Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Rob Madna: The Wizard of Dutch Jazz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Rob was also a teacher of mathematics and maybe that had also something to do with the fact that he became a wizard in harmony. He was a very straight ahead and honest person and he only wanted to play the music he liked. That was one of the reasons he gave up his job as a professional musician and became a teacher in mathematics. That way he had a steady income in order to give his family financial support and he could still play the music he loved on a very high level. Later on he got an offer for a teaching position at the conservatory in Amsterdam, which he accepted and he became a great inspiration for young upcoming pianists.’
- Eric Ineke, drummer, bandleader and educator

Thanks to the efforts Jazz buddies and Jazz musicians based in The Netherlands, I’ve have been able to piece together a modicum of awareness of the Dutch Jazz scene.

Each in their own way has been a regular source of information, education and awareness about “Jazz Behind the Dikes.” [the phrase comes from the title of one of the earliest compilations of the music of Dutch Jazz groups which was released on Philips Records in 1955.]

For a country with a population of 16.8 million people - about the same number of people are in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties; four of the five counties that make up the greater part of southern California - the Dutch have produced quite a respectable number of distinguished Jazz musicians, many of whom have been previously featured on these pages.

Because of my “inside connections,” I have been made especially privy to knowledge about many of the talented composer-arrangers who write charts for big bands, but who don’t lead their own orchestras.

Occasionally, individual or retrospectives performances of the work of these less well-known big band arrangers is the focus of concerts by publicly and/or privately supported resident Dutch orchestras such at The Metropole Orchestra [which includes a string section], The Metropole Big Band [sans strings], the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, the Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra, and the Dutch Jazz Orchestra.

The Metropole, although based in Hilversum about 35 kilometers SE of Amsterdam frequently gives concerts at the Bimhuis, the musicians union concert hall based in Amsterdam, the country’s capital city. The Concertgebouw’s Jazz Orchestra is resident in that great concert hall which is located in Den Hague while the Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra is resident in the North Sea port city that bears its name. Rotterdam also hosts the annual North Sea Jazz Festival at which the Dutch jazz Orchestra has made frequent appearance.

One of these appearance by the DJO at the NSJF has particular meaning for me because it was at that festival in 2008 that the big band paid tribute to the music of Rob Madna who was the DJO’s musical director for a short time when it was first organized in 1983.

The title of this piece derives from the fact that Rob was a very analytical individual who solved problems of technique and perception in a very deliberate manner. He taught himself to play piano, how to arrange music for a big band and established himself as both a professor of music at a conservatory level and as a university professor in mathematics. “Wizard,” perhaps is an understatement. Mathematics has been described as “the bridge to infinity” and is no doubt a suitable training ground for the infinite variation that is Jazz improvisation. It was Rob’s genius to be able to function and create in both universes, thus bridging the worlds of Mathematics with the world of Jazz.

I first became familiar with Rob when I heard him as a pianist in a trio with Dick Bezemer on bass and Wessel Ilcken on drums. Later in his career, Rob could often be heard in the company of Marius Beets on bass and Eric Ineke on drums as a trio or as a rhythm section for Ferdinand Povel, an excellent tenor saxophonist.

That rhythm section was joined by Ferdinand Povel, the dynamic Dutch soprano and tenor saxophonist, for a club date at Cafe Nick Vollebregt, Laren, The Netherlands and the July 4, 1976 performances by the group were recorded by Ruud Kleyn of Dutch NPS Radio and subsequently issued on CD in 2003 as Broadcast Business ‘76: The Rob Madna Trio featuring Ferdinand Povel [Daybreak DB CHR 75162].

Harm Mobach provided these descriptive insert notes which will give you some background information about Rob Madna’s career in music and a brief discography of his recordings.

Rob Madna (1931-2003)

“Rob Madna, one of the founders of modern jazz in postwar Holland, died on April 5th, 2003. He'd been active for many years as a pianist, trumpet player, composer, arranger, bandleader and teacher. His death came as something of a shock, in and out of Holland; only the month before, Madna had been conducting workshops for members of German bandleader Peter Herbolzheimer's Orchestra. Foreign and domestic students at the Amsterdam Conservatory counted on him to tweak their emerging concepts. And he still had plenty of ideas and plans he never got to execute.

Rob Madna was born in The Hague on June 8, 1931, the son of an Indonesian father and Dutch mother. His interest in music was kindled during World War II. As he'd tell it later, his parents had two records that fascinated him, one by Mildred Bailey with Teddy Wilson and a recording of "My Man's Gone Now" from Porgy and Bess. He taught himself to play piano by ear, and after the war, while still in high school, he quickly ripened into a respected modern pianist, initially inspired (like many Dutch colleagues at the time) by West Coast jazz musicians.

In 1950 he started playing professionally in the Amsterdam jazz club Sheherazade, with a small group led by the American drummer Wally Bishop; by the following year he was a member of the Rob Pronk Boptet. In 1953, he was reunited with Bishop for a club gig in Dusseldorf, where by chance Lionel Hampton's band was also playing. Hamp's trumpeter Art Farmer came down to check them out and wound up sitting in for five hours. (Madna met Hampton trumpeter Quincy Jones then too.)

