John Wirt: Musical Match: LSU, Southern marching bands to participate in a historic event

PHOTO COURTESY: LSU marching band

Football fans all over Baton Rouge should know the second Saturday in September will be a historic day in Tiger Stadium.

That’s the day the Southern University Jaguars and the LSU Tigers meet on the gridiron for the first time. Saturday is also a special date for the universities’ beloved marching bands.

Complementing the 6:30 p.m. football matchup, which is sold out, Southern University’s Human Jukebox and LSU’s Golden Band from Tigerland will take the field at halftime.

“Two great marching bands,” said James L. Byo, director of the LSU School of Music, “both with storied, award-winning histories, mountains of tradition and legions of loyal, appreciative fans. The football game will do the people of Louisiana the big favor of putting these two unique bands in the same stadium. Pageantry at its best.”

“Music brings us together,” said Kedric Taylor, director of the Southern University Marching Band. “That’s something I’m envisioning happening when we go to Tiger Stadium. Music spreads the love, peace and happiness we all desire.”

In the last week in July, Taylor was at his office in the Isaac Greggs Band Building on the Southern campus in Baton Rouge, preparing for Saturday auditions for the school’s Fabulous Dancing Dolls and the Sunday arrival of freshmen for band camp.

“We bring our freshmen in a week early,” Taylor said, “to teach them all of the things the older students already know – the traditional things we do every year, the spirit songs, the way we march.”

About 60% of the Southern band’s 300 members are non-music majors.

“Most of these kids came to Southern because of the band,” Taylor said. “The tradition and the high energy this band plays with are second to none, the top of the top. And this band has created so many opportunities for so many people. Money can’t buy that.”

When halftime rolls around during the unprecedented LSU-Southern game, Taylor promised, the Southern band will do what it does at every performance.

“Dr. Isaac Greggs always told us to ‘educate and entertain,’” he said. “And we always pride ourselves on being the best we can be. “And I can guarantee you one thing: At halftime, a lot of people won’t be going to get beer and popcorn. They’ll stay in their seats and watch the Southern University Human Jukebox.”

Kelvin Jones, director of the LSU Tiger Marching Band, also aims to please.

“I can’t reveal specifics, but it will be a cool show that will leave fans on their feet,” he promised.

Despite the enthusiasm Southern fans have about the upcoming game, Taylor noticed they’re
not optimistic about the Jaguars’ prospects of defeating LSU, a Southeastern Conference powerhouse.

Nevertheless, those same fans are supremely confident the Human Jukebox will mount a winning halftime performance.

“They’re like, ‘Y’all gotta hold it down for us, for the school,’” Taylor said. “They don’t think our
football team has a shot. But I believe our team is going to do better than people expect. If we come close, that’s a win in my book.”

As of late July, time allotments for the halftime show were such that exactly what formations
and musical selections Southern will perform at halftime was a work in progress.

“I don’t know yet because everything we do depends on how much
time we have,” Taylor said. “But we’ll definitely march and our Dolls are going to perform. Our drum major is going to kick out and do the back bend, like normal.”

Taylor and Jones have discussed the possibility of their bands performing together.

“It would be great if we could collaborate,” Taylor said, “but with
COVID and just getting all our students back safely, things are difficult on both sides. And it’s hard to plan anything when you don’t yet know the logistics of everything.”

Jones took a coy stance about the possibility of an LSU-Southern collaboration.

“Could be,” he said in his office at the LSU Band Building. “You’ll have to be at the game to see.”

Jones and Taylor, the band directors at Baton Rouge’s two major universities – one, LSU, the state’s flagship school; the other, Southern, a historically black college – have been friends since 2003. They met during their undergraduate years, when they were members of rival bands, Jones at Jackson State University in Mississippi and Taylor at Southern.

Some years later they were both high school band directors, Jones at West Feliciana High and Taylor at Baker High. Taylor became assistant band director at Southern in 2014 and band director in 2018. Jones became assistant band director at LSU in 2016 and then band director in 2018.

Neither of the two friends and fellow trumpeters whose lives and careers have followed such parallel paths see a rivalry between their bands at the LSU-Southern game.

“Not at all. The fans are making it more of a Southern vs. LSU type deal,” Taylor said. “But our bands are in two different categories, as to how we entertain. You can have an appreciation for both.”

“Competitive?” Jones asked. “Not at all. I view this game as a celebration
of two iconic programs.”

Taylor first came to Southern as a freshman from his hometown, Mobile, Alabama. He marched in the Human Jukebox under the direction of Greggs, the legendary band director who led the Southern band for 36 years.

Performing with the band brought Taylor an eye-opening wealth of experiences, including his first airplane flight.

“I had a fun time in this band,” Taylor recalled. “It made me who I am today. It made me appreciate the true meaning of being a musician and what music means to people. One thing: We can’t all talk together, but we can all play together.”

Jones, a native of Greenville, Mississippi, earned his bachelor’s degree from Jackson State. Following four years as band director at West Feliciana High, he returned to LSU in 2013 to pursue his master’s and doctorate degrees.

Jones has much admiration for the famous band across town led by his longtime friend and colleague, Taylor.

“The legacy Dr. Isaac Greggs built knows no bounds,” he said. “They
are trendsetters and leaders in the field. I have the upmost respect for their longevity and standard of excellence.”

Meanwhile, Jones has quietly made some music history of his own.

He is the first black director of the Tiger Marching Band and the first black band director in the SEC. But he won’t dwell on either of those breakthroughs or the historic nature of the LSU-Southern game in Death Valley.

“It’s still a game,” Jones reasoned. “Southern will be here to support their football team. We’re here to support our team. We hope we come out victorious. But if there is a great day of bonding and unity for the community, that’s awesome.”

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