The Who2 Blog

Rudy Van Gelder, Engineer of ‘That’ Jazz Sound, Is Dead

Rudy Van Gelder, pictured in 1988 in the studio he built himself in New Jersey. Photo for the New York Times by James Estrin. (Photo for The New York Times by James Estrin)

Here’s one of those obituaries for someone you never heard of who turns out to be a giant: audio  engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who “helped define the sound of jazz on record.”

He helped vinyl jazz take “giant steps,” you might say:

The many albums he engineered for Blue Note, Prestige, Impulse and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s included acknowledged classics like [J0hn] Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” [Miles] Davis’s “Walkin’,” Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” Sonny Rollins’s “Saxophone Colossus” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.”

Rudy Van Gelder studied to be an optometrist but built his own sound studio in New Jersey in his off-hours; a ham radio enthusiast as a teen, he built his own sound equipment. “There were no commercial companies making recording consoles as they are today. The major record companies all built their own and if you wanted to do anything you had to do it yourself. Which I did.”

The key point, according to music expert Dan Skea: “Whereas earlier jazz recordings seemed to come at the listener from a distance, Van Gelder found ways to approach and capture the music at closer range, and to more clearly convey jazz’s characteristic sense of immediacy.” Anyone who’s heard those scratchy old jazz albums of the 1930s and 1940s will know what that means.

The incredibly long list of albums recorded at his New Jersey studios includes a who’s who of modern jazz: Thelonius Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Etta Jones, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderly, Wayne Shorter, even Lalo Schiffrin of “Mission Impossible” fame. John Coltrane recorded many albums there, including A Love Supreme and (a personal favorite) Ballads. Quite a list.

Humble (as the greats often are), he objected to calling it the Rudy Van Gelder sound:

“…Really what it is is my feeling and my approach to the musicians I’m recording at a particular session. I really don’t like to think of it as being ‘my sound.’ What I’m doing really is trying to let the musicians be heard the way they want to be heard. What it really is is the musicians’ sound.”

Nice. Congrats to him on a life of great creation.

Share this: