Thunder Soul; or, a Secretary for the Arts?

by Katherine McNamara

Thunder Soul

A terrific documentary comes your way early this summer: Thunder Soul, about the legendary Kashmere Stage Band and its inspired leader, Conrad O. Johnson. The film's director is Mark Landsman, who is very good at catching energy on screen. Music, kids at risk, a black high school in Houston, a first-rate musician who taught “his” pupils how to be the very best players in their world: that is Landsman's happy subject. His film is not sentimental or, even worse, a “celebration”: it knows its cinematic values and serves them straight up: excellence, to start with; excellence, to finish. He conveys joy in every direction with no unearned emotion; cutting, framing, pacing with precision and surprise.

Conrad O. Johnson was a jazz performer, arranger, and composer who was going to go on the road in the '60s, until he met a strong, pretty woman, Mama Birdie, as she came to be called, who agreed to marry him. In turn, he agreed to stay home, to be with her and the four children they would have, and find work locally. He taught band at various schools, then in 1969, moved to Kashmere High School, in North Houston, a closely-knit African-American part of town, where the principal, rightly, gave him free run of the music program.

The film opens in 2008, when Craig Baldwin, one of Johnson's former musicians (1975) and a self-described “near felon” in the old days, helps organize a reunion concert to honor Prof, as he's always been called, their old master, 92 years on him. Craig knows his stuff. He calls out old comrades who haven't lifted a horn in 30 years and gets them back on track. The energy crackles, the music makes you jump. Grown men and women fill the chairs they once claimed in the old music room, which had been their sound-stage and sanctuary. Prof, so frail, summons himself up from a hospital bed to attend the marvelous concerts (there are two), beams, approves, shows his former students his love. All is complete.

Mark Landsman heard a story on NPR about the coming reunion, and knew he had to get to Houston with his camera. A commission came from Snoot Entertainment, and he was on his way. What struck him particularly, he told me, was the vibrant, tightly-knit community in which Prof had worked. North Houston was a black district where everybody knew everybody else, knew their children, and looked out for each other. When the Kashmere Stage Band went to state competitions, when it went to Paris and to Japan, neighborhood people got together and held bake sales and put out cans for change and found innumerable ways to raise the needed money. The kids went, they saw, they conquered. From 1969 to 1978, the Kashmere Stage Band won 42 out of 46 competitions, and came in first in the state, the only black student band to win the title in those years.

One of the pleasures of life is listening to, or reading, old-time jazz musicians and baseball players talk about the craft of their art. Think of Buck O'Neil on the Negro League on Ken Burns' Baseball series (or writing about it in his oral history of an autobiography), or, read, say, Monk's advice (1960) to the saxophonist Steve Lacy:

Just because you're not a drummer, doesn't mean that you don't have to keep time.
Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head when you play.
Stop playing all that bullshit those weird notes, play the melody!
Make the drummer sound good.
Discrimination is important.
You've got to dig it, you dig?
All reet! …

A record producer named Eothen Allapatt, general manager of Stone's Throw Records and founder of his own label, Now-Again, interviewed Conrad Johnson a few years ago. He is in the film, too. He loves this music. The interview is lively, if a bit poignant, as Prof Johnson is getting on. It's instructive, though.

E: Buddy Smith told me that you came up with Illinois Jacquet!
C: Yeah. We used to play. Arnette Cobb too. We all lived in Houston, I played…. well, during those days it was different. To advertise, if a company put out — let’s say a new brand of soda water — well, they would advertise it by putting a band on a truck and letting the truck drive around the city. Or they would have us play at the stand where they were selling, and the music would draw people to the stand. Illinois was a drummer at that time! This was around 1939 or 1940.

E: Were there any other local musicians that blew your mind?
C: There was a band called The Birmingham Blues Blowers. This was in Houston. We listened to them quite a bit. They played many proms at the school. I remember peeping through the windows of the gymnasium when I was a little kid to watch them play. I said, “I want to do that!”

E: When did you join your first professional band?
C: Just out of high school. I played almost every joint in Houston, whether they had small bands or whatever. I was all over the place.

E: What was it like, being a black performer at the time of Jim Crow? Segregation, outright racism?
C: I’m going to explain it to you like this. At that time, the people – black and white – who really had the money to hire the players wanted black performers. Because they were the naturals – blacks introduced jazz to the world.

E: So it wasn’t hard for you to get gigs?
C: Man, we had almost all the gigs! I was working all I wanted to. Blacks introduced this music. If people wanted to get real jazz, they had to hire black bands.

Prof tells Allapatt about the blues in Texas, about jazz (“You see, you can’t play jazz if you can’t play the blues. Jazz has blues lines running through it. This was just something that people understood. It was a branch of music — the blues. But there could be sad blues, happy blues, work song blues. Basically jazz came from blues and gospel.”) He talks about his early record-producing days; about the music he wrote; how he got into r&b. The two men talk about musicians who came up from Texas, those who had been Prof's students and had gone on to turn professional.
“I had a free run at the band.”

