Rob Pronk: Weaver Of Musical Spells

By Mike Hennessey

For a man who has written more than 1,200 arrangements for Holland's magnificent Metropole Orchestra, played trumpet in the band of Kurt Edelhagen, piano with Dexter Gordon, Don Byas, Johnny Griffin, Conte Candoli, Frank Rosolino, Zoot Sims and ke Persson, to name just a few, and written arrangements for recordings by Rob McConnell, Pepper Adams, Hank Jones, Bill Perkins, Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, Toots Thielemans, Clark Terry, Lee Konitz, Lew Tabackin, Claudio Roditi, Andy Martin and dozens more, Robert "Rob" Pronk is a musician whose level of recognition falls far short of his talent and accomplishments.

A self-effacing man with a most appealing sense of humour, which manifests itself from time to time in his charts, Rob Pronk has dedicated himself to Jazz and associated music forms since he gave up studying economics in 1949 to become a professional musician.

Born in Malang, Indonesia, on January 3, 1928, Rob did not have great exposure to Jazz music in early childhood because his father, a railway engineer, was a fan of Charlie Kunz and Victor Sylvester. However, at the age of six he did hear Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" on the radio and was immediately hooked.

Rob's mother sang and played a little piano, and it is typical of Pronk that he says: "My mother would hold me in her arms and sing to me and I used to cry. But not because she sang out of tune."

At the age of eight he began taking piano lessons, but they only lasted for six months because the family was constantly on the move. In 1946, Rob had the good fortune to meet Jerry van Rooyen, when he brought a big band to Indonesia to entertain the troops. Says Rob, "Jerry was later to teach me the fundamentals of arranging and I owe him a great debt of gratitude."

In 1947, at the age of 19, Rob moved to Holland, studied economics at Rotterdam University and gained a bachelor's degree. At this stage in his life he was undecided as to whether to pursue a career in economics or become a professional musician. Happily for music, he finally chose the latter option and enrolled at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague where he studied trumpet, piano and theory.

Rob Pronk's first gigs, in 1949, were on a ship in an international student exchange programme. He began by playing drums, then switched to piano. His idols at that time were Duke Ellington, still an uncontested No. 1, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson.

It was on one of these exchange trips that he spent some days in New York and visited Bop City where he heard the Buddy De Franco Sextet, which included Jimmy Raney, Kenny Drew, Teddy Kotick and Art Taylor. He also had the opportunity to enjoy performances by Louis Armstrong's All Stars and Louis Jordan's Tympany Five.

In the late 1950s, Rob joined the trumpet section of the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra in Cologne and soon became its principal arranger. During that period he was called upon to write an arrangement of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" for Benny Carter who was guesting with the band. Says Pronk: "Benny paid me a great compliment. He said that it sounded like a Quincy Jones arrangement. I felt like a king!"

In the 1960s, Pronk subbed for a week on trumpet in the long-established Dutch band, the Ramblers, and it was then that a colleague in the trumpet section, who was house arranger for the Metropole Orchestra, suggested that he should try writing some charts for this illustrious ensemble.

Rob took up the challenge, met it highly impressively, and, went on to contribute more than 1,200 arrangements to the Metropole library. He has derived tremendous satisfaction from his work with the Metropole Orchestra, which he regards as an aggregation which has no parallel anywhere in the world.

Says Rob: "It is a unique ensemble. It is not simply a big band with an added string section. It is a totally integrated unit and it is a tremendous challenge to write for it, but it is also a hugely fulfilling experience."

Pronk says that, aside from the invaluable help he had from Jerry van Rooyen in developing his arranging skills, he learned by trial and error. "And," he says with a smile, "there were many errors".

He cites as his principal hero in the field of arranging, the late Billy May. "For me," says Ron, "he was the arranger. The master. But I also have great admiration for Bill Holman, Al Cohn, Quincy Jones and Gil Evans."

One memory which Rob Pronk treasures above all was his being commissioned to produce and write the arrangements for a Marlene Dietrich album, "Die Neue Marlene", recorded at the EMI Studios in St John's Wood in September 1964. He conducted a 40-piece orchestra which included Kenny Baker, Harry Roche, Bobby Orr, Kenny Clare, Ivor Mairants and Larry Adler.

