A real-life “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” this is the inspiring story of a dedicated teacher who transformed the lives of his students and the gathering 35 years later, when he was 92 years old, to perform a concert in his honor.
No one expected much from the kids who went to Houston’s Kashmere High School in a depressed African-American neighborhood. But a teacher the kids called “Prof” (for “professor”) showed them they could learn to play music that would take them to a national championship, international tours, and a recording that would rise the Amazon charts decades later as a CD re-release.
Prof was Conrad Johnson, Jr. In the 1970’s, as the Black Power movement was inspiring a reawakening of pride in African-American culture, Prof took the school’s jazz band and added discipline, ambition, and a lot of funk. One of the documentary’s highlights is the description of the repertoire of the other high school jazz bands of the era — mostly a lot of 1940’s and 50’s standards. When the Kashmere band, called Thunder Soul, showed up for the national championships in Mobile Alabama with their Afros and their attitude, the only black high school to compete, they caused an uproar. The judges initially tried to declare two winners but Prof insisted they go back and pick just one.
Prof’s insistence on excellence, his innovative approach, and most of all, his own example inspired several years’ of students to try harder and dream bigger. The music is genuinely thrilling but the real thrill here is seeing what a great educator can do. The love he had for music and for his students and the respect they still have for him decades later is powerful and moving. A feature film about this story is in the works and I hope it will be everything Prof deserves, but nothing will match the heart of the real-life footage, archival and new, of the people who lived it.