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Oscar Winner Jamie Foxx Touts 'Thunder Soul'

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In the 1970s, a stage band from the Texas-based Kashmere High School rose to national prestige, winning multiple championships and recording eight records. After some 35 years, members reunited to honor their 92-year-old bandleader. Their story is told in the new documentary 'Thunder Soul.' Executive producer Jamie Foxx speaks with Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: And finally today, we're going back to school - and not just any school, but one that produced one of the greatest student ensemble bands of all time: the Kashmere High School Stage Band. At a time when segregationists were the last days of influence, and still doing their best to keep the races apart and black people out of the public eye, the band was winning national championships, recorded eight albums and did tours overseas all while projecting a proud, funky ethnic style.

The band is now the focus of a music documentary titled "Thunder Soul." It will be playing in select markets starting today. And joining us on the line to talk about this is Oscar-winning actor and Grammy award-winning artist Jamie Foxx. He is the film's executive producer. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JAMIE FOXX: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: Let me just tell people a little bit about the story.

FOXX: Sure.

MARTIN: The band came together under the guidance of music teacher Conrad Johnson, who the students affectionately call Prof. Let's listen to a clip.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: When Prof put this band together it was really not a standard to have an all-black band led by a black, you know, band director.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The competition back then, man, was predominant white, and I mean predominant white. And we was out there - an all-black band.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Conrad believed that there was no limit to a child's ability to play music. He set incredibly high goals for these kids. And Conrad inspired them to put everything into it.

MARTIN: And at the center of the film is a reunion of some of the high school band members who decide that they want to get back together after 35 years as a way to pay tribute to their music teacher who at that time is 92 years old. And to be honest, they didn't really sound so great at first. Let's hear short clip.




UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One, two, three, four...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Some of these guys haven't played in 30 years.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: When I say 30 years, I mean 30 years. You can't just pick up a trumpet and blow if you hadn't blown it. It just doesn't happen.

MARTIN: So how did you get involved with telling the story of the Kashmere High School Stage Band?

FOXX: To be honest with you, the story had already been told and it was already, you know, a documentary. And then, you know just sort of like how Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry embraced "Precious," I came on and embraced "Thunder Soul," because I thought that the - first of all, the music component which, you know, me being in the music community and friends that I have that are musicians, I said this would be a fantastic movie.

And when you watch it there's nothing but joy in your heart and you're rooting for these guys. So I wanted to be able to say, listen, let's get as many eyes and as many people aware of this as we can because this thing is happening, one. Two, it helps keep the focus on young people in music.

MARTIN: You're a native of Texas. Did you know about Kashmere before you heard about this project or is this all news to you?

FOXX: No. I did not. It was all new for me. You know, and Texas is an interesting place because it's very big and then there's a thing called Texas history when you were growing up as a kid, you know, if it didn't happen in Texas it didn't really happen, so it's like some of the stories you never would know. But what I was also intrigued by was imagine if we could now turn it into a movie and grab people like Cedric the Entertainer and Terrence Howard and myself and these young guys and put it together as a film so...

MARTIN: Are you going to do that?

FOXX: Oh, yes. Most definitely.


MARTIN: Could you tell folks what it is that was so distinctive about their sound?

FOXX: Well, it was not just the sound. It's like here's the marching band and this is what you're supposed to do on the field.


FOXX: Most of the bands that were, you know, of predominantly black schools and maybe didn't have all the instrumentation, the way they would sort of compensate was is that they would dance or give a different type of show or a different type of move. This situation, Prof was able to connect the dots. For one, he concentrated on the fact that when you're playing in a stage band - that's what people have to understand. This is a movie about the stage band. When you're playing in a stage band, the music has to be absolutely 100 percent, that even if they're looking at you, that the music was stellar.


FOXX: So then when he added the soul and the funk to it, that's what made them tight. And they even went on and made records back then and people would listen to their records and would be blown away that these kids were in high school.

And then, after 30 years of being away from each other and that they knew that Prof, you know, was getting older, they all got back together to do a great performance for Prof. So that was the uniqueness of the story.

MARTIN: I just want to play one more, I think, very tender moment in the film, where one of the band members visits Prof in the hospital after he suffered a mild heart attack, and he wants to tell him about the reunion. Let's listen to a little bit of that.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: I got guys that haven't played their horns in 30 years that came back to do this deal.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yeah. Thirty years.

JOHNSON: But can they do it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Prof, you will be amazed.

JOHNSON: You mean they were - now listen, I want you to hear what I'm saying.


JOHNSON: They were taught so well that they can remember what they did then and do it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's almost like you were in the room, Prof.

JOHNSON: I can't believe this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: It's just like you're standing there.


MARTIN: So I'd like to ask you, was there a Prof in your life?

FOXX: Oh, man, several Profs. I mean Ms. Willey(ph), Ms. Barbara Willey who was my choir teacher, Ms. Brown, who was also my choir teacher. And then there was a lady by the name of Lenida Hodge(ph)) . My grandmother Estelle Talley who lived in Terrell, Texas, and Lenida Hodge lived in Dallas, and we would have to drive to Dallas to do our music lessons. She says why don't you come to Terrell on a Saturday and I'll let you use my house and you can teach everybody in Terrell that wants to come play the piano if you can allow my son to have a couple of lessons that are for free. She really taught me discipline and then I went off from there to go onto college on a classical piano scholarship. So there were several Profs in my life.

MARTIN: One of the points that you've made is that you really want to help people understand the importance of arts education and having the arts as a vehicle for kids...

FOXX: Yeah.

MARTIN: express themselves. And one of the other things I think is important to note about this is this is a time when, you know, Prof really let the kids express themselves in their style.

FOXX: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, he let, they were the Afros.

FOXX: Yeah.

MARTIN: They wore their hair the way they wanted to wear it.

FOXX: Yeah.

MARTIN: But he also stood up for the discipline of music and learning it. And as you pointed out, the music had to be tight as well as their sort of performance. Let's hear short clip.


MARTIN: Do you think that kids do understand the importance of the discipline, that people, communities understand the importance of the discipline that you learn from music and all that it brings?

FOXX: Yeah. I mean the first thing that I learned was that it actually helps a kid learn how to read faster, because once you're learning how to read notes you start developing that muscle of recognition and execution. You never know what a kid may pick up. Now not every kid is going to go away and be, you know, Miles Davis or be a Chopin or Mozart, but it gives them something to work towards and it gives them, you know, inspiration...

MARTIN: Jamie Foxx is the executive producer of the music documentary "Thunder Soul." It opens in select markets today and it has a wider release next month. Jamie Foxx, thank you so much for joining us.

FOXX: Thank you.

MARTIN: We are going to leave you with some more music from the Kashmere Stage Band. That's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. My colleague Jacki Lyden will be guest hosting on Monday. Have a good weekend.

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