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Interview: Rudy Van Gelder (Part 1)

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Rudy Van Gelder Rudy Van Gelder's name appears on more jazz albums than any other engineer, producer or musician. In all Rudy has recorded thousands of records for Blue Note, Prestige,Impulse, Verve, A&B, CTI and other labels—which means he has been personally responsible for a sizable chunk of post-war jazz history. A large percentage of these historic jazz albums were recorded first at Rudy's parents' home in Hackensack, N.J., (1947-1959) and then at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. (1959-present). [Photo of Rudy Van Gelder: Maureen Sickler]

Being able to spend a few hours recently in the middle of Rudy's famed Englewood Cliffs studio, talking about his career over chicken salad sandwiches, was a year in the making. Rudy is extremely private, and most interviews you read with him were actually done by email. Like most jazz fans, Rudy is most comfortable in a darkened studio fussing over dials and sound than entertaining guests. But he made an exception.

Among Rudy's many accomplishments and contributions include inventing techniques for capturing sound naturally in an age when most recording equipment wasn't up to the job, the creative placement of microphones, the early use of magnetic recording tape, a recording process that wasn't easily duplicated by other engineers, and turning his name into a brand that has been synonymous with jazz itself ever since.

In Part 1 of my five-part conversation with Rudy, the 87-year-old engineer who on Saturday was honored with a Trustees Award Grammy for his lifetime contribution to music, talks about his early years:

JazzWax: What's the biggest misconception people have about you?

Rudy Van Gelder: Some people think I'm a producer. I'm not. I'm a recording engineer. I don't hire the musicians nordo I come up with concepts for albums or how well musicians are playing. I'm there to capture the music at the time it's being created. This requires me to concentrate on the technical aspects of the recordings, which means the equipment and how the finished product is going to sound.

JW: Where did you grow up?

RVG: I was born in Jersey City, N.J., on November 2, 1924. In high school I played the trumpet in the marching band—poorly, I might add. As a result, I was demoted to taking tickets at football games. But my passion for music remained. I listened to jazz and big bands all the time on the radio at home. I also became a ham radio operator—my call letters were W2TMD. The ham radio started my fascination with all types of electronics.

JW: Recoding also was an early hobby, yes?

RVG: Yes. When I was 12 I ordered a home-recording device that came with a turntable and blank discs. I was fascinated by recorded sound.

JW: What did you do after high school in the early '40s?

RVG: I attended the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Philadelphia, which now is part of Salus University.

JW: Eyeglasses?

RVG: [Laughs} I know. Optometry must sound like an odd choice for me now. But back in high school I wasn't very good at math. I felt that studying optometry would give me the mental discipline I needed and a steady income after I graduated.

JW: What was the big turning point for you from vision to sound?

RVG: One day during my college years, my friends and I went to visit WCAU, a Philadelphia radio station. Back then it was a CBS network station, and the environment there was very serious and precise. I don't recall why we went, but I do remember being in the control room while they were on the air.

JW: What happened?

RVG: A powerful feeling swept over me. The music, the equipment's design, the seriousness of the place—I knew I wanted to spend my career in that type of environment. 

JW: What do you think it was about the radio studio that won you over?

RVG: The look of it, for one. I loved the imposing look  of the electronic equipment and how everything was meticulously set up. Radio equipment looks very serious. I also loved the equipment's design, which was modern and urgent. Back then the equipment's look reflected the excitement of music and the airwaves. Actually, the control room you see here today looks very much like the one I visited that day at WCAU. [Pictured: The WCAU Building in Philadelphia]

JW: So you graduated from college as an optometrist, yes? What did you do?

RVG: I immediately opened an office in Teaneck, N.J. Mostpeople aren't aware that I worked as an optometrist there for 13 years—until 1959. Early on, I worked at my office during the day and in the evening I recorded local musicians and singers who wanted a 78-rpm of their efforts.

JW: What made you most excited—the gear or the music?

RVG: My ambition from the start as a recording engineer was to capture and reproduce the music better than other engineers at the time. I was driven to make the music sound closer to the way it sounded in the studio. This was a constant struggle—to get electronics to accurately capture the human spirit.

JW: What type of recording equipment was particularly exciting?

RVG: The microphones. I loved the way they looked. They were a symbol of everything I loved about recording studios. I loved all microphones. It was almost an obsession. When I'd see photos of jazz musicians recording or performing, I found myself looking at the mikes, not them. The microphone became everything for me.

JW: Is this because that's the very point where music—the art itself—is captured and translated into electrical pulses.

RVG: Well put. That's it exactly.

JW: Was getting the sound you wanted difficult in the late 1940s?

RVG: In those days—even into the 1950s—the quality of the equipment and records themselves couldn't keep up with what musicians were playing live. I had to experiment to find the best way to set up musicians and microphones so the sound would be as warm and as realistic as possible.

JW: How did you learn what you needed to know?

RVG: I had to find out what type of equipment was being used, how it was being used and the results. When I'd buy records, I'd ask the people who made the ones I liked most what kind of microphones they used. The microphones mattered.

JW: So when you started out, how were you making recordings?

RVG: I began by recording local musicians and singers who wanted a 78-rpm of their efforts. I was making audio recordings on aluminum lacquer-coated discs that wer then reproduced on 78-rpm singles. I recorded organist Joe Mooney this way in 1949 and 1951.

JW: What changed in the early 1950s that allowed you to attract bigger-name New York jazz artists?

RVG: The introduction of magnetic recording tape. I was among the first engineers to experiment with it in the studio. Also, tape's lower cost and improved flexibility—I could start and stop it, recording over it and so on—let me to try out new ways of recording.

Tomorrow: Rudy's Hackensack, N.J., years.

A special JazzWax thanks to Maureen and Don Sickler. You both know why.

JazzWax note: My profile of Rudy Van Gelder in last week's Wall Street Journal can be found here.

JazzWax tracks: Rudy Van Gelder's 78-era recordings of Joe Mooney are I'll See You in My Dreams, The Moon Is Low (c. late 1949); Crazy She Calls Me, Long Ago Last Night, Cielito Linda and an unissued Margie (May 1951); The Girl of My Dreams Tries to Look Like You, Nowhere, We'll Be Together Again and Love Is the Thing (December 1951).

You'll find them on Joe Breaks the Ice (Hep) and Do You Long for Oolong (Hep).

JazzWax clip: Here's pianist and composer Cecilia Coleman accepting Rudy Van Gelder's Grammy on Saturday.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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