Houston’s Kashmere High School was an all-black institution in the less-than-affluent Fifth Ward of the city that once tasted glory because of the efforts of one dedicated and inspiring music teacher.
He ran the school’s stage band and helped its members fuse jazz with the emerging funk of the late ’60s and early ’70s to create a legendary sound that lifted the band, the school and the entire student body to new heights.
Thunder Soul was the name of the sound, and “Thunder Soul” is the name of the winning documentary about Conrad O. Johnson and the students he touched during his decades on the job. It’s an uplifting and entertaining film about that music and the kids who embraced it and used their band experience to launch the rest of their lives.
Johnson was not a young man by the time his glory days arrived. He’d been teaching kids jazz for decades before he, via his students, discovered James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and funk. In vintage TV interviews, Johnson recalls composing and arranging pieces in that vein, which his students further funked up with some lively showmanship.
Kashmere kids dominated competitions and toured the world. The film recalls those days, and follows a reunion concert arranged to relive them and to celebrate Johnson, a lively 92-year-old when “Thunder Soul” was made. Former students recall their high school years, which came hot on the heels of the civil rights era and right in the middle of the feminist movement. (“A girl playing trombone? You never saw that!”). They also lovingly recall Johnson: “He set incredibly high goals.” “He taught me how to be a man.” “That band was going to take me somewhere some day.”
As entertaining as it is, the film makes one serious blunder: It fails to reveal what all the seemingly prosperous former members of the band are doing with their lives nowadays. “Thunder Soul” makes the claim that former members went on to become doctors, lawyers and so forth. So why not show some examples?
Nothing would buttress the movie’s subtext — that one inspiring teacher and music education itself can make a difference — more than a few simple graphics: “Class of ’77, doctor, Taos, N.M.,” for example.