Rudy Van Gelder
"What an honor this is. Speaking with Chairman Gioia was a pleasure, especially when he told me I recorded half his record collection.
"I thought of all the great jazz musicians I've recorded through the years, how lucky I've been that the producers I worked with had enough faith in me to bring those musicians to me to record-it all started in a small living room in Hackensack, New Jersey.
"Then I thought, 'I'll have to get a suit.'"
Considered by many the greatest recording engineer in jazz, Rudy Van Gelder—recipient of the 2009 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy—recorded practically every major jazz musician of the 1950s and 1960s on thousands of albums.
Van Gelder became involved with amateur radio as a teenager, which led to his interest in microphones and electronics. Since recording consoles were not then manufactured commercially, he created his own equipment and set up a studio in his parents' living room in Hackensack, New Jersey. An optometrist by day, Van Gelder began recording local jazz musicians in his free time.
In 1953, saxophonist Gil Mellé introduced Van Gelder to Blue Note founder Alfred Lion, beginning a 14-year association with the label. He recorded practically every session that Blue Note produced during that time period, from obscure sessions like Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims in 1956 to the popular Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock in 1965. Van Gelder's notable recordings helped establish Blue Note's reputation as an elite jazz label. They also enticed other labels, such as Prestige, Savoy, and Impulse!, to seek out his recording skills.
In 1959, needing a larger space for Blue Note and his other clients, Van Gelder finally quit his day job and moved his studio to a new facility he built in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where he has remained until his passing. He became the house engineer for Creed Taylor's CTI label in the early 1970s.
The signature Van Gelder sound featured a clearly defined separation among the instruments, ensuring that every sonic detail is clear and audible. This was accomplished by the strategic placement of instruments in the studio, though his exact technique was always a closely guarded secret. Van Gelder's main goal was to create the best mood for the musicians to perform in, and from the results, he seems to have greatly succeeded. Among the timeless recordings made under his aegis are John Coltrane's Blue Train (Blue Note) Miles Davis' Workin' (Prestige), Andrew Hill's Point of Departure (Blue Note), Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay (CTI), and Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil (Blue Note).
Starting in 1999, Van Gelder was instrumental in the modern remastering of his original recordings—most notably the Blue Note RVG series—with the conversion from analog to digital formats.
Sonny Rollins, Volume 2, Blue Note, 1957
Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else, Blue Note, 1958
Eric Dolphy, Outward Bound, Prestige/OJC, 1960
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, Impulse!, 1964
Joe Henderson, Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, Verve, 1991
Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
Edited by Don Ball
THE START OF A RECORDING CAREER
Q: How did your interest in recording begin?
Rudy Van Gelder: When I was a kid, I used to go into the supply stores in New York City on Cortland Street and buy radio parts, soldering parts into place and assembling units for amplifiers and things. That's how I started.
Q: And how old?
Rudy Van Gelder: Oh, I really don't know. I can't put a year on it. I'm not good at that. I was 10, 12, 14, 15, in there somewhere.
Q: And was it the equipment and the recording process that was interesting to you or was it the music?
Rudy Van Gelder: Both. Music was also an interest. That developed later on but primarily it was the recording process and the equipment, how things worked. I remember, my first encounter with a recording machine was on the back of a comic book and it was a full ad on the back and it said, "Record your voice for $3." I said, "Gee, I got to have that."
First of all, you got a 78 rpm record with blank grooves, so you had to establish how the grooves were made spiraling in towards the center. You put the disc on the turntable and then you put this device on top, which tracked the groove. Along with that you get a little disc. There was a device that engraved a groove in that little disc and you talked really loud into the machine and you play it back in less than about maybe 30 seconds, 45 seconds, and you could hear yourself. I don't remember the details exactly, but I put it up against a radio speaker, turned the radio up real loud, and sure enough I was recording music with a $3 machine. That's how I started.
Q: What is it about jazz that you appreciate?
Rudy Van Gelder: Well, that started right from the very beginning, even when I was a kid. That was the music I loved, and I wanted to listen to it, and I spent my time just listening to it, going to clubs, listening to it, and it stayed with me, and I got to know people who loved the same music, and that became my profession.
THE BLUE NOTE SOUND
Q: What was your relationship with Blue Note producer Alfred Lion?
