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Founder of NIU's first jazz band releases memoir

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 11:15 p.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 8:02 a.m. CST
Caption
Photo Provided Kathy and Ron Modell with singer Liza Minnelli in 1997 at a gala concert in Switzerland.

In 1969, Northern Illinois University put out an "unusual" job description that Ron "Mode" Modell fit.

The university was seeking a full-time trumpet professor with a classical background who could create a jazz band at NIU. Modell, who learned to play the trumpet at age 7, landed the job as founder and director of the university's first jazz band.

"During the mid-'60s and '70s there was an explosion of jazz bands both in high schools and colleges," Modell said. "NIU wanted that."

Today, at 79 years old, Modell is releasing his memoir, which is available in e-edition and paperback through Amazon. It tells his story from his boyhood in New York City, his time as a musician in Texas, and his 45 years as a DeKalb resident, where he created the NIU jazz band and was also known for umpiring local baseball games. He hopes people find interest in his adventures, with some humor thrown in.

"One day my wife said to me, 'Have you ever stopped to think about the incredible life you've lived?' " he said. "And I said, 'Really, no,' because it was just getting up and going to work every day. I loved going to work."

Music

The title of the book, “Loved Bein’ Here With You,” was inspired by a dare that would direct much of Modell’s musical life. Modell said in the third or fourth year of the NIU jazz band, singer Peggy Lee had a hit record with the song “I Love Being Here With You.”

“Just on a dare from a musician that was playing with us at the time, he heard me fooling around at a rehearsal and heard me singing Peggy Lee’s recording and wanted me to keep singing it,” he said.

Modell decided to change the words to “We Loved Being Here With You,” and an arrangement was created.

“The result became synonymous with the band,” he said. “When we would go play a concert in Iowa, Wisconsin, wherever, if I didn’t sing ‘We Loved Being Here With You,’ [the audience] would not leave the auditorium. It was sort of our trademark, at the conclusion of every concert.”

Modell said the jazz band’s popularity made it a key public relations tool for the university at a time when the football and basketball programs weren’t performing so well.

The band had received some great press in Chicago, and its success led Modell to meet many famous musicians throughout the rest of his life, including producer Quincy Jones, who provides the foreword for the book.

Baseball

Modell said as many people know him from baseball as they do music. He spent about two decades as an umpire, calling adult and youth league baseball games in the area.

No matter the age of the players, Modell said he made sure to treat them equally, by making difficult calls and being loud.

“I treated them like ballplayers,” Modell said.

“I made them feel like they were really playing ball.”

He said he enjoyed working with the youngest players the most.

“It was the biggest thrill to see 9- and 10-year-old kids, as I drove up to the field, and see four teams running toward my car,” he said. “They’d ask, ‘Are you gonna do our game? Are you gonna do our game?’ ”

Humor

Modell said humor has gotten him through many situations in life, good or bad.

For the past nine years, Modell has been trying his hand as a standup comedian performing at McCurdy’s Comedy Theater in Sarasota, Florida., when he visits the area. He said he relies on generational comedy, scanning the audience of a show prior to the start to make sure he uses appropriate cultural references.

“I became famous for my humor,” Modell said. “I’ve been told my mouth never saw a stop sign.” Some of that is in my book. It’s a fun, easy read.”

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