When Modell was assigned to create a jazz program at the University from scratch, he already had some experience: before joining the NIU, he successfully established a stage band at Southern Methodist University in Texas. NIU Jazz Ensemble played the first concert in October 1969, only six weeks after the launch. Under the talented leadership and with a strong cast of musicians, the orchestra quickly rose to the national fame. In the summer of 1977, NIU Jazz Ensemble joined Dizzy Gillespie as the featured performers at the annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) at Dallas.
In 1983, PBS aired a documentary called A Year in the Life of the Greatest College Jazz Band in America about the orchestra, which won two Chicago Emmy awards. NIU Jazz Ensemble traveled to Europe that summer and appeared at the famous Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The live recording of that concert was released in 1984. The ensemble performed at the 54th annual Midwest Music Clinic in Chicago with saxophonist Jimmy Heath as the guest artist, and at the 28th annual IAJE Conference in New York with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. In the summer of 1996, the NIU Jazz Orchestra returned to the Montreux Jazz Festival as Quincy Jones big band with guest artists Phil Collins, Patti Austin, David Sanborn, Gerald Albright, Chaka Kahn, and James Morrison.
During the summer of 2001, the band performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, Jazz à Vienne Festival in France, and Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.