The Giant Legacy of Rudy Van Gelder

Greg Simmons By

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Recording Engineer Rudy Van Gelder died at home of natural causes on August 25th at the age of 91. His legacy—and it's a big one—is the countless recordings he made during modern jazz's greatest period of innovation. Almost any jazz musician of note who was making records—especially if they were working on the east coast—was captured at some point with Van Gelder at the controls. Be-boppers, hard-boppers, post-boppers, soul jazz, free jazz, fusion—pick a sub category. If you want to know what was *happening* in music in the 1950s and 60s, find a few RVG recordings. They were it!

Gallons of ink have been spilled on Rudy since his passing last month, so forgive me for throwing a few extra drops. Reading his obit in the New York Times, and listening to his old records, I can't possibly understate how ubiquitous Rudy Van Gelder's fingerprints are on the music I enjoy virtually every day. If I haven't spun a stack of RVG records at the end of each week, it's because I was out of town. It seemed almost inconsiderate not to offer a few thoughts.

The albums he cut in his heyday restore musicians who've been gone, in many cases for decades: spirits reanimated through Neumann microphones and Scotch Tape (magnetic, not desktop) at the hands of a man who—at his best—captured musical events with such visceral realism that a listener in 2016 can be transported into a session that happened sixty years ago. Whatever secret sauce Rudy Van Gelder used—and he was by accounts reticent to share the ingredients—he had a gift for capturing those sessions, making sure musicians sounded their best.

The Van Gelder sound is eloquently summed up by Music Matters' Ron Rambach who wrote, "It was Rudy who instilled that special quality of warmth, presence, realism, clarity and a balanced tone across all elements of the typical jazz ensemble as it performed in a studio setting, literally shaping the sound of modern jazz itself through his painstaking studio work. You have only to listen to anything Van Gelder touched to learn that. He didn't simply record the sound, but captured the feeling behind it."

If records were babies Family Court would have had Rudy's picture on a most-wanted poster, thick glasses and all. I've never seen anything purporting to be an accurate count of every session he ever recorded, but he cut between 400 and 500 records for Blue Note alone, plus his work for the other major jazz labels, as well as a few classical and pop recordings. His discography surely measures into the thousands. Other engineers recorded jazz, of course, and many of them were excellent, but none came anywhere close to matching Rudy's sheer production output. Perhaps second only to the musicians themselves, Rudy Van Gelder may be the man most responsible for crafting the sound of jazz.

At some point in his early years Van Gelder had attempted to learn to play the trumpet, but by his own admission his talents lay elsewhere. He never lost his attraction to music though, and he fed that attraction by embracing recording and engineering, which, as it turned out, he had enormous talent for. Initially he pursued recording as an amateur enthusiast, though he was a little more invested in his pastime than the average hobbyist. In the early 1950s he was essentially supporting his recording pastime with his day job as an optometrist. He claimed to have purchased only the second of the superior Neumann microphones sold in the United States in the late 1940s, and he also made a significant early investment in an Ampex reel-to-reel tape deck, which cost the equivalent of around $20,000 in today's dollars. He acquired both when the rest of the recording industry had yet to adopt either.

His breakthrough into professional recording came in 1953 when baritone saxophonist Gil Melle played a Van Gelder tape of himself for Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note records. Lion liked what he heard and began using the nascent professional engineer for commercial session recordings. Other labels soon followed and Van Gelder built reliable relationships with the most important jazz labels of the 1950s and 60s, a clientele, which in addition to Blue Note, included Prestige, Savoy, and Bethlehem, then later Impulse, CTI, and others.


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