LEGENDARY RECORDING ENGINEER RUDY VAN GELDER HAS PASSED AWAY
Photo 1: In 2000, Rudy Van Gelder poses by the Hammond C-3 organ used by Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Ray Charles and others in his recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. (John Munson/NJ Star-Ledger file photo)
Legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder passed away on August 25, 2016 at the age of 91. Van Gelder is regarded as the greatest of jazz engineers, being responsible for the warm, natural sound that distinguished Blue Note Records from the mid-1950s through the 1960s, as well as upon other labels such as Prestige and Impulse.
Van Gelder's early attraction to recording began as a child when he purchased a three dollar home recording device that was advertised on the back of a comic book and came with a turntable and blank recording discs. He became involved with amateur radio as a teenager which led to an interest in microphones and electronics. When asked about his interest in jazz, Van Gelder said “Well, that started right from the very beginning, even when I was a kid. That was the music I loved. When I’d buy records, I’d ask the people who made the ones I liked most what kind of microphones they used. The microphones mattered.”
In an interview with Marc Myers, Van Gelder said, “One day during my college years, my friends and I went to visit WCAU, a Philadelphia radio station. Back then it was a CBS network station, and the environment there was very serious and precise. I don’t recall why we went, but I do remember being in the control room while they were on the air. A powerful feeling swept over me. The music, the equipment's design, the seriousness of the place—I knew I wanted to spend my career in that type of environment.”
Because Van Gelder didn't think he could make a living with his first love, he studied at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Philadelphia and practiced until 1959. Since recording consoles were not available commercially, Van Gelder made his own equipment and set up a studio in his parents' living room in Hackensack, NJ. “As a matter of fact,” Van Gelder said in an interview, “at one point my parents actually put an extra entry door to the building to their own living quarters so they could come in, in case I was recording.”
Photo 2: The home in Hackensack, NJ where so many classic jazz sessions were recorded. (photo: Marc Myers, jazzwax.com)
In 1953, saxophonist Gil Melle introduced Van Gelder to Blue Note Records co-owner Alfred Lion. This was the start of a fourteen year association during which time Van Gelder engineered virtually all of the label's output. Additionally, Van Gelder was recording for Prestige Records. He said, “I was examining eyes on Monday and recording Miles Davis on Wednesday. I was driven to make the music sound closer to the way it sounded in the studio. This was a constant struggle — to get electronics to accurately capture the human spirit.” Thelonious Monk's composition “Hackensack” was a dedication to Van Gelder and the unique atmosphere of his studio.
Photo 3: Van Gelder with Blue Note Records producer Alfred Lion
Photo 4: Horace Silver at Lee Morgan Volume II session, December 2, 1956, Hackensack, NJ
Photo 5: John Coltrane at the Blue Train session, September 15, 1957, Hackensack, NJ
photos: Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records
Sonny Rollins told NPRs Felix Contreras, “It wasn’t the days when … everybody comes by and listens in the booth and sees how it sounds. No, no — if we did it, we knew the recording would be impeccable, and perfect. And so we came in, did our recordings, and we left. Next thing, the record comes out with superb sound. Hey, well, that’s Rudy. Rudy was the engineer.”
Photo 6: Sonny Rollins
Photo 7: Miles Davis: Steamin'
In 1959 Van Gelder's reputation had reached the point that he could quit his day job and he poured all of his money into creating his own, adequately sized home and studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. “I'll give you an example,” Van Gelder said, “Gil Evans, he had music in his head that was just incredible and as time went on people discovered it. He brought a nine-piece band into Hackensack, into the living room. I knew then I couldn't do it right. I have a responsibility to the producer and to the musician. I couldn't do that (in Hackensack) and that was my motivation.” The new studio's design was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright with input from one of Wright's students and bore resemblance to a chapel, with high ceilings and fine acoustics. Van Gelder's wife, Elva, a classical pianist, was instrumental in determining the design.
Photo 8: Ray Charles
Photo 9: Jimmy Smith
The list of recordings upon which Van Gelder participated is simply staggering. He was engineer for the Prestige recordings of Miles Davis's first great quintet featuring John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, as well as for numerous other Prestige dates. In addition to the immense number and consistently excellent quality of releases by Blue Note, for Impulse Records he recorded John Coltrane, including “A Love Supreme”, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson and Ray Charles (Genius+Soul=Jazz); and the list of companies recording at the studio for over five decades has also included Verve, Riverside, CTI, GRP, Muse and the classical label, Vox.
When Blue Note Records was resurrected in 1985 Van Gelder again recorded for that label and, more recently, sessions for Fantasy, Reservoir, Sharp Nine and High Note records. Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder series of remasters includes hundreds of albums and Toshiba-EMI also called upon him to remaster some Capitol sessions, including albums by Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis. In 2013 organist Joey DeFrancesco released his High Note album “One For Rudy”, dedicated to and engineered by the now legendary Van Gelder.
Photo 10: Eric Dolphy
Photo 11: Wynton Kelly/ Wes Montgomery
Van Gelder was notoriously secretive about his recording techniques. “I'll tell you this,” he said to Marc Myers, “I used Neumann condenser mikes before anyone else did. I bought one of the first ones sold here. They were extremely sensitive and warm-sounding." Interestingly, he said that he never experimented with new equipment on Blue Note recording sessions. When he bought a new microphone or other equipment, he would test them on other sessions where the producers were less particular. Van Gelder embraced digital recording and believed the cause of poor digital sound was inadequate recording and mixing techniques.
In 2012, the National Academy of Record Arts and Sciences honored Van Gelder with its Trustees Award recognizing his lifelong contribution to jazz recording. He also received the American Engineering Society's Gold Medal and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Van Gelder was working on a mix the week before he passed away. When he died, he was just down the hall from his world-renowned studio.