Loved Readin' About You, Ron

Feb 2, 2015

If you saw Ron Modell leading Northern Illinois University's Jazz Ensemble, you'd recognize the title of his memoir, Loved Bein' Here With You.

If you haven't, here's the story behind the title:

Early in his career at NIU, Modell invited trombonist Phil Wilson to perform with the ensemble. In between rehearsal sessions, Wilson heard Modell singing Peggy Lee's tune, "I Love Being Here With You," and bet $10 that Modell wouldn't have the nerve to sing it on stage:

When I sang it, I changed one word: the "I" became "We," a wonderful way to tell the audience how much we enjoyed being there with them ... The song became the NIU Jazz Ensemble's signature, and we ended every concert with it.

Modell's book begins our 2015 Winter Book Series. In it, the 80-year-old musician recounts how he founded the Jazz Ensemble, turning it into a world famous band that headlined the 1996 Montreux Jazz Festival.

He also shares memories of his childhood, including the first time he picked up a trumpet. His uncles, both principal trumpets in symphony orchestras, recommended a teacher in Manhattan -- not for him, but his older brother Sandy.

"And no matter how hard he tried," Modell says, "he couldn't make a sound." After Modell, aged 7, insisted he be given a chance, the teacher relented. "And I immediately played," he says, "and the teacher looked at my mother and said, `Don't teach Sandy; teach Ronnie!'"

Modell began studying the classical repertoire and, as a teenager, played in the Bronx Symphony Orchestra. He also landed summer gigs in the Catskills, playing with a small combo between comedy performances by Buddy Hackett, Jerry Lewis and Lenny Bruce.

For Modell, the Catskill resorts were "the musical minor leagues," where he played a mix of show tunes, waltzes, rhumbas and pop songs. By the time he graduated from high school, in 1952, he was good enough to tour with actress Cornelia Otis Skinner, who had a one-woman show.

In the late 1950s, Latin Jazz took the New York clubs by storm. Cuban bandleaders Machito and Mario Bauza infused new rhythms into a music dominated by heady, non-danceable bebop. American players like Dizzy Gillespie saw where the crowds were going and quickly formed their own Latin bands. Others, like Doc Cheatham, joined Latin ensembles. Modell also ditched his black tuxedo for vibrant colors and prints, stepping into Bauza's band when Cheatham quit:

By the way, Latin music was never called "Salsa." As Tito Puente put it, "You eat salsa, but you play mambo, meringue and cha cha." Every night the last thing we performed was a Guajira, which is the most beautiful, sexy, slow Latin dance. The saxophones would start a little riff, and then Mario Bauza would play what we call a montuno or improvised solo. There is no way to describe what you feel as a musician when music like that is being played at the very best level it can be played.

Modell played with Bauza for a year, making his first record with the band, but he had a promise to keep. Before he toured with Skinner, Modell told his uncles he'd go to college. It was a difficult decision because he loved playing -- and the money that came with regular gigs. Soon he found a place where he could work and pursue higher education: The University of Tulsa. In addition to his scholarship, he earned a regular paycheck as the principal trumpet in the Tulsa Philharmonic, and from playing in the city's opera company. He stayed for six years, earning his Bachelor's and Master's degrees.

Ron Modell
Credit Dan Klefstad

While with the Dallas Symphony, Modell interviewed for a faculty position at Northern Illinois University. In 1969, the newly-hired Associate Professor of Trumpet started building the school's jazz ensemble. He found unusual ways to introduce himself, and the band, to the community:

During my first year at NIU, I went into Sycamore to the local hardware store, owned by a wonderful family named Hepker. I walked up to the counter and told Mr. Hepker I wanted ten toilet plungers, five large ones and five small ones. Then I said "You can keep the sticks." The look on his face was priceless. A few minutes later, I went back in and explained that I was starting a new jazz program at NIU, and plungers were required in a lot of Duke Ellington and Count Basie's music. They would be held at the end of the bell of the trumpets and trombones. By opening and closing them, you were able to get a "doo wah" effect.

Much of Modell's work involved auditioning and rehearsing students, recruiting high school players, and inviting high-profile musicians to perform with the ensemble. Modell brought in legendary performers like Tito Puente, Louie Bellson and Duke Ellington, who gave his final concert at NIU on March 20, 1974.

Duke Ellington (R) with Ron Modell, 1974.
Credit www.northernnow.com

The main performance hall on the DeKalb campus was renamed in Ellington's honor after his death two months later.

The ensemble's greatest achievement was playing a 50-year retrospective of Quincy Jones' music at the 1996 Montreux Jazz Festival. Guest performers included Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, David Sanborn and other stars. In the forward to Modell's book, Jones praises the ensemble, saying, "They performed at the highest level."

In an interview with WNIJ, Modell describes three days of rehearsal followed by the performances. "We did the show twice," he says. "We had to block it for TV because it was being made into a video which is still available. Imagine those kids having Quincy Jones in front of them, and Chaka Khan over here and Patti Austin over here. It's a memory that those kids will have for the rest of their life."

Quincy Jones (L) with Ron Modell in Gstaad, Switzerland (1997).
Credit Northern Star

In the interview, Modell also explains why he gave up the trumpet in 1997, and how he started a new career in stand-up comedy. He even shares a couple of jokes he uses as part of his routine at McCurdy's in Sarasota, Fla.

Next Monday, our Winter Book Series continues with The River Caught Sunlight, a novel by Katie Andraski. The story is about a devoutly Christian woman who re-examines her faith while working as a publicist in the Christian publishing industry. Listen during Morning Edition at 6:52 and 8:52 on WNIJ. Then come back here for an author reading, photos and other information.

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