Rudy Van Gelder
Often regarded as one of the most important recording engineers in music history, Van Gelder has recorded several thousand jazz sessions, including many widely recognized as classics, in a career spanning more than half a century. Van Gelder has recorded many of the great names in the genre, including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Grant Green, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, and many others. He worked with many record companies, but he is most closely associated with Blue Note Records.
Van Gelder's interest in microphones and electronics can be traced to a youthful enthusiasm for amateur radio. A longtime jazz fan (his uncle, for whom Rudy was named, had been drummer for Ted Lewis's band in the mid-1930s), Van Gelder himself had lessons on trumpet. In 1946, Van Gelder recorded friends in his parents' Hackensack, New Jersey house, in which his parents had a special control room designed and built. "When I first started, I was interested in improving the quality of the playback equipment I had", Van Gelder commented in 2005. "I never was really happy with what I heard. I always assumed the records made by the big companies sounded better than what I could reproduce. So that's how I got interested in the process. I acquired everything I could to play back audio: speakers, turntables, amplifiers". One of Van Gelder's friends, baritone saxophonist Gil Mellé, introduced him to Blue Note Records producer Alfred Lion around 1952.
Within a few years Van Gelder was in demand by many other independent labels based around New York, including Prestige Records and Savoy Records. Bob Weinstock, owner of Prestige, recalled in 1999, "Rudy was very much an asset. His rates were fair and he didn’t waste time. When you arrived at his studio he was prepared. His equipment was always ahead of its time and he was a genius when it came to recording."
Full-time career as recording engineer
Until the late 1950s Van Gelder worked during the day as an optometrist. In the summer of 1959, Van Gelder moved his operations to a larger studio in Englewood Cliffs, a few miles south east of the original location, and left his day job in favor of recording full-time. The new studios' structure was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and bore some resemblance to a chapel, with high ceilings and fine acoustics.
In the mid-1950s, Thelonious Monk composed a tribute to Van Gelder called "Hackensack." It was in Englewood Cliffs where John Coltrane recorded his A Love Supreme album for Impulse! Records in 1964. Other labels, such as Verve Records, made use of the new facility while Blue Note and Prestige continued their associations with Van Gelder for several years.
Associations decline and later career
In 1967, Alfred Lion retired from running Blue Note, and the company's owners, Liberty Records (from 1965), began to use other engineers more regularly. Prestige, too, had started to use other studios a few years earlier. Van Gelder remained active in music, most notably as the engineer for most of Creed Taylor's CTI Records releases, a series of proto-smooth jazz albums that were financially successful but not always well received by critics.
Though his output slowed, Van Gelder still remains active as a recording engineer. In the late 90's he worked as a recording engineer for some of the songs featured on the soundtrack to the TV Show Cowboy Bebop. Since 1999, he has been busy remastering the analog Blue Note recordings he made several decades ago into 24-bit digital recordings in its ongoing RVG Edition series, and also for a similar series of re-masters featuring some of the Prestige albums he recorded for its current owners, Concord Records.
Van Gelder still resides in Englewood Cliffs.
The Van Gelder 'sound'
Van Gelder was secretive about his recording methods, leading to much speculation among fans and critics about particular details. His recording techniques are often admired[according to whom?] for their warmth and presence. Some critics[who?], however, have also expressed distaste for the thin and recessed sound of the instruments, mainly the piano. Richard Cook called Van Gelder's characteristic method of recording and mixing the piano "as distinctive as the pianists' playing" itself. Blue Note president and producer Alfred Lion criticized Van Gelder for what Lion felt was his occasional overuse of reverb, and would jokingly refer to this trait as a "Rudy special" on tape boxes. Despite his dominance in recorded jazz, some artists avoided Van Gelder's studio. Bassist and composer Charles Mingus refused to record with Van Gelder, stating "[Van Gelder] changes people's sounds".
Awards and Honors
- "Rudy Van Gelder" by Steve Huey for allmusic.com; URL accessed 31 July 2007
- Dan Skea "Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack: Defining the Jazz Sound in the 1950s", Musicological Studies, 71/72, Spring 2001-Spring 2002, p.54-76, 56, 57
- Davis, Miles, (with Quincy Troupe), Miles, the autobiography, New York : Simon and Schuster, 1989. ISBN 0-671-63504-2. Cf. pp.176-177 on Rudy Van Gelder's recording studio in Hackensack.
- Jeff Forlenza "Who Cares About Quality? Rudy Van Gelder!" Mix, 1 May 2005
- In "The Prestige Story" liner notes quoted by Ira Gitler "Vangelder’s Studio", Jazz Times, April 2001
- Vox LP liner notes and dead wax (matrix) stamps and etchings, LPs STPL 58.520, STPL 514.070, STPL 512.730, STPL 510.330, STPL 511.110
- "Rudy Van Gelder", Biographical article at the All About Jazz website, 1 December 2007
- Gitler, Ira, "Vangelder’s Studio", JazzTimes magazine, April 2001
- Cowboy Bebop soundtrack liner notes
- Rudy Van Gelder Series
- The State of Jazz: Meet 40 More Jersey Greats, The Star-Ledger, September 28, 2004
- Cook, Richard. Blue Note Records: The Biography. Boston: Justin Charles, 2003; ISBN 1-932112-10-3
- MINGUS: A Critical Biography by Brian Priestley, Da Capo Press (April 1, 1984), 340 pages, ISBN 0-306-80217-1
- In Conversation with Rudy Van Gelder by Andy Karp (Jazz.com)
- Susan Stamberg visits the recording studio of Rudy Van Gelder. 15:10 (npr.org)