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.

Unlike many recording engineers, Van Gelder took ownership of the entire recording and post-recording process short of actually pressing the records. He manipulated the recording mixer in real time to—for example—compensate for Sonny Rollins walking around his mic instead of playing into it (Newk's Time BST-84001). All of the sessions were cut live to one-track and later two-track tape, and editing, if it needed to be done at all, was minimal and performed with the blade of a knife. The lathes that converted that sound from the tape to the stamper were also operated in Van Gelder's shop, generally by his own hand. By managing the entire process he could ensure that the final records sounded as close as possible to they way they had on the tape, and each record bore his hallmark: a small 'RVG' written, and later stamped, into the dead wax. He took great pride, in his own words, in how "to make the musicians sound the way they want to be heard."

Incredibly, for his first six years or so as a professional engineer, recording sessions were held in his parents, Sarah and Louis Van Gelder's living room. He'd move the furniture aside and set up chairs, microphones and cables where he needed them. Period photos, particularly ones taken by Francis Wolf for Blue Note, show the Van Gelder 'studio' for what it was: a family room complete with his mother's lamps and drapes. The room had a window cut through an interior wall to a bedroom that was used as the recording booth. Van Gelder's parents must have been supportive considering the constant stream of musicians coming through the house, often into the wee hours of the morning. Blue Note's Alfred Lion, in particular, preferred to record at night. Thelonious Monk named a song, Hackensack, for the place.

The overall sound of the early recordings is warm and immediate, but with hard edges where they're required—the ripping vibrations of a saxophone, for example. Drums are dynamic, resonant, and often loud, but balanced, never overpowering the rest of the instruments. Horns sound as though they're connected to living breathing musicians, with spit and the occasional gasping included. On the best of these recordings the aural imaging is bigger than life. Turn out the lights and close your eyes and it's easy to imagine Hank Mobley blowing right in front of you.

Recording in the living room, rather than a purpose built studio, did create unique challenges. The room was a more intimate space, which musicians seemed to like, but it was also much smaller than a true studio. The instruments had to be positioned close together, leaving little if any space for baffling between them. A friend described it this way: 'Imagine trying to capture a piano cleanly with a microphone while Art Blakey is pounding away three feet to your left.' Indeed it was the piano that was affected the most by the environment. To minimize bleed-over, the microphones were placed very close to the strings. As a result, the notes were captured but the instrument sounded a little compressed. Rudy got the piano cleanly, but didn't always get the scale and any sense of the instrument in a physical space. The effect varies between recordings and eased over time, but that sonic signature remains the dead giveaway of an RVG recording. That anomaly is part of what makes a Van Gelder recording a Van Gelder recording.

By the time his actual studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ opened in July of 1959, recording first some tracks of Ike Quebec and then the inaugural album, Walter Davis Jr.'s Davis Cup, Van Gelder had already cut hundreds of now-legendary records featuring the eras top musicians: Monk, Mobley, Rollins, Blakey, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, and many, many more. That Van Gelder was able to begin his extraordinary career by making such exceptional recordings in the family living room is truly extraordinary.

The Music

No discussion of Rudy Van Gelder would be complete without a little music. We're not going to attempt the futile exercise of naming his "best" recordings. That would be impossible. There are so many, and the sound is so consistent, that personal preference will have to stand in for scientific method. Among hundreds of RVG recordings in my collection there are a few that really stand out, for a variety of reasons.


Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (Prestige 1959) is a relatively early monaural recording made in the living room in 1954. This is as good a mono Van Gelder recording as there is to hear. The sound is vivid.

This is the legendary session where Monk and Davis supposedly argued, and depending on who's telling he story, may have come to blows, after Davis told Monk to lay out while he was soloing. There have been so many variations on the story of this session—with multiple versions sometimes told by the same people -that it's really impossible to know what happened for sure. There was friction between the two—no one argues the point -but beyond that, who knows.

It was also one of the first records (a CD actually) that I purchased as a jazz newbie sometime in the early 1990s: maybe my second or third album. I knew who Miles Davis was, of course, and I had this vague awareness from somewhere in the ether of a guy with a really strange name: Thelonious Monk. I'd never heard any of Monk's music, and I didn't know a thing about him, but out of curiosity alone I bought the album. The first track, "The Man I Love" (Take 2), pulled me into jazz like nothing I'd heard before it, and very little I've heard since.

There's a section on the track where monk is taking his solo and, at least to my tender ears circa 1994, it just doesn't seem like it's getting off the ground. He's plinking a note here and plunking another there, but it's fractured, not building any momentum. It doesn't seem to be solidifying into anything coherent when Monk suddenly stops playing altogether, leaving the bass and drums continuing alone. Then, from somewhere off mic and recessed in the mix, Davis blows a nine-note phrase that Monk instantly latches on to, running with it to complete what ends up being a short but perfect statement. It's one of those magic moments of improvisational interplay that could just as easily have failed and wound up dead on the cutting room floor. Instead, it became -in my own utterly unqualified opinion -one of the greatest sixty-seconds in all of recorded jazz. From that record on I was more than interested, I was hooked!
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