By Leslie D. Rose
If former Southern University band director Dr. Isaac “Doc” Greggs ever looked at you and said, “Can play,” you knew two things. One, you were a great musician, and two, you were kind of perfect.
Greggs’ 36 years (1969 – 2005) with the Southern University marching band, which was nicknamed The Human Jukebox under his leadership, influenced and enhanced the musicianship and professionalism of some of Baton Rouge’s favorite bands, leaving his legacy to be appreciated by far more than just his students. On April 28, the word spread that the longtime band director had died at age 85; Facebook profile pictures were just as quickly changed to that of Greggs, while old scrapbook photos of time spent marching in blue and gold sprinkled the popular social media network, including photos of a very young set of guys who now make up the popular area brass band The Michael Foster Project.
Rod Jackson, an elementary school music teacher, marched as a member of the Human Jukebox from 1995 to 1999. It’s there that he met many of the men he now shares the stage with as a saxophonist in the Michael Foster Project.
“I consider myself blessed to have had the privilege to study under the great Dr. Isaac Greggs,” Jackson said. “The lessons that Doc taught me went far beyond playing music and marching. Doc was one of the wisest men I’ve ever known [and he] taught me so many life lessons that I still use today,15 years later.”
Of those lessons, Greggs had a saying: “Practice does not make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.” It’s that level of perfectionism that led bandleader Michael Foster to a career as a musician. While Foster said he always knew he would lead a band, it’s Greggs he credits with modeling the proper way to do so.
“Doc had come to see the Project play a few times at Chelsea’s and we would play the fight song for him,” Foster said. “He really never said anything but he would give us two thumbs up or he’d just say ‘Can play’ – and everybody knows what that means.”
Foster, who marched from 1985 to 1989, typically ends all shows with the Southern University Fight Song.
“It’s to pay homage to all of those who come out and support us, even from the time we started at Southern and no one knew who we were,” Foster said.
Before creating The Michael Foster Project, Foster led a quartet by a similar name.
“All of us met and marched at Southern – at one point – and since then, there have been different crews to come through the Project, but they’ve all been members of Southern’s band – it’s like something you gotta understand, a rite of passage to get to play with us,” Foster said.
Another Project member who paid homage to Greggs on Facebook is trumpeter John Gray. Gray works as a music teacher and band director at The Dunham School, leads several bands and runs a music group called Continuum. Gray shared a photo of himself being silently tormented by Jackson on a band bus trip during his freshman year in 1998. Jackson was an upperclassman on duty to ensure that none of the freshmen or “crabs” fell asleep on the long bus ride. It’s something Gray can laugh about as he now recalls it as of one of his fondest memories during his two year Human Jukebox experience.
“Things were not all that fun at that time being a crab, but there were a whole lot of funny experiences and that’s a funny picture,” Gray said. “I had been coming up to Southern ever since I was a junior in high school for the summer practice sessions with Dr. Greggs – all of the upperclassmen just knew I was going to be coming to Southern’s band.”
Gray said once he did attend college, his freshman year was most highly influenced by Greggs’ ability to show a musician in the best light.
And because Greggs always strived to show all of his men in the best light, Morris Brown College’s marching band was able to be in the 2002 film Drumline starring Nick Cannon. Greggs is said to have declined the offer to feature the Human Jukebox because the script would have the band place second in a battle, and that’s something he wouldn’t even allow to happen in a movie.
The Human Jukebox, under Greggs’ leadership, played at six Super Bowls, four Sugar Bowls, three presidential inaugurations and won countless band battles against rivals Grambling State and Jackson State Universities. “Being the perfectionist that he was, being a very strong and charismatic leader – I can really appreciate that about him now, in hindsight with me now being in a band,” Gray said. “I met all these guys I play with now during my freshman year and it’s such a great thing to still be playing with a lot of these guys, still.”
Gray, along with hundreds of alumni and former band members or “jukes” celebrated Greggs’ life and legacy at a memorial service held on May 2 at the F.G. Clark Activity Center on the Southern University campus. The memorial service ended with a second line led by a mass band of Human Jukebox alumni. Greggs was laid to rest the following day.
To his honor, Greggs was inducted into the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame in 2013 and now the music building on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, which was formerly known as The Dubose Music Hall, has been renamed the Isaac Gregg’s Band Hall. His influence will likely forever infiltrate the University.
“I am the man I am today partially because of my experience as a member of the SU Human Jukebox under the instruction of Doc – his legacy will never die,” Jackson said.