After an engagement in Sweden in 1954, he entered military service—"the greatest disappointment in my life" he called it later. But he was granted leave to participate in the first studio recording of Dutch modernists, anthologies issued as Jazz from Holland and Jazz Behind the Dikes. Subsequently he backed American stars like Phil Woods, Dexter Gordon, Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, played in a Freddie Hubbard quartet, and has worked with valve trombonist and arranger Bob Brookmeyer and trumpeter-bandleader Thad Jones. (More on Jones in a minute.)

During the 1970s, Madna had started and written for a rehearsal band which more or less spun off from Frans Elsen's so-called Hobby Orchestra. Madna also arranged and composed for Jerry van Rooijen's Dutch Jazz Orchestra, in which he played piano and trumpet. This connection ultimately led to the recording of the 1996 double-CD Update, Music from Rob Madna. (He'd picked up trumpet only at age forty, but ultimately preferred flugelhorn.) Madna had also investigated the potential of synthesizers; there's a live recording of the Rob Madna Fusion Group, from 2001, which has yet to be issued.


When Madna mentioned his influences in interviews, he seldom brought up pianists first. He's always valued Bud Powell, Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock but his greatest model was a horn player: Miles Davis. Madna had been transfixed by his 1949-50 Birth of the Cool recordings, before he caught Miles (with John Coltrane) in 1956. Hearing them play "Stablemates" and "How Am I To Know" really hooked him. Madna once said, "Miles Davis has been enormously important to me. His playing was as natural as speech — you could hear the human voice coming through. (Miles once said: 'I'd like to play the way Orson Welles speaks'.) And he also had that tremendous feeling for 'time.' To me he's the great role model."

And then there's Thad Jones. Back when Rob Madna's 'big-band period' started, his friend and mentor Jerry van Rooijen had pressed him to start writing orchestral arrangements. When Madna protested he didn't have the training, Van Rooijen said, "Use your imagination; you've heard enough." When he hunkered down to it, Madna took particular inspiration from Jones, then co-leading his own fine big band with drummer Mel Lewis. (It had also started as a rehearsal band.) Madna had met Jones in Hilversum, Holland, when the trumpeter was recording with the Metropole Orchestra. Later when Jones heard Madna with the radio band the Skymasters, he invited him to join his orchestra for a European tour — an invitation Madna alas had to reject, as he was busy with his other career as a mathematics master at the time.

With typical modesty, Madna disparaged his writing as too much like Jones's. He went too far, but there are similarities: his writing is traditional and modern at the same time, rhythmically dynamic, with simple melodies beautifully harmonized. From Jones he also learned to respect other musicians. In 2000 he said, "When we in Europe judged someone's playing, we'd say it was 'OK, but...'. When Jones talked about members of his band, like trumpeter Snooky Young, he emphasized only the good things.'

Conservatory Teacher

Rob Madna also made his mark as an educator. Even into his 70s, he continued to mentor and teach piano students in the Jazz Department of the Amsterdam Conservatory. Colleagues and students esteemed him for his skill and musicality, his conviction and empathy, and the joy he brought to teaching. The thoughtful quality that characterized his playing revealed itself in the criticism he offered, always based on broad experience.

Broadcast Business '76

The CD Broadcast Business '76 is no memorial album, having been in the works for some time, and the quality of this 1976 live recording of Madna's trio with guest Ferdinand Povel speaks for itself. For one thing, the opener is a seldom-heard Thad Jones tune, "Quietude," recorded by Thad and Mel in 1969. The album also features a rare appearance by Povel on soprano sax, and '70s Madna staple, Billy Strayhorn's "U.M.M.G. (Upper Manhattan Medical Group)."

Everyone's in excellent form. Madna's playing has his characteristic harmonic richness, and he audibly inspires the swinging bassist Koos Serierse and drummer Eric Ineke. And Ferdinand Povel's playing flows here in a way I've never heard elsewhere. On Coltrane's "Like Sonny" and "Satellite," he rips through the harmonies sometimes, maintaining tightrope control. Another player Povel admires, Joe Henderson, wrote the ballad "I Know You Care," inspiring a particularly emotive tenor solo.

Comparing this live recording from a cafe in Laren with the 2000 Madna CD 'en blanc et noir' #6 (Daybreak DRCHR75095) may lead you to conclude that Broadcast Business '76 is in fact Povel's date. There are two of his tunes, "In An Aquarian Mood" (for the astrologically-minded, he was born on February 13), and "Pori." (Povel had appeared at Finland's Pori festival in 1974). The level of interplay between Rob Madna and Ferdinand Povel was always very high, and this impressive CD is a key part of Rob Madna's musical legacy.”

The following video features the Dutch Jazz Orchestra performing Rob’s brilliant arrangement of The End of A Love Affair.

1 comment:

  1. A nice read, and a meticulous piece of information about one of the important Dutch jazz musicians, thanks. I interviewed pianist and also one of Holland's prime musicians, Rob Agerbeek for my blog last year and he mentioned Rob Madna as one of his influences and an important mentor.


    Best wishes, Francois


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