Rudy Van Gelder: He had been in the record business quite a while before he came to me, so he was an experienced producer before he even came to me, but I want to emphasize one difference. When Alfred first came to me there did not exist that capability of fixing something after the actual session. There was no such thing. It was really a performance. Everyone came together, played the best they could because that was what they were doing now. There were no multi-track machines. And Alfred actually never experienced a multi-track session. So everything that happened from a mix standpoint was right there and that's really my trial by fire. That developed all my mixing habits and my way of looking at the music and what to do on a record session, what was important, what wasn't important. It changed the whole thing.
Alfred liked the sound of what I had done. He liked the way I made things sound so he put me on his team and from then on I was working for him doing albums. He picked the people. He selected how they should play. He's the one that directed the music and I was there to make sure that he got what he wanted and if he didn't he'd let me know real quick. So those are bygone days.
Q: How did he find you again?
Rudy Van Gelder: A musician by the name of Gil Mellé, who had a little band or made a record for an independent company somewhere down in Georgia I think, he played it for Alfred and Alfred liked the way it sounded. Up until that time, he was recording in New York City at the WOR radio studios. That's where he made all his early records from the late '30s up to that time that he met me. [Lion] said, "I want to put it on my label," and he published the LP. Now the time comes to make another album, so Alfred took that album to the engineer who he had been using at WOR in New York and the engineer listened to it and he said, "Alfred, I can't get that sound. You better take it to the guy who made it." Then that's exactly what he did and that's how I met him. He came to see me, brought that album, and I made the second album and I stayed until Alfred passed away.
You get one shot at it, but I was extremely lucky to have Alfred, who had confidence in me and not only that but as the years went by he kept the confidence while things were going up and down. That was before this place was built in Englewood Cliffs.
Q: So you were recording in your parents' living room?
Rudy Van Gelder: Yeah, exactly.
They built a house, which was my parents' home, and they knew what my interests were. I asked them if I could put a little control room next to the living room. They spoke to the architect. There was a window between the little control room and the living room. It wasn't big. It wasn't big at all.
Q: So you got in on the ground floor so to speak then while they were building it.
Rudy Van Gelder: Yes, as we built the building I knew I was going to record there.
Q: I was imagining you being in the kitchen and there would be a little countertop in between, a little bar counter looking into the living room.
Rudy Van Gelder: Yeah, almost right. It almost was like that. The kitchen was very close to where the drums were. That's exactly right. It was a U-shaped house, a horseshoe shape, and there was a large center section and then the kitchen would go off on one leg and the bedrooms would go off on the other leg and the studio was right in between so that if you can picture the studio in the larger part. The kitchen was just like a hallway away from where I used to put Kenny Clarke.
Q: So you did daytime recordings while your parents were at work.
Rudy Van Gelder: Yeah, carefully structured so that I didn't interfere with them. They were out doing what they did to make a living. As a matter of fact, at one point they actually put an extra entry door to the building to their own living quarters so they could come in, in case I was recording. Yeah, that's the way it went. You know I was there doing that for a shorter time than I've been here. That didn't last that long and then I got married.
It's a wonderful scene but I think that's one of the reasons the music sounded that way, because it was really not a studio in the sense that studios were then.
Q: It was much more intimate.
Rudy Van Gelder: Yeah, right like a home. It had carpeting on the floor, drapery on the windows, a couch.
MOVING TO ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS
Q: So why did you move out of your parents' house?
Rudy Van Gelder: I got married. I had to get my own place, build my own house, which again is going to incorporate a studio.
On the second floor is my living space. The second [reason for moving out] was artistically I couldn't give the musicians sound wise what I knew they were trying to achieve. That's my thread. All through this thing, I always wanted to do what they needed, what they wanted. I wanted to give them a window on how to create what they're trying to do.
Q: And so what did you need?
Rudy Van Gelder: A bigger space. I'll give you an example. Gil Evans, he had music in his head that was just incredible and as time went on people discovered it. I was sitting there and he brought a nine-piece band into Hackensack, into the living room. I knew then I couldn't do it right. Now how do you think that made me feel? I know what we're trying to do. I want to be able to do it right for him. I have a responsibility to the producer and to the musician. I can't do that [in Hackensack] and that was my motivation.
Q: I would think it would be intimidating to go about trying to build the perfect recording studio.
