Greg Isabelle is a special kind of drummer. Well-educated and disciplined, he can play virtually anything, but rarely does. He’s got chops, but rarely uses them. And he understands the flashy complexities of modern drumming, but plays with a maturity beyond his (now-advancing) years.
Greg and I have played drums in some of the same outfits over the years, though our styles differ greatly. He once subbed for me on a brief portion of a national tour I couldn’t make due to personal obligations. He was so well-prepared that I was secretly worried he was going to steal the gig. And once, during a double-drumming session with a local instrumental ensemble, he knocked me down a few notches when I was gumming up the works with too many fills (which is often my wont). While the music swirled around us, he simply looked me in the eye and mouthed, “Just groove.” It was humbling.
Now Greg sleeps in Hawaii, after many years of living and playing in Jacksonville, touring with Wes Borland’s bigDUMBface and hosting a few of his own recitals at the University of North Florida. (Wanna see him act like an idiot? Look up bigDUMBface’s official “Duke Lion” video.)
Following the publication of a column I wrote a few weeks back about my personal musical mentors, Greg was the first to respond with his own mentor story. It involved UNF percussion instructor and former Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra drummer and percussionist Charlotte Mabrey. Here Greg tells us why she had such an influence on him as a student, player and person.
Folio Weekly: Your mentor is Charlotte Mabrey. How did you first meet?
Greg Isabelle: While still in high school, I attended JSO concerts explicitly to observe Charlotte perform. My teacher while in high school at Douglas Anderson [School of the Arts] was Tom Haller. He would perform with the orchestra a couple times each season. Tom would encourage all his students to come catch the fireworks from the percussion section. Tom took me aside to ask me what I was going to do after graduation. I probably answered with something to the effect of: “I’m gonna rock!” He redirected my fervor and encouraged me to practice some specifics in order to audition for Charlotte and UNF. When I was introduced again during my formal audition, I recall how she relaxed me by simply chatting with me about my life and interests before I played — she has that way about her.
How long did you study under her?
I required six years to get my four-year degree, I was gigging a lot during my college years and occasionally lost steam on an academic as well as theory class. I also took a semester off to go on tour with bigDUMBface. Charlotte was always supportive of my drum set playing (she was my applied percussion teacher, which does not include drum set). She understood that it would be a great opportunity for me to go on a national tour with BDF. I had her blessing to go, with the stipulation that I would come back and finish my degree.
Charlotte has a real understanding of students at the undergraduate level of study. She let all of us discover music that spoke to us, while ensuring we maintained a rigorous training schedule to have the skills necessary to become well-rounded percussionists. While I was out gigging and touring, I never lost sight of what I was working toward with Charlotte.
How did she help shape you as a person?
My family and friends know Charlotte and know how much she means to me. I’d never want to disappoint her by not being prepared for a lesson or rehearsal. Going forward, I would never want to disappoint her by not trying my best in life. I decided to pursue my graduate degree many years after my undergrad degree at UNF. I had moved to L.A. to try my hand in that scene, then moved home again years later, got married, and was working as a construction superintendent. Charlotte was the first person I confided in when I felt it was time for the next step in my musical life. Charlotte was instrumental in my getting into grad school at Georgia State University. She polished off my rough edges, provided me with the appropriate repertoire and ensured my practice time on the instruments. Once again, she made sure I was prepared to meet the challenge. She didn’t have to do that.
Do you still keep in touch with Charlotte?
Each time I come back to Jax, Char is on my list. It doesn’t always work out, but when I do get my afternoons with her, it’s like old times. I’m still inspired by her tenacity and perseverance in the face of change and hard knocks life can hand us all. She is as graceful in life as she is in her playing.