Rudy Van Gelder, legendary jazz engineer and operator of the Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio where classic LPs by John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter were recorded, died Thursday at his home. Van Gelder’s assistant confirmed his death to the New York Times. He was 91.
An optometrist by trade, Van Gelder started his career by recording jazz records for the Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige labels out of a spare room in his parents’ Hackensack, New Jersey home. During this period, “RVG” worked on albums like Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus and Miles Davis’ Bags’ Groove and the Walkin’/Cookin’/Relaxin’/Steamin’ series of LPs that fulfilled that jazz legend’s Prestige contract.
He quit his practice to focus on music in 1959, the same year he opened his Van Gelder Studios, which DownBeat once described as “a chapel-like space with a 39-foot-high ceiling made of cedar with arches of laminated Douglas fir, which created a natural reverb.”
“During that time there were only three major record companies: RCA, Columbia and Decca,” Van Gelder recalled. “[Prestige founder] Bob Weinstock, a music lover like myself, wanted to record albums that could compete sound-wise with the majors. I felt that now I had a mission: to allow small private labels to sound as good as the three big labels.”
Working alongside noted jazz producers like Alfred Lion, who Van Gelder initially met through saxophonist Gil Mellé, and Francis Wolff, the studio would become the home of the recording sessions that bore legendary LPs like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure and countless more, with Van Gelder serving as engineer on each.
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Van Gelder often reiterated throughout his career that his duties differed from that of a producer; he didn’t arrange the group’s lineups or tell them what to play. Instead, he was charged with bolstering the sessions with the trademark vibrant, textured and robust Van Gelder sound that gave the recordings its depth.
“When people talk about my albums, they often say the music has ‘space.’ I tried to reproduce a sense of space in the overall sound picture,” Van Gelder once said (via New York Times). “I used specific microphones located in places that allowed the musicians to sound as though they were playing from different locations in the room, which in reality they were. This created a sensation of dimension and depth.”
Other artists to record with Van Gelder included Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard and Thelonious Monk, who recorded the song “Hackensack” as an ode to Van Gelder.
The engineer remained active over the ensuing decades. Later in life, as digital technology seeped into the music industry, Van Gelder revisited the jazz classics to oversee their digital remastering, resulting in the Van Gelder Editions.