Rudy Van Gelder: I never felt that. The drive is so strong I was ready to take any kind of chances. I put every penny I had into this building. In those days, there were only three record companies, the three big ones and millions of dollars, but here I am the one little guy from New Jersey trying to make sounds.
Q: And structurally did you know what you needed?
Rudy Van Gelder: Yes, I used to go to different places, everything from concert halls to other locations. I knew what I wanted.
Q: And what were the various factors? I notice it all appears to be cinder block.
Rudy Van Gelder: It's not really block. It's concrete block in part but that's how we got to the Frank Lloyd Wright concept because he knew how to handle materials like that in a way that I could afford and actually that's what happened also. I didn't go to him because he'd have given me a work of art, and I wouldn't be able to build it. So we got to one of his apprentices and we discussed in great detail how I wanted the materials to be, what materials, how they should be finished and he was my one hope of actually being able to build a place that was sonically what I wanted and yet looked the way it should look.
Q: What was the first session that you recorded here?
Rudy Van Gelder: Oh, you'll never believe me. It was the West Point Glee Club. West Point is north of here on 9W, not too far, and I had worked at that time for a classical record company and they were doing a series of albums. But he wanted to do the session and they all came down here. They all came on a couple of buses and they all came out here in the driveway and did their exercises, came in, and we made an album.
Q: Well what was the response from musicians who had, for instance, recorded in your parents' living room?
Rudy Van Gelder: Well, mixed, mixed, mixed, mixed. At first a couple of them didn't like it at all. They were used to like a dead, dry environment in a studio and this was definitely not that and it's not a huge cathedral kind of thing either, that's what other people have said about it. It was mixed. Some people didn't like it but Alfred had faith. I remember his partner was a little skeptical and he said, "Wait, give it a chance. Give it a chance." It took me a while I mean to be able to handle it.
Q: I just think that would have been so high pressure because you invested everything you had in it.
Rudy Van Gelder: Yes, it was. Here's the way I looked at it. What it is is what it is. I like the way it sounds. If for some reason it doesn't work out, I can always deaden the whole thing up. I can always rebuild, absorb it with walls and so forth within this structure so I could always back off and make it conventional. But if it worked from the beginning, it's really going to be good without me doing anything.
Q: Did you ever want to have any kind of staff?
Rudy Van Gelder: No, that was a choice. But that's a good question. I got this way by choice, not by accident. I got into the business by accident. It just happened, but I chose to stay small. I never had a big facility. I didn't want to hire other people, and that limits my time, my income, it limits everything.
THE RECORDING PROCESS
Q: Let's talk about how you recorded your jazz sessions.
Rudy Van Gelder: Okay. Jazz essentially is improvised, so to sit there and listen to a musician improvising with a band and everyone playing together, hopefully that creates an atmosphere that can never be reproduced because you're there at the presence of the creation of the music. You can't reproduce that. So what I do is I endeavor to reproduce that moment and make sure that what they're trying to say is presented in the best possible way. The essential thing that's missing is the improvisation part.
I don't consider that I have a sound. I'm not the performer. It's the performer that's creating the sound not me. It's my job to make sure that I understand what he's trying to do and present it in an environment that he's comfortable in and then deliver that for the producer who's hiring me. I hire the musicians. The producer hires me and he puts his faith in me to see that his product is presented in a correct way.
Q: Maybe you could describe to me the process of a recording and the setup process and how you adjust things for each ensemble.
Rudy Van Gelder: Okay. So it all starts with a telephone call and someone, the producer is the one who owns the record company or represents the record company, or in the earlier years just wanted to record someone that he liked. Actually that's how we made my first commercial record. Someone who liked Joe Mooney, an organ player at that time, he wanted to record him and let the people hear him, so we hired three musicians and we set up. I had already known the musicians. We set them up and we record two sides, two three-minute sides. At that time I didn't have any mastering equipment so we took it to RCA in New York and they made the master and he promoted it. One day I heard it on the radio. I mean that was a big thrill at that time for me.
Now, we book the time when we're going to come in. They'll say, "How many people are going to be on the tape? How much music do you want to record?" And now of course they say enough for a CD. We set the time and I tell them what the rate is going to be.
We have a place where we put the drums. The drummer brings his equipment and Maureen [Stickler, Van Gelder's assistant], who now helps me on everything, she sets up the drummer and then she says, "Okay, check it out." So then I go out and check the placement of the microphones and that takes care of the drummer.
