by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
This Week in Texas Music History we learn just how impactful a high school band director can be.
On November 15, 1915, musician and educator Conrad “Prof” Johnson was born in Victoria, Texas. As a boy in Houston, Johnson learned to play music on a toy saxophone. He got more formal training from his father, a dentist who also led the Jack Yates High School band. Johnson joined jazz groups during college and became an accomplished composer. In 1941 he began his career as a high school band director. Johnson continued to make rhythm and blues records on the side, like 1947’s “Howling on Dowling,” but it was his direction of the competitive stage band at Houston’s Kashmere High School from 1969 to 1977 where he would make his mark. High school stage bands were often straightlaced affairs, but Johnson brought dynamism and contemporary soul and funk influences to the project. By 1972, Kashmere Stage Band was named “the best stage band in the nation.” They released eight albums on Johnson’s label Kram and toured the United States, Europe, and Japan. Johnson retired from the group in 1977, but those records became cult classics for crate-digging collectors.
Tracks by the band, including Johnson’s composition “Kashmere,” found their way into hip-hop samples from the likes of DJ Shadow and Blackalicious. Recurring interest from fans brought the stage band alumni back to Kashmere, as did their desire to thank the 92 year-old “Prof” Johnson while he was still around. The Kashmere Stage Band reformed for reunion concerts in 2008, featured in the celebrated 2010 documentary Thundersoul, and even mounted a new tour. Johnson passed in the midst of the reunion, at peace in the knowledge that his students had taken his soulful lessons to heart.
Laurie E. Jasinski, Gary Hartman, Casey Monahan, and Ann T. Smith, eds. The Handbook of Texas Music. Second Edition. Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 2012.