Rudy Van Gelder always struck me as the kid who was comfortable in his own skin, kept to himself and won the science-fair prize every year. And yes, he was idiosyncratic and eccentric. If you’ve heard anecdotes about Rudy, chances are they are at least partially true.
He was also a man of contrasts. He meticulously donned gloves for years when handling microphones, yet he allowed musicians to smoke cigarettes inches from those same mics, depositing ash on them in the process. He was cautious enough to maintain a fallback career in optometry until he was 35, but bold enough to start his own recording operation and invest every cent he made for years into gear for it. He was gracious and generous with his recording talent, but obsessively secretive about his methods. He kept people at arm’s length until they gained his trust; then he was a warm, faithful friend.
Rudy Van Gelder was born on Nov. 2, 1924, in Jersey City, N.J. He fell in love with music at an early age, but electronics was his prime fascination. Although Rudy went to optometry school in Philadelphia and maintained his own practice in Teaneck, N.J., until 1959, the recording process took hold of him early on. In 1946, his parents had a very modern home custom built, and Rudy used the occasion to convince them to build a control room off the living room. The Van Gelder Studio was born.
Although Rudy worked briefly as an apprentice at Nola Studios in New York, he was essentially self-taught. His passion for identifying problems and painstakingly solving them served him well. Rudy’s overriding goal was to document music as close to the live experience as possible, and his perfectionism never let him settle for anything less. In the process he developed a recording sound unlike any other. He redefined how we hear jazz as recorded music.
In 1952, Blue Note Records’ Alfred Lion purchased four masters of the saxophonist Gil Mellé, recorded by Rudy; he loved the way those sides sounded and went to the source. Soon almost every Blue Note session was recorded by Rudy at his parents’ Hackensack, N.J., home. One could hear the commanding sound of the horns in full force, the striking articulation of the piano, the richness of the bass and the detail and power of the drum kit—all in perfect balance.
Prestige, Savoy and a handful of independent jazz labels followed suit and Rudy became the go-to guy to get a great jazz sound. With the advent of stereo, Rudy was quickly outgrowing his family living room. In 1958, he began the long process of designing and building a studio of his own design with an adjacent living area. That structure, in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., opened on July 1, 1959. Rudy now had a massive studio with a cathedral ceiling that allowed him to record with natural acoustics and a warm room sound, qualities that he previously could only achieve with the artful use of electronic reverb. Once the Englewood Cliffs location opened, Rudy sold his optometry practice in Teaneck and devoted himself fully to recording, although he remembered one diehard customer coming to the new location to get her glasses adjusted during an Art Blakey session.
Rudy was an inquisitive perfectionist and always fine-tuning his craft and his sound. He once told me that Alfred Lion was so specific in what he wanted that he used Prestige sessions to try out new equipment and techniques before suggesting them to Alfred. “Alfred was very organized and very strong. And he had a concept of what that thing should sound like before he even got to the studio,” Rudy said. “The reason I could try more things on Prestige dates is that Bob Weinstock was much looser. … He didn’t think about the music; he went by how it felt.”
In the 1960s, Rudy bonded with his next great producer, Creed Taylor, who brought an increasingly frequent succession of Verve and later CTI projects to Englewood Cliffs. Multitrack recording and a vast menu of outboard equipment flooded the audio market in the late ’60s, and Rudy kept pace with the technology. By 1973, CTI had become so successful that the label block-booked the studio and became Rudy’s only client. Old friends like Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Farrell and Kenny Burrell made significant albums for the label, as did newcomers to the studio like Esther Phillips, Hank Crawford, Randy Weston and Grover Washington Jr., whose Mister Magic remains a masterpiece on any level.
When digital technology emerged in the 1980s, Rudy was among the first to embrace it, diligently checking out every piece of software as it emerged. Rudy never stopped growing; he was always posing problems and solving them. In the 1990s, when I proposed a series of RVG remasters of classic Blue Note recordings, he jumped at the chance. I’d get calls from him on a Saturday morning, excitedly extolling the virtues of an album by Tina Brooks or Hank Mobley as if he were hearing them for the first time. When I asked him about this, he said it was his first opportunity to step back and enjoy the music. “Remember, you have to go back to my perspective of a session. I’m not the producer and I’m not the musician,” he told me. “[E]ven if I don’t like something, that doesn’t mean I can’t record the hell out of it. It’s more important to understand the music than to like it.”
Despite excruciating spinal problems in recent years, Rudy kept recording and cherished every minute of it. For the record, his last session was a Jimmy Cobb Trio session on June 20, 2016. Rudy died on Aug. 25 at his home. The cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure along with severe coronary artery disease. But Rudy and his work live on in the souls and minds of his colleagues and the countless jazz lovers who have been enriched by his perfectionism.