ASHLAND — Music and Neil Ebert are synonymous in the city of Ashland.
The 1974 Cardington-Lincoln High School graduate earned his Music Education Degree from Ashland University in 1978 and for the next 30 years he was a teacher of music at Ashland High School, retiring in 2008.
“Ashland was the perfect place for me to be,” said Ebert, who started playing trumpet during the summer following his third year of grade school.
He remembers his teacher was George Marshall, but it was during his years in junior high band that “I knew I wanted a career in music,” a decision he credits his high school band director, James Pease.
‘Strong music town’
He said, “Ashland had always been a strong music town with an outstanding band, choral and string program. Doc Pete, director, was a legend throughout the state and had built Ashland into a highly respected music program.
He noted Pete was responsible for starting the Ohio State Fair Boys Band, and was the original director. “Although he died before I arrived his legend was always there.”
Ebert said he had an excellent staff to work with, all of whom had been staff under Doc Pete. “My first love was always the jazz band and Ashland had one of the finest programs, if not the finest in the state of Ohio.” The head band director was Richard Johnson, whose students were routinely awarded the “Outstanding Band” award and the musicians named the “Outstanding Soloists.”
Ebert spent 12 years with Johnson as the assistant marching band director. “He was a strong mentor and I owe him more of my success than anyone.” Ebert directed the Middle School Jazz Band, the Second Jazz Band at the high school and taught general music classes and the various bands. Following Johnson’s retirement, Ebert took over the entire jazz program and became the head marching band director.
“During my time as jazz band director, our bands regularly won Superior Awards and our students were recognized for their Outstanding Soloists Awards.”
Jazz band popular
He said that one of the unique things at Ashland is the jazz bands play at all of the home basketball games. “The second band plays for the JV pre-game and halftime while the top group plays for pre-game and halftime at the varsity games. “This is a key part of their development,” said Ebert.
“Our students are loved and appreciated by all of those attending our games. The referees are often very complimentary and I often hear from the visiting stands as I leave the game each night. One coach recently told our former athletic director while scouting Ashland that he was gong to send his team to the locker room at halftime, but he was goIng to stay and just listen to the band.”
“One of the things that has really made a difference for me as a teacher is that I have played lead trumpet, solo trumpet and as a bass player in many professional groups, giving me a unique perspective to work well with the horn players and also the rhythm section.”
Ebert never stands in front of his players as a director, rather he plays with them.
In 2013, five years after his retirement, he was asked to return because the program had “regressed.” He was summoned by the superintendent to come back and “right the ship.” The then elementary music teacher, Marty Kral, whom Ebert had helped when Kral was a student music teacher, assisted him and they they turned the band around to where they earned superior ratings again in contests.
Again, in 2017 he was asked if he would work every day at the high school for two class periods which he has done. Referencing the shutdown caused by the coronavirus this year, he said. “We were on a great roll and they have been cheated by this disease out of a great ending for their last year,” said Ebert of his senior band members.
Then came the Kroc Center. Ebert explained that Ray Kroc, who founded “McDonalds” lived in San Diego, and following his death his widow, Joan, dressed as a homeless person, visited the various charitable organizations and felt the Salvation Army showed her the most dignity. After her death, $1.5 billion was entrusted to the Salvation Army for the construction and operation of Kroc Centers.
There are 25 across the U.S. and one in Puerto Rico., all in large cities except one, in Ashland.
Ebert is in charge of the Arts Component in which he organizes all the music for the Center. This includes a concert band, growing in numbers.
Dixieland Band and on Thursdays, the Brass Quintet. He is pleased that this is an opportunity for older people who once played in bands can return and pick up an instrument again. He transports them to area nursing homes to play. The Kroc Center celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2019 with the celebration under the direction of Major Billy Francis, with the Salvation Army.
Family of musicians
Ebert comes from a musical family, both of his parents, Carol, and Harold now deceased, playing in their own band during his high school years. He played with them. Currently. his mother still plays the piano every Wednesday with the Dixieland Band at the Kroc Center.
In one of those odd circumstances that can occur, Doug Click, a 1961 Cardington-Lincoln High school graduate, was the Ashland Middle-School Industrial Arts tech shop teacher for 35 years.
“When Neil started teaching, his music rooms were next to my shop so I saw him daily. Ashland has always had excellent music programs and Neil kept it at that level year after year. You cannot do that unless the program is offering a super experience to the students, said Click.
“He tries to retire, but he seems busier than ever. An excellent musician who knows how to teach his craft,” said Click.
Although he played trumpet for many years, he played bass for years with the big band gigs in the area and performed in shows at the Renaissance Theater in Mansfield such as playing with the Smothers Brothers, Roger Williams and others. He also writes many arrangements for the groups. Today he is a part of a four- member group that performs occasionally at the Blueberry Patch in Lexington.
His wife, Karen, is a music teacher at Ashland Middle School. His children are Sean, accomplished drummer and a truck driver for Abers; Lance, with Ohio Carbon Industries, plays guitar; Emily, senior at Ashland. plays bass in the Kroc Center Big Band, Luke, student at The Ohio State University and Jack, eighth grade student at Ashland Middle School, plays football and sings with the choir and show choir.
“I am grateful and blessed to be able to be involved in music every day of my life,” said Ebert. “I get to play, teach and write. The older I get, the more I enjoy the teaching and writing. Playing is always fun, but it’s kind of like Christmas. … As you get older, it’s more fun to watch others open the packages than for you to open yours.”