In honor of Rudy Van Gelder’s ongoing remastering of the Blue Note catalog, we asked Ira Gitler to reminisce about some of the original recording sessions, for various labels, at Van Gelder’s famous studio.
In 1952, Prestige Records owner Bob Weinstock asked me to investigate a new studio operated by an engineer named Rudy Van Gelder out of his parents’ living room in Hackensack, N.J. It may well have been pianist Bill Triglia, a New Jersey resident and close associate of trumpet legend Tony Fruscella, who hunched Weinstock to Van Gelder.
Rudy was not available on weekdays since he was earning his living as an optometrist at his office in Teaneck, so the audition was set up on a Sunday afternoon. As a teenager, Rudy had hung out on 52nd Street and learned about jazz firsthand. He was also into ham radio and visited the stores on Cortland Street in lower Manhattan where one went to buy tubes and other parts for radios. This was a lead into sound engineering.
Van Gelder had a control room built at one end of the living room and the rest of the space became the performance area with the requisite microphones added. Rudy was low-key, affable and familiar with some, if not all, of the musicians assembled that day.
Triglia appeared to be the organizer and Fruscella the star of the group. The charts were written for four horns: Tony’s trumpet and the saxophones of altoist Herb Geller, tenorist Phil Urso and baritonist Gene Allen. In the rhythm section with Triglia were bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Howie Mann. The idea was to give Weinstock an idea of the ambiance at Van Gelder’s and what kind of a sound he could reproduce on a recording; at the same time, the group might interest Prestige in a record date.
Triglia wrote the arrangements on his own “Loo-Padoo,” Urso’s “P.U. Stomp” and two standards, “Tangerine” and “Darn That Dream.” I took the two acetates that Rudy cut from the tape and brought them to Prestige the following day, reported positively about the experience at Van Gelder’s and gave Bob the discs. I don’t remember Weinstock’s immediate reaction but he neither rushed to Rudy’s nor did he record the Fruscella septet.
It was in 1954 that Prestige finally began using Van Gelder. Rudy had made his Blue Note debut with a Gil Melle session in January 1953 but became more fully involved with the label in ’54. His association with Savoy began with a J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding date in August 1954. Prestige’s first may well have been Thelonious Monk’s May recording. “Hackensack,” done on that occasion, obviously refers to Rudy’s studio.
It may not have been the first time I visited Van Gelder’s for an actual Prestige session, but the one that I remember as the first was the momentous Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk date of Christmas eve, 1954. The photos on the covers of the 10-inch LPs of 1954 made jazz fans familiar with the curtains in the Van Gelder living room. There soon began a period when Weinstock had Van Gelder’s booked in advance for every Friday afternoon. A small motorcade would gather outside the Prestige office at 446 West 50th Street and travel over to Jersey.
These were jam session-type dates with minimal charts for three or four horns and often featured Gene Ammons. Weinstock praised Van Gelder in The Prestige Records Story, issued in 1999: “Rudy was very much an asset. His rates were fair and he didn’t waste time. When you arrived at his studio he was prepared. His equipment was always ahead of its time and he was a genius when it came to recording.”
In 1959 Van Gelder opened a new, state-of the-art building in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. It included living quarters totally removed from the main, studio section. He had given up his optometry practice to concentrate as an engineer full time. Although I was no longer Prestige’s only liner-note writer, I was still active with the company as a freelancer and continued to attend recording dates. In April ’65, I opened my notes to The Space Book by Booker Ervin with: “In the high-domed, wooden-beamed, brick-tiled, spare modernity of Rudy Van Gelder’s studio, one can get a feeling akin to religion.” Rudy didn’t say anything at the time but in 2000 he straightened me out. “The wooden beams are in the roof,” he explained, “and the walls are not tiles but masonry.” Duly noted, but it remains “a nonsectarian, nonorganized religion temple of music in which the sound and the spirit can seemingly soar unimpeded.”
I remember one incident on another Ervin date when Booker, who could become so involved in what he was playing, went into a trancelike state. Rudy, who wanted to stop the take due to some technical difficulty, walked up to the eyes-tightly-shut Ervin and shined a flashlight in his face. Some of the people in the studio, myself included, thought it crass at the time. Now I realize that he probably thought it was better than yelling at Booker. Rudy was basically gentle. The only times I remember him becoming agitated were when people became careless with food or drink, particularly if anything was placed on the piano. This was understandable when you knew he was protecting a most valuable instrument.
In the ’60s Van Gelder became an important asset to the Impulse! label. For producer Bob Thiele, he did sessions with Coltrane, including A Love Supreme, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson and Ray Charles (Genius + Soul = Jazz). He also worked closely with Creed Taylor at A&M, CTI and Verve.
Rudy’s association with Prestige ended when Weinstock sold the company in 1971, but his relationship with Blue Note has endured, reviving when Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cuscuna resurrected the label in 1985. There were new recordings for Blue Note, and in the ’90s the Van Gelder touch was enlisted by Fantasy and such independents as Reservoir, Sharp Nine, Hi Note and N2K.
In the last few years, for the most part, Rudy has suspended new recording. But at the instigation of Japanese Blue Note, he remastered 250 albums of his original work for the company in a new Rudy Van Gelder Series. He’s done reissues for American Blue Note, and remastered recordings he made for other labels as well. This is particularly satisfying to him because he feels that some of his work has been reissued without the care he would have applied.
In Japan, Toshiba-EMI has asked him to go beyond the Blue Notes and remaster six albums from the Capitol vaults for U.S. release. One is Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! by Cannonball Adderley. Another, and one about which he is particularly excited, is the original Miles Davis sessions for The Birth of the Cool. “I was able to go back to the original masters, tune by tune, using the best available technology, and combine it with the memory of my hearings of the 78s when they first came out. I didn’t treat them as an album but as a series of singles. With Miles in mind I tried to make them sound the way he would have liked to have heard them.”
And what happened to those acetates Tony Fruscella and company made on that long gone February Sunday in 1952? Record producer Don Schlitten, while working at Prestige, found them collecting dust on a neglected shelf and issued them in 1981 on an LP, Bebop Revisited, Volume 3, for his own Xanadu label. In the year 2000, they have shown up on a Fruscella CD issued by Jazz Factory.
When I recounted the story of how I had first come to his studio almost 50 years ago, Rudy had no recollection of it. After all, he has been involved with a few other sounds since then, reproducing them in a way that enriched the jazz experience for all of us.