f you’ve ever heard a jazz record, chances are you’ve heard the work of Rudy Van Gelder. But you wouldn’t have heard him playing the drums, the piano, the saxophone, or the trumpet (although he had lessons in his youth) – and you wouldn’t have heard him singing into the microphone. That’s because he was the microphone. In a manner of speaking. Born in New Jersey on 2 November 1924, Rudolph (Rudy) Van Gelder became the most prominent sound engineer in American jazz history. He recorded just about every major figure in the canon, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.
A fan of jazz music from an early age, Van Gelder moonlighted as an engineer while working as an optometrist by day. He was driven by the search for high sound quality, which he did not find among his collection of major label recordings. In 1946, he built a modest recording studio at his parents’ New Jersey home, the space becoming host to a roster of local musicians and rising stars. During this period, Van Gelder began to develop a recording technique which became one of jazz’s best kept secrets, a unique and iconic recipe to rival that of Coca-Cola.
“Van Gelder began to develop a recording technique which became one of jazz’s best kept secrets”
In 1953, he was introduced to producer Alfred Lion, co-founder of the fledgling independent label Blue Note Records. He became instrumental in creating a signature sound for Blue Note, characterised by an impeccably crisp, clean recording. As Richard Brody attests in a recent tribute for the New Yorker, ‘though Van Gelder recorded music for many labels, his sound defined the sound of the Blue Note catalogue, which is the most copious and finely curated and crafted trove of modern jazz recordings that exists’. In the summer of 1959, Van Gelder was finally able to give up the day job and moved operations to a large studio in the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
Among the records Van Gelder oversaw in the 1950s and 1960s were Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else (Blue Note, 1958), Eric Dolphy’s avant-garde Out to Lunch! (Blue Note, 1964), and John Coltrane’s iconic masterpiece A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965). In addition, he documented notable works by pianists Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock, organist Jimmy Smith, and tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley. Van Gelder was even a master of the live performance, standing by to ensure that Art Blakey’s A Night at Birdland (Blue Note, 1954) and Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 1958) were preserved for prosperity.
I first came to know the name Rudy Van Gelder as a monogram: RVG. It was printed on the side of Blue Note Records CDs from the 1990s through to the present, and signals part of a hugely ambitious remastering project overseen by the engineer himself. It was through these reinvigorated recordings, which were also released on labels like Prestige, that I became acquainted with many of the key figures in modern jazz history. He documented an important period in the history of American art, and helped to preserve it for future generations to hear. For established fans and newcomers alike, Rudy Van Gelder is a guide to some of the most exciting and adventurous music of the twentieth-century.
- Richard Brody’s piece in the New Yorker, ‘Postscript: Rudy Van Gelder (1924-2016), Modern Jazz’s Listener of Genius’. [Read]
- Nate Chinen’s tribute in the New York Times, ‘How Rudy Van Gelder Shaped the Sound of Jazz as We Know It’ [Read]
- Peter Keepnews (son of Orrin Keepnews, jazz writer and founder of Riverside Records) in the New York Times, ‘Rudy Van Gelder, Audio Engineer Who Helped Define Sound of Jazz on Record, Dies at 91’ [Read]