The time is the late sixties, the place, a Texan high school in the improbably named African-American neighbourhood of Kashmere Gardens, Houston. The story gets interesting when a music teacher suddenly decides to whip the floundering student jazz band into a fiery, 30-plus funk combo called the Kashmere Stage Band. It went on to tear up not only gym floors and dance floors, but also all notions of what a school band could look like, sound like and achieve.
Before we introduce the band, let's meet a budding teenage pianist named Craig Baldwin, who at the time lived in the adjacent community of Fifth Ward - also known as 'Bloody Fifth'. The young Baldwin wasn't interested in going to school in Fifth Ward, he had his eye on Kashmere's High School for a number of reasons.
"Crime wasn't really a factor then in Kashmere" recalls Baldwin, "but over in Fifth Ward that's where all the crime was. I lived in Fifth Ward and it was the roughest neighbourhood. People were getting killed almost every Friday night."
To enrol in the Kashmere High School, the young Baldwin would have to lie about his address. Thankfully he did, because it meant joining the soon-to-be-famous Kashmere Stage Band.
"[Early on] the audiences were basically parents…” says Baldwin, who is also known by his stage name Tino Tarantino and is the re-united Kashmere Stage Band's current musical director. Happy to reminisce about the band’s emergence on the conservative, but highly competitive, school band circuit of the time, Baldwin is full of stories and good cheer. Now in his fifties, recollections stop just long enough for him to pull off to the side of the road so he can continue our conversation on his mobile without worrying about Houston traffic.
Where were we? Ah, yes, an early band competition heat.
“Here we are, the first all-black [high school] band… looking cool," continues Baldwin. "[We] got the Afros and the dress… It’s the quarterfinals. This room, if I'm not mistaken, could hold a thousand. But that first time we played, if there were 50 people in that room including the judges, I'm lying. It was a ghost town."
The band won that quarterfinal (and nearly every subsequent competition for years), returning to the same room later that day for the semi-final. By then, word had spread.
"Hours later, we go back and this place is packed,” says Baldwin. “I mean crazy packed. We go up, they've got this big curtain in front of us... and as soon as the man said, From Houston Texas, the Kashmere Stage Band - that place went crazy. Screaming and shouting. We're looking at each other like: What the heck?
"This is the funny thing: the judges stopped judging us. They put their pens down and started grooving..."
Little wonder. On the eight albums they recorded, including the live in Japan, Expo. ’75 LP, solid funk and complex, rousing, big band arrangements defy the players’ teenage years. More recently unearthed by Stones Throw subsidiary Now-Again, the group originally released these highly collectable recordings on their own label, Kram Records.
Pretty soon, fans were demanding more than just music, which must have been quite a feeling for a hormone-fueled 17 year old?
"It was," admits Baldwin. "I mean we were walking down [school] hallways, people are pulling us, wanting autographs... They were treating us like we were Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5!"
Then of course... "Oh it was wonderful for getting girls," says Baldwin. "When you're going to different high schools and you're doing something that the guys from their school aren't doing... Oh yeah, they were throwing themselves and you loved it."
Outside the high school circuit, the Kashmere Stage Band was also building a reputation, pulling in big dollars for commercial engagements at weddings, dances, whatever. It was all down to the forward thinking teacher behind them. A mentor and band-leader with as much business acumen as the fiercest record label bosses from uptown, Kashmere Stage Band founder Conrad O. Johnson was affectionately known to those in the band as “Prof”.
"He was tough but he had a big heart. He was like our second dad. You didn't really want to be with your parents, because your parents were boring. Prof was exciting, he made you want to get up in the morning," remembers Baldwin.
"[Our] parents back then were so trusting of him. So if a kid got home at 1.30 in the morning [after a gig]... he would check and make sure you were at the house. It's not like we could lie and say our gig ran longer ... Prof would call the parents."
Although demanding up to $3000 for each commercial engagement outside of competition (which Prof would pour back into the band for travel expenses, equipment and recordings) the musical fortunes of the group's many players post-graduation, are mixed. Bassist Gerald Calhoun for example, went on to work work with everyone from Confunkshun and Patti Labelle to Herbie Hancock. For others, like Baldwin, music may have been a constant in his life, but he has also had to work a number of day jobs in the ensuing decades.
Disbanding in 1978, it wasn't until a 2008 jam session between old friends that the idea of a reunion was hatched. Initially, the original players reformed to pay homage to the 92 year-old Prof with a surprise gig in his honour. Rehearsing for the gig in the same room they practised in during their school years, some of the players hadn't picked up their instruments in over 30 years. Nevertheless, they gelled.
"We think we got a tear out of him," Baldwin says of Johnson, who died later that year after attending the gig put on in his honour.
"It was so beautiful to pay tribute to him like that," says Baldwin who is heading to Australia with ten of the other original band members to play again.
For the full story on the Kashmere Stage Band, a feature film documentary about the group called Thunder Soul will screen before selected performances in Australia.
For details on Kashmere Stage Band's shows this January in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane check the Funkdafied website.
Interview/story by: Paris Pompor
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