He also fondly recalls three sessions in Stockholm:

One in 1953 for Carousel, on which he played piano with Zoot Sims, Bob Burgess, Frank Rosolino, ke Persson, Stan Levy and Don Bagley;

One in 1983 for the Sonet label, "In Goodmans Land", with Georgie Fame, Sylvia Vrethammar and a studio big band, and

Another for Sonet in 1988 called "String Along With Basie", for which he transcribed Basie charts for four guitars (Rune Gustafsson, George Wadenius, Bob Sylven and Bobbo Andersson) plus bass and drums.

Pronk's spell as principal arranger for the Metropole Orchestra lasted for more than 30 years, his last recording being with trombonist Andy Martin in 1998. In 1975 he was appointed guest conductor with the orchestra a post he held for 21 years. Last year, the Metropole administration decided to honour him with a tribute concert to which he was able to invite two special guests of his own choosing.

Rob recalls: "The concert was set for June 1, with my old friend John Clayton Jr. conducting the orchestra, and I planned to invite Bill Perkins and Andy Martin. But, unfortunately, Bill's doctors advised him not to do the gig because of his rapidly deteriorating physical condition. I was lucky enough to be able to get Pete Christlieb to deputise for him and he did a great job.

"Bill Perkins died in August last year and his memorial concert at the Union in Los Angeles was a must for me to attend. I had known him since 1964 and I miss him dearly. He was on my first CD with the Metropole Orchestra, "I Wished On The Moon"."

For the tribute concert last June, the Metropole Orchestra compiled a CD of 18 of the Pronk charts they had recorded between 1982 and 1992 which was presented to the 200 guests who attended the event in the Nordring Radio's largest studio.

Says Rob: "I can't tell you how honoured I was to have Pete Christlieb and Andy Martin with us on that occasion. That was a very emotional event and it took me weeks to get both my feet back on the ground."

As well as being an arranger of the utmost versatility, Pronk is immensely resourceful and has an appealingly whimsical streak to his musical nature which asserts itself from time to time. The arrangement of "I'm Just Wild About Harry", which he wrote in 1986 as a feature for the remarkable guitarist Eef Albers with the Metropole Orchestra, is a good example. It is taken at a furious pace and, in the out chorus, there are key changes every four bars in the first 24, from F to Eb to D to Bb to F and then to Eb.

In addition to his arranging activities, Rob Pronk taught arranging and composition for many years at Rotterdam Conservatory. He won the Nordring Radio Prize in 1981 and the Blaupunkt Music Award in 1988.

Johnny Mandel has said of Pronk: "He is truly a weaver of spells. Not only is he able to draw forth moods and textures from an orchestra that I have never heard before, but he also swings his butt off."

And Bill Perkins said, "I believe he ranks with the finest of our modern composer/arranger/conductors."

Says Rob: "When I look back on my 50-plus years as a professional musician, one of the abiding sources of satisfaction for me is that I had the fantastic good fortune to work with so many of the great musicians I idolised back in the 1940s and 1950s.

"One of the greatest moments in my career occurred in June 1991, when Ken Poston of the KLON radio station in Los Angeles put together an orchestra to perform a concert playing arrangements I had written for the Metropole Orchestra. I conducted the orchestra and guest soloists were Dianne Schuur, Buddy de Franco, Art Farmer, Chuck Findley, Gary Foster and Carl Fontana.

"I got the shock of my life when, during one rehearsal, a man walked up to me and introduced himself as Pete Rugulo. He asked to have a look at my charts because he wanted to see how I scored for strings.

"And another great happening for me was the presence at the concert of Artie Shaw, then 81-years-old, accompanied by Arnold Schnberg's daughter. He was planning a tour and he asked me if he could use some of my charts. Imagine that! The man I idolised as a teenager wanting to use my arrangements! And the next day, to cap it all, Artie took Buddy DeFranco and me out to dinner."

by Mike Hennessey, pianist, composer, author

John Clayton on Rob Pronk

After I moved to Holland in 1979, I heard about this arranger guy, Rob Pronk. When I first heard his music, he immediately struck me as the most soulful arranger in Europe. Not only did he know how to handle any size ensemble, he also knew how to write in every style that I could think of (that I enjoyed listening to!). He is great at writing in classical settings, big band and bebop and he can burn a hole in the score sheet with his blues! For more than 20 years, I've loved listening to his music, studying his scores and stealing his ideas! Sometimes I impress myself with my superb taste! Rob's fan forever.

- John Clayton

All rights reserved. Jazz Now July 2004 issue

Jazz Now Interactive July 2004 Vol 14 No. 3 - Table of Contents