It's a good story, how Johnson comes to Kashmere High School. “Well,” he says, “the principal of Booker T. Washington, George Hanes, left and moved to Kashmere, so I went there. I had a free run at the band. George was a musician himself — a jazz drummer. He told me, 'Listen, I want everybody to know what you’re doing here. So I’m going to let you take off and do jobs with the stage band, whether it’s school hours or not.' He took a big responsibility ‘cause the teachers didn’t like that. Anyway, that’s when the band got popular.”

This is not a small point. I want to underline it. Having arts in the schools depends on having real artists in the schools and letting them do their work.
E: Do you think that the crop of students you were drawing from were inherently talented?
C: No, they didn’t have it until we worked with them. And we developed that talent. See, I didn’t lead a band that you had to take a test to join. The students would simply apply to enter the band. I’d let almost all of them in, there were very few that I turned down.

E: So many hours a day did you play with the students?
C: Well, if you include going on jobs and all that? At night I’d be with them for like 4 or 5 hours. And during the regular school day I’d be with them for like 2 or 3 hours.

E: Those kids, and the music, was – matter of fact, it is – your life.
C: That’s true.

E: You dedicated so much to your students. Did they appreciate you for this?
C: Oh yeah, before they came to me they didn’t know anything about the music!

E: How much did you have to work to get your kids to play so well? Your high school students were as good as any funk band in the nation!
C: The thing about it is, they had to depend on me for interpretation and concept. But they listened. And they got it! And once they did, it was right on the money. It was there.

E: A lot of band directors weren’t teaching their kids, rather they were just walking them through performances. Didn’t you take a more instructional role?
C: Exactly right. The kids didn’t know a thing about jazz. Look man, the history would be transmitted as I taught. It entered as I taught.

E: Well, you are living history.
C: I guess so…
If you invite artists into schools, you don't gauge their success by how many poems are produced, or pictures drawn, or slides looked at, or tunes listened to. Nor even by how many medals and cups are won. Artists who can make a kind of safe place where youngsters can make without self-consciousness; where they learn their craft from the inside out, in ways proper to the art's own form; where they can learn how the body feels when it makes good work: those artists are the ones wanted. Nobody on the outside really knows what happens when a poet or musician or puppeteer encounters students, when the students come alive to him, to her. They are in a place of their own, surrounded by thick imaginary walls, like encircling arms, built by the adroit artist. What they do is make things. That's it, and there's no real measure for what happens, except excellence. Any environment short of that is not a place for art.
“I gave them the music.

E: When you first started bringing the band to contests, how long did it take before you started sweeping the shows?
C: That is the question! It took about two and a half years before I really got into it. The judges just didn’t want to believe it at first. They would always make us tie or something. So I said, “OK, you want to make ties, we’ll see about that.” So I went and wrote more music, and came to find out later from one of the judges that the music I wrote was the strongest…. And for many years I was the only black band in those contests.

E: You were going up against programs with lots of money –
C: And plenty of teachers! They had private teachers!

E: And you were destroying them. How?
C: It was the feeling of the band. I gave them the music. You see, the kids didn’t know much about music when they came there. The students I was teaching only knew the rock era. But I taught them jazz. And the way that they understood it was uncanny. We won festival after festival. I was just inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame. When I was at the ceremony, I saw band directors that knew me from the years that I led Kashmere. And they said, “Man, when we saw you in those competitions, we knew we were playing for second or third place.” I trained my kids to try to win the contest. Give it all you got and then don’t worry. And it worked. There would be times when the kids came to me and they wanted to fight! And I said, “No, you can’t fight ‘cause you’ll destroy your image.” Man, other kids would tell them some ugly things. Kashmere played well and the kids couldn’t beat them. I had to talk to my kids, man ‘cause these kids WOULD FIGHT!

E: And they were mean looking dudes! On the Zero Point cover? Man!
C: (Laughs) Yeah, you see all of them! Look here, they could fight. But I controlled them. And it ended up that the band directors and the students actually liked them.
“That was hope.”

By the end of the 1970s, the school administration changed, and the new people began to make Conrad Johnson's school life unpleasant.

E: They basically forced you into retirement!
C: That’s right…

E: Look back on those years that you lead the Kashmere Stage Band. That was hope. When you look back, how do you view it as a whole?
C: Here’s the way I look at it. All of the people — this is true — all of the people who saw that band perform and heard the magnificence in their sound, and their work… Only those people will ever know. The records are just a facsimile. Seeing and hearing that band perform was unexplainable. There was nowhere for that band to go, they’d done everything. Once the kids from Kashmere got to college, they saw that they had already one everything that college bands were doing. So they weren’t interested in going there. They would go to college, but some wouldn’t even play in the college band. And a lot of kids stopped playing music altogether once they left the high school. And I had some fine players! It upset me…
A Secretary for the Arts?

Bill Ivey, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Clinton, has been one of the “team leads” reviewing the status of NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts. He seems to be adept at blending arts administration, university foundations, and corporate “intervention” in ways meant to help arts professionals think about fostering American arts and culture. (It is not clear to me where artists live in this line-up.) Several years ago, an article about him in Backstage (no link available) noted:

Perhaps more audaciously, Ivey is also calling on corporations to think more deeply about their responsibility to society and for the nonprofit arts sector, in turn, to study examples from the commercial realm for innovative new models to consider: “When Goddard Lieberson was president of Columbia Records, he viewed a record label as a public trust: He knew it would always have a vibrant classical division even if it didn't contribute to the bottom line, because it didn't operate as a subset of a subset of a multinational corporation. Today, with boards of directors harassed by shareholders each quarter, they don't have the flexibility to take risks that produce great art.” HBO, by contrasting example, “sells subscriptions and produces content that generates buzz and a perception of quality, which is how you get 'Angels in America,' certainly one of the most important TV events of the last 24 months.” Should it prove unable or unwilling to study new models, the arts will be “ignoring the fact that both the nonprofit and commercial business models make it very tough to make creative decisions. Among nonprofits, it's budget constraints, the inability to grow new revenue streams. Among for-profits, it's parent companies chasing stock prices and the inability to think of artists' development over the long haul.” Neither of which, he says, are healthy for our culture.

Having run a non-profit Web journal myself for ten years, I recognize the accuracy of his comment, but also its incompleteness. Of course, he said this during the Bush administration, when the head of our government was an MBA. Our new president is a writer. The musician Quincey Jones has said he would press Obama to appoint a Secretary of the Arts.

What should the Secretary of the Arts do? (Who should s/he be: an artist? An arts administrator? Someone who is both, but more like Jane Alexander than Dana Gioia, perhaps?) How to encourage and enlarge the making of art, without making it “official” art, and without watering it down, making it safe and nice? Does the stimulus package contain an Artists' Relief Act? If we are thinking more specifically about arts in the schools — and we should; arts programs are being cut right and left, as local revenues dry up like rivers in the desert — we have to figure out new ways for schools to nourish the minds and hearts of children. The arts are glorious, but they are not easy, and our national public culture is deeply philistine.

In the matter of artists in schools, we ought to look at the best examples available to us, even while remembering that they can't, finally, be copied. To go into schools you need real artists, people like Conrad O. Johnson, who was a musician to the very ends of his nerves; who cared about the children; who knew — you have to know and belived this, without question or second thought, and you can't fake it — that his students could be the best musicians in the world. Yes, they won prizes and yes, they went to Europe and Japan; and yes, they lived, and grew in fullness. But then a new administrator cut the cords of money and enthusiasm, and Conrad Johnson retired, as he had to do, because he could not compromise his program. Whatever bureaucratic justification was given by the administrator, to whomever he had to give it, was a kind of lie. Not an intentional lie, but a lie of the bureaucracy: the kind of lie that bureaucracies tell and encourage all the time: because, however the bureaucracy justifies itself, it has nothing to do, finally, with the music, with the art, with the artist and his pupils. Whatever reasons they give you are lies, unless they can say straight out: this program gives us trouble: because that is what they really mean.

And yet: where will the money come from? And yet, if you run a school district or an arts agency, is it not better to be poor, if that is the case, and truthful?

The former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, himself a poet and businessman, must have approved the gimmicky slogan broadcast relentlessly for his agency: “A great nation deserves great art.” This is not truthful, in many ways, as most advertising is not truthful, and I hope it has already gone away. Aside from the question of “great nation” — do we mean, an enormous nation? one that can define the meaning of “torture” as it likes? one that has violated international law with impunity? that swept aside all financial regulation and so, undermined the global economy? — no nation “deserves” “great art.” Nobody “deserves” great art. Art, its makers, and its making, follow their own, exigent rules.

A long time ago, I was an itinerant poet in Athabaskan schools in the Alaskan interior. Then and now, I believed you always offer the best work you can to youngsters, because you are responsible to them just as much as you are responsible to your art. I saw Thunder Soul in Washington, D.C., the day before Barak Obama was inaugurated. Yes, this is a time of enormous crisis, but we in the audience found ourselves jumping to the music, and afterward, we met the director, and Craig Baldwin, who had led the reunion band, and Conrad O. Johnson, Jr., director of the foundation named for his father.

The producers, the director, Landsman, the director of photography, Sandra Chandler, and the editor, Claire Didier, plan a wide-spread release of the film early next summer. In the meantime, they are going to show it in schools and churches and town auditoria, wherever people know that things can be better if we work together. When Thunder Soul comes your way, you can welcome it, because it makes you feel good honestly, complexly, as an adult. The whole experience is a delight. The job that will follow is very, very hard. Work worth doing, with zest.

Thunder Soul, the movie (watch this space for more information)
NPR story about the Kashmere Stage Band reunion
Eothen Allapat's interview of Conrad O. Johnson (excerpts can be seen in the movie, as well)