If you are not familiar with whom Conrad Johnson is, then you must see the new film directed by Mark Landsman (Skylab 2005; Peace Of Mind 1999), and produced in help from Jaime Foxx, titled Thunder Soul. It chronicles one of this countries great music educators who developed a high school stage band into a world renowned jazz-funk powerhouse in the early 70’s. Johnson was able to do what many other teachers, were not able to do, which was instill self-respect, identity, and self-esteem within his students in order to create a legion of band members who would reshape the very essence of high school stage bands.
Thunder Soul is a documentary that inspires those of us who work with young minds. It is structured to demonstrate that even within the demoralizing annuls of racism—particularly the depth at which African Americans faced it during the late 60’s & 70’s—there is still hope and the pursuit of “life” in the midst of madness.
Conrad began with the raw talent of anxious high schoolers in Houston Texas (Kashmere High School) filled with talent yet to be discovered. He began by building in them self-belief prior to any notes being played. Conrad even said, “…if you get a person to believe that they can play as good as a professional; and get them to really believe that they are someone, then you’ve begun to build that person up and the music will flow.” Within music there is a space for people to connect. No one understood that better than Conrad Johnson who was able to not just take notes on a paper and turn them into music, but to transform lives for a lifetime.
The film is focused around the 35 year reunion of band members at Kashmere High School. Most of the former band members had not played an instrument since they had left school. Yet, Conrad says, “They were taught so well, it’ll come back to them.” And it did. That says a lot about the teaching and education that took place in that band hall.
Conrad was able to tap into a person’s core identity and help them to realize, through music, that they are a force and sound to be reckoned with. Conrad took this high school band around the world and shattered the competition. They combined dance, a full horn section, keyboards, bass, and even vocals at times to produce some of the best jazz-funk music that was around—all from high school students!
The brilliance of the documentary is that it allows the people to speak and tell their narrative. There is little to no narration and the voice of “the people” comes through at every level. The timing could not have been better to actually have Conrad Johnson, in his twilight, discuss the context in which he was able to work. Moreover, you are shown that these former students of Johnson not only “learned music” but took with them lifelong lessons of camaraderie, community, inspiration, and a knowledge that they could accomplish something big—and at the end of the day, all of us want accomplishment at some level.
Thunder Soul—which was the name Johnson gave to the band—is a film worth watching because many are not even slightly aware of who Conrad Johnson is. Yet, he was one of the most brilliant, talented, and gifted musician who focused his talent at the grassroots level with the people; never won a well-deserved Grammy; never lived in a mansion; and was never on the cover of Rolling Stone. Yet Johnson did something far greater than social accolades. He was able to change the course of young people’s lives and give them hope—something money cannot buy. The film demonstrates how, now adults, were able to build on what Johnson taught them though music and apply that to their personal lives.
Check out Thunder Soul, the Christological parallels are astounding.