accomplished just what he set out to do, which is leave a legacy for future generations of children. He said: