Monday, September 19, 2011

Funk Ed: Thunder Soul

Conrad Johnson was like a real life Mr. Holland, but hipper and more soulful. Under his direction, the predominantly African American Kashmere High School’s stage band became one of the funkiest ensembles in the country, regardless of age or professional status. His lessons and example extended far beyond music though. For many Kashmere band alumni, words were inadequate to express their feelings for the man they called “Prof.,” but music could. Their reunion-tribute concert serves as the catalyst for Mark Landsman’s documentary, Thunder Soul (trailer here), “presented by” executive producer Jaime Foxx, which opens this Friday in New York.

By the early 1970’s, big band jazz had found a toe-hold in many high schools, but most of the charts they played were largely derived from the Stan Kenton band’s book. That is all fine and good, but Kashmere did not play anything so staid. A professional musician who chose the security of teaching, Johnson wrote some of the hardest grooving instrumental funk charts maybe ever for the enthusiastic Kashmere band. Featuring driving bass lines, blistering horn solos, and outrageous drum breaks, the Kashmere band’s self-produced recordings became highly sought after by collectors and spinners, long after Johnson retired. Hearing samples of these tracks in Thunder is a revelation.

The Kashmere band swept student competitions, overwhelming their Kentonesque competition. Their winning ways ignited a renaissance of accomplishment at the school, inspiring championship seasons for all Kashmere’s athletic teams and swelling the ranks of the honor society. Invited on international tours, the Kashmere band learned to think big. However, at the height of their legitimate fame, a new bureaucrat was appointed principal, who was confused by achievement. Essentially hounding Prof. Johnson into retirement, his leveling wind leveled Kashmere into a school currently facing potential closure. One wonders if Landsman tried to track him down, because his mea culpa moment is the only thing missing in Thunder.

Many of Johnson’s students credit him for keeping them engaged in school and safely on the straight-and-narrow. Several bluntly say he is the primary reason they are alive today. Aware his health is failing, former student Craig Baldwin assembles a reunion band to give thanks to their beloved bandleader. Quite a few of the Kashmere alumni had not touched their instruments since they graduated—and it sounded that way at first. Somehow, Baldwin whips them into fighting shape, in time to give their mentor a smoking command performance, complete with a feat of circular breathing worthy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

As documentaries go, Thunder is pretty close to perfect. Landsman keeps the film grounded in the music, without ignoring the human element. The audience meets nearly all the alumni band members, but mostly just to get a sense of Johnson’s light, as reflected by them. When the big emotional payoff comes, it is heavy and well-earned. Most importantly though, the music grooves infectiously.

Thunder is a sad reminder of how much was lost by the International Association of Jazz Educator’s premature death by financial mismanagement. Their annual conventions used to be a great opportunity to hear remarkably talented school bands jam with the pros. It has left a void for the dedicated high school bandleaders who have followed in Johnson’s footsteps. Regardless, Prof. Johnson’s story proves great teachers can make a real and lasting difference in the lives of their students. Truly inspiring and seriously funky, Thunder is a great doc, earnestly recommended when it opens this Friday (9/23) in New York and Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse.