“You don’t just wake up one morning and have others call you The Maestro. You have to earn it.”
It can take years to build up one’s reputation through displaying good character, performing good deeds and gaining success based on merit, hard work and determination. However, it only takes minutes for a one-sided media story or amateur detectives to attempt to destroy one’s legacy with one press of the “send” button. Recently, Southern University terminated Band Director Nathan Haymer, the leader of the world famous Human Jukebox, after a series of inaccurate stories about how he allegedly handled the band’s finances. Currently, Haymer is appealing the University’s decision. Despite the recent unfair treatment, people like Nathan Haymer deserve our admiration and respect for the mountains that he climbed to achieve the success that was far from effortless and never guaranteed. I know this, because I’ve been a witness for the last 40 years to a man who has constructed an insurmountable musical legacy that will one day be compared to great musicians in this nation. As Nathan’s fraternal twin brother, I would like to shed some light on the dedication it takes to become The Maestro.
In the fall 1985, I vividly remember being 7 years old and seated in the stands with Nathan at a very crowded Southern University football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We were like two small flowers in a crowded forest of trees, trying to maneuver our line of sight just to see the field. People surrounded us with their flasks of whiskey, dressed from head to toe in Southern’s “blue and gold” all while standing to their feet every thirty seconds with each throw of the ball. My mother was so into the game yelling at the “cheating referees” as I watched with intensity at every first down made. But I don’t remember this day because of the football game, heck I don’t even remember the other team. What stands out about this day, nearly 33 years ago, was Nathan staring in the opposite direction of the football field. His eyes were focused like laser beams on the producers of the soundtrack of Southern’s football prowess…the Southern University Human Jukebox. With every swing of the Director’s arms, clash of the cymbals, telescoping of the trombones and rhythmical sway of the Fabulous Dancing Dolls, Nathan was officially hypnotized. No, he didn’t go into the sunken place at that moment, but instead he was elevated into higher level of consciousness transcending his mind’s normal preoccupation with child’s play into a mind that became aware of the power of music.
In 1986, our parents divorced and my mother, who instantly became a single mother of three growing boys, moved us from Baton Rouge to her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi. The move itself took an emotional toll on Nathan for years. Not only did our parents split up, but Nathan was now separated from his beloved Human Jukebox. YouTube wouldn’t be invented for another 30 years and the only chance he had to grab a glimpse of the Jukebox was on the last Saturday in November on NBC’s broadcast of the Bayou Classic. Even then, the short two-minute bit of the Human Jukebox was only the backdrop for Ahmad Rashad to blab on and on about other things not essential to the marching band right behind him.
During this time, Nathan didn’t even have formal music training, he was just a master beatboxer mimicking drum machines with his mouth all day which always resulted in sibling fights at the dinner table. “Mama, he’s spitting in my food!” I would shout. “You’re just jealous you can’t beatbox My Prerogative as good as me!” he would fire back. It wasn’t until the age of 13 when Nathan received his first formal musical training in his junior high band. My mother admittedly struggled to make ends meet, barely being able to afford rent and keep food on the table. She would often say that her growing boys had the audacity to easily eat a loaf of bread and a pack of baloney a day. When it came to extra-curricular activities, if it didn’t cost money, my mother didn’t mind that we participated. But if there was a fee or any cost for said activities, then it became painfully apparent to us that my mother just couldn’t afford it. So while many of the kids in Nathan’s junior high band had a parent to rent or buy them an instrument, he was left with left-over instruments that were broken, dented and out of tune. In 1991, his first instrument was a beat-up French horn with a used mouth piece. Nathan worked hours to repair the horn and once he started playing, he was immediately exiled to the backyard for the sake of our mental and eardrum health. Yes, the distressing sounds that flowed from that French horn may not have been considered musical mastery then, but Nathan put in hours, days, weeks and months of repetitive exercising on that raggedy French horn. While all of our friends were out playing basketball in the street, we could hear Nathan in the backyard blaring away ignoring the fluttering birds, the howling dogs and the shouts of disapproval from the neighbors.
By high school, Nathan mastered many of the instruments in his marching band and became obsessed with marching formations. In our neighborhood, being in the band wasn’t cool at all, friends would call him the “Urkel of Musicians” which Nathan oddly took as a compliment as he marched his way to becoming the drum major of the Gulfport High Marching Band his senior year in high school. In the late 90s, when he learned that I would be attending Southern University after high school, he balked on attending the same school because we were such arch rivals after 18 years of being roommates. It wasn’t until he met his idol, the legendary Dr. Isaac Greggs, Director of Bands at Southern, that within ten seconds of sitting down with him he became duty-bound to his first love the Southern University Human Jukebox for life. His days as a student at Southern were spent mainly in the band room. While I was out being a student activist protesting everything from chemical plants to the food in the cafeteria, Nathan was becoming one of the most talented and respected members of the Human Jukebox. As I garnered all the attention as student body president, Nathan was garnering the attention and awe of those who mattered, Dr. Greggs and assistant band director, Lawrence Jackson.
Soon after graduating from Southern, Nathan wanted to fulfill his goal of becoming a band director. He wanted to focus on kids who grew up like him, whose parents didn’t have much money or access to formal music training. He believed that playing in the band should be placed on a pedestal just like playing on the football field. Although the marching band is an art form and football is athletics, Nathan would often say that they both took years of training, dedication and a skill that could help pay your way through college. In 2001, Nathan became the band director at Washington Marion High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana and I swear his band could put many college bands to shame. In 2006, he returned to Southern as an assistant band director to Mr. Lawrence Jackson where he further refined his skills as a composer, an arranger and a teacher becoming an instant student favorite for his quote worthy advice.
In the summer of 2014, Mr. Lawrence Jackson suddenly retired leaving Southern University scrambling to figure out who would lead the world famous Human Jukebox. The University was uncertain if the 36 year old assistant director, Nathan Haymer, had the wherewithal to lead their prized possession. Being that there was no time to open a full search for a band director prior to the football season, Nathan was named the Interim Director of Bands of Southern University fulfilling a lifelong dream since that night in the stands in 1985. Although he was given the interim label, there remained doubters of his abilities to lead such a massive organization of well over 200 students with only three staff members. Then came his first halftime performance as Band Director of the Human Jukebox which launched his career into orbit!
It was a rainy night in Lafayette, Louisiana and the Southern University football team faced off against University of Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL) on August 30, 2014. The score at halftime was 24-0 in favor of ULL, but despite the rain and the lopsided score no one left the stands for concession at halftime. The anticipation was building on exactly how would the Human Jukebox appear under Nathan Haymer’s leadership. And then it happened. The Human Jukebox took the field like a storm! The crowd let out a simultaneous thunderous roar and Nathan gave the signal to his drum major to start the show! Both Southern and ULL fans remained on their feet the whole performance. The Human Jukebox put on a memorable show, performing dance moves to the hit song “Happy” which led to a post- game tweet of approval from Pharrell himself. At that point, there was no turning back…Nathan Haymer was indeed the right man at the right time to lead the Human Jukebox in the new millennium.
Nathan had a way to reaching the millennials all while staying true to Southern’s traditions. He assembled an all-star team of young, talented assistant directors, Kedric Taylor and Brian K. Simmons. Together they continued the strong legacy of Dr. Greggs, all while bringing the Human Jukebox into the new millennium by creating the Human Jukebox into its own brand with a media marketing team, Human Jukebox logo with merchandise, Human Jukebox app and even the Louisiana State Legislature approving of a Human Jukebox license plate. This band’s halftime show was always a must see in person but now a whole new generation of Human Jukebox lovers have been created through Nathan’s social media platforms on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The use of social media to reach out to alumni and the next generation of students is powerful because the young Nathan for years couldn’t view his beloved Human Jukebox during his childhood. Today the Human Jukebox has millions of followers and viewership more than any other HBCU band in the nation. It was the Human Jukebox that was named the #2 band in the nation only second to Ohio State University. And this year, Nathan was even named National Band Director of the Year. Today, there are hundreds of kids scrambling to Southern from New Jersey, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and other states across this nation just attend a high school summer band camp in June which started off years ago as a camp just for the locals. These kids will become future students, which makes the Human Jukebox the best recruitment tool for Southern University.
Now this is the Nathan Haymer I know. A man the media has attempted to publicly shame with a one-sided narrative. A man of faith who has never been the beneficiary of nepotism, cronyism or luck to further his career. This is a blessed man who has worked hard for everything he’s achieved in his young life despite the obstacles that were placed in his path to discourage him from climbing the mountain to success. Nathan Haymer’s success story is what Southern University and other HBCUs should be about. You don’t just wake up one morning and have others call you The Maestro. You have to earn it. And from the football field to the red carpet at the Grammy’s, Nathan has used the power of music to connect with the heart and souls of people across this nation earning the title, The Maestro and my brother.
About the Author:
Niles Haymer is the fraternal twin brother of Nathan Haymer. Niles earned his J.D. from Southern University Law Center in 2003 and a B.A. in Political Science, graduating with the highest G.P.A. in the Southern University’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Policy in 2000. Niles practices law in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he resides with his wife, Shermaine (a graduate of Grambling), and their three children.