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Southern University's Human Jukebox Marching Band marches onto the field before the Bayou Classic football game between Southern University and Grambling State at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.

In homes and apartments across the country last Monday evening, members of the Human Jukebox waited for a decision on Southern’s football season. They found out like everyone else, their phones buzzing a few minutes after 6 p.m. and notifying them the Southwestern Athletic Conference had postponed the sport until next spring.

About an hour later, senior Jasiri Solomon looked at his phone. He had ignored it most of the day while washing cars. The trumpet section leader expected this to be the SWAC’s eventual choice after positive cases of the novel coronavirus had spiked for weeks, causing other conferences to modify or postpone their football seasons.

But anticipating the decision didn’t make accepting it any easier. Solomon has one more year in the Human Jukebox, the marching band that partially convinced him to transfer to Southern three years ago. He felt disappointed. So did many other band members.

“I hope it comes back in the spring,” Solomon said. “I definitely will miss it.”

Without football games, the Human Jukebox won’t play a complete fall season for the first time since its creation in 1947. The band intends to practice this fall, modifying instruction to fit social distancing requirements, but it must wait until the spring for its next large performance.

Since its inception, the Human Jukebox has become one of the most recognized musical groups in Louisiana, a college band identifiable outside the football stadium. Known for its electric sound and energetic style, the band has created a sustainable brand. Within the last year, it played at a Lakers game, walked the Rose Bowl parade and featured in a music video for Grammy-winning artist Lizzo.

“We never go easy,” assistant director Brian Simmons said. “We never let up. We never give them just a little bit. Every time, you're going to get the best. You're going to get all of the Human Jukebox.”

After the SWAC’s decision, director Kedric Taylor heard from members of the almost 300-person band. Some felt betrayed. Others understood. Disappointment spread amongst the group as students wondered what to do this fall. As the leader of the group, Taylor maintained positivity. He agreed with the postponement.

“Man, they've messed up our last year,” Taylor remembered a few seniors told him.

“It may not be what it was supposed to be in the fall, but hey, we're getting a better experience in the spring,” Taylor said. “You're the first one to ever say you played in the spring.”

Over the next few days, Taylor spoke to band members. He encouraged them not to panic. Along with his assistant directors, Taylor formed contingency plans if classes aren’t held on campus.

The status of classes will determine how the Human Jukebox proceeds. If Southern allows in-person instruction, the band would split into sections, spacing small groups throughout the day. Everyone would wear a mask indoors unless they’re playing an instrument, and directors would stand behind clear shields. Specialized ensembles would practice together, focusing on fundamentals, so the full band sounds cohesive next spring.

“When you're dealing with less students, you can zone in on more of your problems,” assistant director Cedric Todd said. “So when you bring it to a larger group, then most of those smaller mistakes are already taken care of.”

In that scenario, the band might perform this fall. Taylor hopes to arrange a virtual battle of the bands with another school or deliver a concert through social media, provided the band can meet public health guidelines. If the full band can play together, it may hold a concert with listeners distanced in their cars.

“We're at a point now where I doubt we'll be able to pull the entire group together,” Taylor said. “That's not even a thought.”

If Southern bans in-person classes, practice would become much more difficult. The band would try to sustain through virtual meetings and online software designed for individual instruction, but the group wouldn’t perform together, even in small groups.

Taylor and his assistant directors already have some experience leading the band through virtual methods. When Southern closed its campus in March, tryouts moved online. The directors scheduled slots and provided a Zoom link. About 160 people auditioned.

“It may have taken a little bit away,” Taylor said, “but you can still tell the difference.” 

Though the season won’t begin until 2021, the band has moved forward, trying to prepare for its next performance. This Saturday, it will hold in-person tryouts for the Fabulous Dancing Dolls, a select group of women who accompany the band. Taylor expects about 100 women to audition.

Divided into groups of 20, tryouts will take place inside the Isaac Greggs Band Hall. Everyone will wear masks, and a cleaning crew will disinfect the room between auditions.

The dancers will perform basic progressions, choreographed moves and dances in genres from ballet to jazz. Three or four women may make the team, depending on the size of the group this year.

The auditions provide some feeling of normalcy, but everyone in the band realizes Saturdays this fall will feel anything but typical. Instead of playing together at A.W. Mumford Stadium, providing the soundtrack of a football game, they will distance from each other to prevent the spread of disease.

“We've never had a season that was canceled,” Simmons said. “We've never not performed during the fall.”

The SWAC’s decision to postpone football season gave the league time. It can wait for a cure and hope the virus dissipates. Ideally, it will begin an eight-week training period next January.

But if the pandemic looks the same and a vaccine doesn’t exist, Taylor believes the Human Jukebox won’t play together until next fall. Until it can safely gather again, the band will wait, quiet, for its next performance.

“We're going to stay on top of our music,” Todd said, “because the Human Jukebox must keep going.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com