Kashmere Stage Band
The Kashmere Stage Band, originally directed by the late Conrad “Prof” Johnson, is proof positive of music’s power to improve lives, smash barriers, and establish legacies. From 1968 to 1977, the Houston, Texas, band won a record number of national titles, powered by Prof’s visionary funk arrangements, his introduction of showmanship, and—above all—his demand for straight-up chops. The band’s success culminated with receiving the Most Outstanding Stage Band in the Nation at the prestigious All-American High School Stage Band Festival in Mobile, Alabama, in 1972, followed by Japanese and European tours.
In 2008, 30 former members of the Kashmere Stage Band oiled their slides and valves, bought new reeds and strings, headed back to the old classroom at Kashmere High School, and got to work. Soon thereafter, they performed an emotional concert for then-92-year-old Prof. This reunion was chronicled in 2010’s critically lauded documentary Thunder Soul. Consider it recommended viewing—recommended by Jamie Foxx.
“One of Jamie’s associates saw Thunder Soul when it screened at the South by Southwest festival in Austin,” recalls Craig Baldwin, Artistic Director of the reformed band. “This associate contacted Jamie, and Snoot Entertainment gave him a private screening of the film in his office. Several tissue papers later, he signed on as executive producer for the film.”
The story of The Kashmere Stage Band doesn’t end with the closing credits of Thunder Soul, however. The reunion stuck, and the band has remained active. They didn’t get back in the funk of things without a little practice, however.
“Rusty? Remember the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz?" jokes Baldwin. “We were rustier. Dust followed us around like Pig Pen in A Charlie Brown Christmas. However, we challenged ourselves, conquered the rust, conquered the dust, and became Conrad O. Johnson's Kashmere Stage Band. We rehearsed two days a week for four weeks to get the funk back. In short, it was like riding a bike.”
Given the time-consuming responsibilities that come with being adults well out of high school, the band has found the right amount of flexibility to allow for international touring. “We're ready to tour, period,” asserts Baldwin. “However, most of the concert promoters and sponsors can't fund our tours due to the 25-plus members we have, so I have condensed the touring band to 12 members. At first we didn't know how it would affect the appearance of not having 25 active musicians on stage; staying true to the legacy, the brand, and the sonic effect concerned me. However, after I heard this lineup’s first three notes, my concerns got funk'd!”
Say what you might about old dogs and new tricks; the Kashmere Stage band has a new record in the works, and PreSonus® is proud to have a major part in it.
“Yes, there is a new CD forthcoming that will continue our jazz/funk agenda,” Baldwin states. “I recently acquired Studio One® Professional 2.6 to use with my new StudioLive™ 16.4.2AI digital mixer. Furthermore, my studio had to have a pair of those bad-ass Sceptre™ S8 monitors, and to complete the lineup, I got a FaderPort and AudioBox™ 44VSL. These devices were designed by, and created for, musicians, and it shows. The PreSonus workflow allows for creative thoughts to flow without being indentured by complex procedures.”
Prior to the reunion, interest in the band spiked when its recordings were sampled by producers DJ Shadow and Handsome Boy Modeling School, among others, introducing a new generation of listeners to the Kashmere sound. It’s appropriate, then, that Now-Again Records is the label responsible for releasing the band’s legacy recordings. Baldwin is grateful for the label’s efforts to preserve the Kashmere heritage.
“Several years ago, I worked for a local music store with access to an eight-track digital recorder,” Baldwin recalls. “Prof gave me all eight original albums on half-inch tapes to remix the records to be released again in a digital format. Unfortunately, they were quite damaged. Later, Eothen “Egon” Alapatt of Now-Again Records contacted Prof, came to Houston, and sifted through every recorded two-track tape Prof had stored in his home rehearsal studio. Some of these tapes were damaged, as well, mainly due to not being stored properly. But Eothen salvaged what he could and created a CD called Texas Thunder Soul 1968-1974. The restoration was difficult. Imagine if Studio One was around during those years!”
Baldwin shares a few words about how today’s schools might be able to learn a thing or two from his Kashmere Stage Band experience.
“I think band directors need to be self-sufficient,” Baldwin posits. “Prof depended on Prof. During those years, he had the stage band doing gigs one to three nights per week. The money earned from those gigs was used for band necessities. He was brilliant; he understood that his vision for us wouldn't be fruitful if he depended on the school district's support. This same brilliance prepped us for our jazz competitions, too—once Kashmere took the stage to perform, we had already won the contest prior to playing our first note. I’d also advise band directors to see the film, to see why fine arts and academic studies matter, why students matter, why negativity fails, and why having a caring, creative, and productive educator will cultivate student achievement through hard work.
“During our years, other high school music programs in the Houston area and beyond were very good,” Baldwin continues. “In fact, some of those high schools competed against us in jazz competitions—they didn't win. Today, schools in Houston, and many across America have their agendas focused on keeping school doors open and not so much on fine-arts programs. They’re fighting low attendance by students, poor test scores, teacher shortages, you name it. Fine-arts programs are dissolving across America, and it is our intent to turn that around by reaching out directly to the students. For example we surprised students at the Foshay Learning Center's music program with an appearance and Q&A, and of course we funk’d with them, too. That high school band is incredibly nasty! I'm sure there are other cool high school band programs kindred to this program, and we will find them!”
Baldwin closes with some musings on the immeasurable impact of Prof’s selfless choices.
“When Prof elected not to go on the road with some of the jazz greats like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Erskine Hawkins, this was our blessing from God. He was a creative soul with the ability to effortlessly command our attention. The man was magic in any classroom. He was a captivating preceptor; he made learning academics fun and made music the icing on a tasty cake called ‘fine arts.’ We love and miss him dearly, and we are honored to sustain his legacy through surprise appearances, live performances, and clinics, promoting both academics and fine arts. Prof argued that the two were married without the prejudices of a prenuptial agreement. We concur!
“We were the best ever during those years under his guidance, and our many first place trophies back me up,” Baldwin says with pride. “Our success was solely due to Prof's dedication, focus, and intent for his students. He was the educator who mattered the most to his students, his community, his peers and—most saliently—to his family.
“He taught life first and music second.”