If nothing other than John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme had been recorded there, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.’s Van Gelder Studio would still indisputably qualify as a jazz shrine. But that cornerstone album was only one of thousands cut within the spacious room favored by everyone from Miles Davis to Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, and too many others to count.
The studio, designed by David Henken—an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright—and famous for its wooden beams, brick tiles, and 39-foot ceiling, was opened by the celebrated audio engineer Rudy Van Gelder in 1959 following a period of several years during which he recorded artists in his parents’ Hackensack, N.J., living room. From then until Van Gelder’s death in 2016 at age 91, barely a week went by when jazz wasn’t being created in the renowned studio, set within an acre of wooded land.
In his will, Van Gelder left the studio to his longtime assistant engineer Maureen Sickler, wife of trumpeter/producer/educator Don Sickler. It fell to the couple to keep the facility going, an effort that—with the COVID crisis effectively killing off nearly all recording projects—ultimately led to the establishment last year of a new livestreaming series, Live from Van Gelder Studio. The first event in the series (and the first live performance event ever to take place at the studio) was held on Nov. 14: a tribute to the late tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley featuring a basic quartet of bassist Ron Carter, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Isaiah Thompson, and drummer Kenny Washington.
To make it all happen, the Sicklers teamed with veteran music industry talent agent Sam Kaufman, founder and CEO of the New York City-based Regatta, a partnership marketing firm; and executive producer Phil Coady, whose credits include the Enhanced CD of Coltrane’s Blue Train.
“Phil had stayed in touch with Rudy all these years and then, when Rudy died, he became close with the Sicklers,” Kaufman says. “He invited me to come see the studio. I had never, in all my years in the music industry, been out there, and I have never experienced anything like it. It’s such a magical place. Phil had the idea that we should do something to help the studio survive.”
Don Sickler’s history with Van Gelder Studio is considerably longer; he first recorded there in the 1970s on a Hubert Laws session. But his first impression matches Kaufman’s: “I’ve never seen anybody walk in there and not go, ‘Wow!’” he says. “It’s just incredible.”
With the four associates in agreement that Van Gelder Studio needed to come up with something in order to keep the lights on, so to speak, the plan was hatched to begin inviting musicians to the facility that so many of them have revered for so long. By necessity, the players had to be local, able to drive to the studio, just over 10 miles from New York City; air travel would be an impossibility for now. The three veterans—Carter, Lovano, and Washington—were joined in New Jersey by the young Thompson, second-place finalist in the 2018 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Piano Competition. The music they played was drawn from Mobley’s early-’60s albums Soul Station and Roll Call, with Don Sickler filling the trumpet role that the late Freddie Hubbard took on the latter LP.
Social distancing wasn’t a problem, due to the vastness of the space. “Everybody was in the room, and they weren’t crammed right on top of each other,” Sickler says, “but we did take social distancing seriously; Ron Carter wore his mask all the time.”
The 70-minute session received glowing reviews, both for the performances and the sound quality. “We’re trying to live up to what Rudy would have expected in terms of something like this,” Kaufman notes. “This is an opportunity for audiences to see a very special place and to experience it directly.”
With the inaugural event now behind them, the Van Gelder team is looking toward producing as many as 10 more this year, featuring both artists who have long been familiar with the room and other, younger artists who may never have set foot inside. “The idea is to bring in multi-generational musicians and find ways to broaden the audience, by looking at jazz-influenced contemporary art forms,” Kaufman says.
The four principals are also continuing to pursue an application to have Van Gelder Studio certified as a landmark of the state of New Jersey. Then, if that is successful, Don Sickler says, “we’re going to go for national landmark and world landmark status.”