Buffalo Grove High's famed band director Jacobi to retire
Buffalo Grove High School band director Ed Jacobi was just 14, around the same age as his current students, when he made a decision that changed the course of his life. Encouraged by his dad to give summer band camp at Lane Tech High School in Chicago a try, Jacobi -- who had never picked up a trumpet -- joined the band and found his passion.
Now, after nearly four decades as a music educator, 31 years at Buffalo Grove High School, Jacobi is winding down a career that brought music into the lives of thousands of teenagers. Whether his bands were performing in the halls of Buffalo Grove or the concert halls of Europe, Jacobi always kept the focus on two things -- the kids and the music.
"The most rewarding part of my job has always been making music with kids," Jacobi said. "And I love seeing the reactions on their faces -- that feeling of accomplishment when they know they hit it."
Buffalo Grove's band program today is far different from the one Jacobi inherited as a young director in 1985. Down to about 80 students when he was hired, current enrollment tops 160, making it the largest band program in District 214. Beyond building enrollment, Jacobi also was charged with reinvigorating the school's jazz program. He started teaching a jazz theory and improvisation class, and also introduced his concert and symphonic bands to the music that inspired him as a high school student.
"I started doing the same repertoire here that I did at Lane Tech. To me, that was the foundation of a strong musical upbringing," he said.
His jazz band entered the newly created "Jazz in the Meadows" competition at Rolling Meadows High School in 1986 and emerged as Grand Champion in 1987. But the following year during competition season for marching band, the principal pulled Jacobi aside and told him parents were complaining about how much time he was demanding from students. After talking with the principal and his music colleagues, Jacobi changed his approach.
"I only competed for two years and once I stopped, enrollment just exploded," he said. "More kids who joined band stayed in band."
His philosophy as a music educator changed from that point forward.
"Art for the sake of art, music for the sake of music. We're in the school curriculum to touch the soul, to reach people in a way that no other class possibly can," he said.
Jacobi still has that first place trophy from the 1987 jazz contest, but it's packed away in a box.
"The trophies I want noticed are on this wall," he said, pointing to a wall in the band room filled with plaques recognizing outstanding band students. "And the CDs we make of our concerts, those are my trophies."
Since those early years, Jacobi set out to create a diverse and inclusive high school band where participation in sports and other activities was encouraged.
"I believe we are part of the school. I have a global perspective is how I like to look at it," he said.
Senior Emily Carnes, a percussionist and pianist in Jacobi's bands who also plays varsity golf and softball, said that global approach has created a band community that defies stereotypes.
"Growing up, everyone thinks all band members are the same. That's really not the case here. We have a group of well-rounded kids where band isn't the only thing they do and Mr. J makes that possible."
That's not to say he doesn't expect dedication from his musicians.
"I spell it out plainly, you won't advance unless you work hard," Jacobi said. "But whether you sit first chair or last chair, you're just as important to me."
Jennifer Swanson Hillbo, a former student of Jacobi's and now the parent of a current band member, knows Jacobi teaches more than just music.
"He creates an atmosphere that's safe and warm and fun, and balances that with work and performance and accomplishment," she said. "He really is focused on the right things."
Principal Jeff Wardle said that's the kind of feedback he regularly hears about Jacobi.
"One thing that comes up all the time is how much he cares about the kids -- and that the band room is a place of safety and security and significance in students' lives."
Another common theme, according to Wardle, is Jacobi's ability to work with and challenge students at both ends of the spectrum -- those most dedicated to music and those who have other interests.
"Everyone has a place in Mr. Jacobi's band program and that's been noticed, celebrated and appreciated by the kids and the parents."
Though Jacobi will take his final bow on the Buffalo Grove stage this spring, he won't be slowing down in these final months. He's planned a full season of performances culminating in the band's 11th concert tour to Austria in June. Jacobi took the Buffalo Grove band on its first European tour in 1987 and started a student exchange with an Austrian high school in 1990.
"I wanted to get to the 25th anniversary of the exchange and go on one more trip to Europe -- then step off the plane -- and that's how I walk away."
Until that day comes, Jacobi is enjoying every last minute of a job he loves.
"I've had the privilege and the honor to be the Director of Bands at Buffalo Grove High School and it's something I've never taken for granted. I say it all the time -- I've lived the dream."