I really want it to sound like that [the original vinyl] because that's what Alfred heard.
This interview was originally published in June 1999.
For many decades now, the name Rudy Van Gelder has been synonymous with recorded jazz music. The number of sessions he's done over the years easily numbers in the tens of thousands. He's been actively involved in the recording work of such quintessential jazz labels as Prestige, Impulse, Verve, CTI, and of course, Blue Note. In more recent times, Van Gelder has cut sessions for Highnote, Milestone, Reservoir, Venus, and N2K, to name just a few. In fact, drummer T.S. Monk's N2K album, Monk on Monk, was done at Van Gelder's and has received many critical plaudits, most recently being named Jazz Album of the Year in Down Beat Magazine's Annual Readers Poll. From the first time I interviewed Van Gelder in 1989 for a radio program I was producing I could sense his genuine love for the music and his great interest in the legacy he has had a hand in preserving. I found him to be no less engaging and immersed in his work, his new remastering of Blue Note classics in particular, when we had occasion to again speak on the evening of May 26th, 1999.
All About Jazz: For those readers who may not be as familiar with you career, tell me briefly about how you got involved in the recording business.
Rudy Van Gelder: Well, I was always involved in recording when I was a kid. It got to be a business shortly thereafter. I used to record my friends, many of whom were amateur musicians. I used to do it at my parents' house and then people heard about that and then I would get calls from musicians and singers in the neighborhood and they would want me to record them, which I did, making demos and that sort of grew for quite awhile. Then I started getting calls from people in the record business, private record labels at the time, and I started recording for them. That's how I got into it.
The first record I ever made that was sold as a commercial record was one of Joe Mooney, who was an organ player working around here at the time with Bucky Pizzarelli and a bassist by the name of Bob Carter. It was a working trio and I recorded them for this company called Carousel Records and it was actually available for purchase. It was played on the radio and everybody liked it. There was this station in New York, WNEW. The disc jockey was Al Collins and he used to play that every afternoon and so it got to be quite popular.
AAJ: When you started out, how much of the recording equipment was available for purchase and how much did you end up designing and constructing yourself?
RVG: When I first started making records, which was non-commercially, there was nothing available. That was how I got into it, radio and HAM radio, and I used to construct my own equipment. There were no commercial companies making recording consoles as they are today. The major record companies all built their own and if you wanted to do anything you had to do it yourself. Which I did. That's how I started. How much did I end up designing? Of course, it was everything. The only commercial designs were available through radio equipment manufacturers. They had consoles for radio purposes and that was my first console, which was actually a modified radio console. A neat little thing too. It had one meter, but it made some very nice records, some of which I'm remastering right now.
AAJ: Tell us about how you met Alfred Lion and subsequently began to record for Blue Note.
RVG: I had been recording for various independent jazz labels at the time and had never met Alfred and I recorded a band for the musician called Gil Melle. He had a nice little band and came to me through this other label, I think it was Progressive Records. Alfred acquired that record, he bought it and released that on Blue Note as a 10" LP and then he wanted to make another one. At that time, Alfred was going to a studio in New York which was incidentally also a radio studio, WOR studio in New York, and they had a business of making their recording facilities available. So, that's were Alfred went and he took that album to the engineer there and he said, "I want it to sound like this." So the engineer listened to it and told Alfred, "Look, I can't make it sound like that, you better go to the guy who did it." So that's what happened. Alfred came to me and stayed for ever after.
AAJ: You have said that the Rudy Van Gelder "sound" owes a lot to Alfred Lion and the Blue Note legacy. Please explain how Blue Note had an impact on your own development as an engineer.
RVG: In all honesty, I don't want to say that was the whole thing, but he was a large part of it and most of it was his concept of how he wanted his own records to sound and how he approached that and the task which he gave me to make sure that I could get for him what he wanted out of the musicians that he brought in. So, in that way I was subject to this on-going discipline. That formed the foundation of what I did later for different producers and different types of music. Alfred was really the first client who became the foundation of a business for me. Every session he made I recorded for him, so that label got a distinctive sound that way. There was a certain consistency and the people who bought those records would look forward to what was coming next because they knew the record would have a good sound. The musicians were all of a certain caliber and he would get a good performance out of them. So that's all what blended together to launch my adventure in this thing.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.