We decide where we're going to put the horns. Let's say there's two horns, a trumpet and tenor or something like that. We give each one a microphone and the piano player he knows where the piano is. I have the piano tuned, of course, before the session.
The first thing they do now, this is nowadays now, not the way it was in history, nowadays we try to isolate the individual musicians so in case for some reason they want to fix something. It's true that they're improvising but occasionally they want to try it again and alter the improvisation. Because of that, in order to hear each other, they need headphones so everyone gets his own set of headphones. Everyone gets his own little mixer, little box with knobs on it where it says bass, piano, drums, saxophone, vocal. Each one has its own little box and he can adjust his headphone mix so he can play. And then we usually play a little bit so when he's comfortable with that I check with everyone if everybody's happy. And they also rehearse a little bit, make sure they know the routine. That's when we ask them what is the sequence, melody, who plays the first solo? Who plays the second solo? There's going to be a drum solo. Are you going to do exchanges? Exchange is where everybody plays a little bit and then tosses it over to the next guy. And then the melody, the end of the melody to the end of the track.
So then everybody's set. Everybody likes their headphones. And then Maureen pushes the buttons on the recording machine which is a multi-track digital recorder. One of the things that I do, I don't know if everyone does this, but while they're playing I like to visualize what the finished product is going to be, the finished mix. This is because I started so long ago. The music was created really at the mix rather than at the session. Nowadays it's not as much like a performance as it used to be.
But now let's talk about a really good jazz session where it's a performance and everybody's trying to play well. So we make a tape. Maureen pushes the button and we record on this multi-track and while I'm sitting there I'm trying to imagine how it's going to sound, how the finished product is going to sound and I make adjustments accordingly. We also run simultaneously what we call a two track, which is like a stereo mix of just a monitor, what we're listening to, and in the very old days that was the end of it. We just printed the monitor and that was what the record was. But now that's just the beginning. This is only a monitor mix what we were listening to while they were recording the tracks. I try to keep it in my mind what the finished product is going to be and if I hear a problem developing, I complain about it to the producer. I tell him, "You know this thing is going to be a problem later. We should do something or tell them about it," and so forth. That's the kind of dialog that goes on between myself and the producer. The producer sits here and I'm over there in back of the console and Maureen is right next to me. So that's the way it goes, tune by tune. That's the way the day goes until they're satisfied they got as good a performance as they can get. For me, that's like six hours and then everybody goes home.
In the early days there was no multi-track. We were recording direct to two track, mixing as we went so there was no need for isolation booths. These booths are for isolation of individual instruments so those booths came later starting in the very late ‘60s or early ‘70s. The place in the beginning there were no booths. This was just a big open space where you could see the walls all around and the floor right up to the outside walls and it was just a wonderful space and the decking for the roof was cedar, as it is. It was cedar and it had that cedar smell, you know the fresh wood, so when you walk in here and we used to have the floor polished every month. He'd wax it with red wax so it would shine like leather, like red leather. The whole expanse of the place would be just shiny and just bright looking.
Q: Being in a club versus being in the studio. Do you like that environment for recording?
Rudy Van Gelder: It's never really as good as the studio sonically. Supposedly there's some benefit as far as the music performance.
Before, there were recording trucks. They used to go in there with a portable recording machine and set it up on the bar and record the band and do that for two nights in a row or three nights in a row and you walk away with your ears ringing. That's not for me. The record companies love it. They end up coming two nights and end up with three albums because it's very forgiving of any kind of balance. I don't know how it is nowadays. Nowadays every club has their own mixer and their own control room, their own air-conditioning.
Q: Has it been an interesting process for you to keep up with all the changing technology?
Rudy Van Gelder: Oh, sure. We're always trying to acquire new devices. Just editing alone, music editing to me was like a secret art that only I knew. I got to be pretty good at it because Alfred had a habit of asking me to edit. If they would do an insert, an extra new ending for a particular tune, he would want me and this would be like at nine o'clock at night, ten o'clock at night or eleven, towards the end of the day and everybody wants to go home. He would ask me to do the edit right then so to make sure it was right before he dismissed all the musicians. So I was sitting there with a razor blade and tape and cutting audio while everyone is standing around watching me.