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Interview: Rudy Van Gelder (Part 2)

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Rudy Van Gelder A week before I drove out to Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs, N.J., studio to interview him for the Wall Street Journal (go here), I spoke to Creed Taylor. The famed producer who recorded his Impulse, Verve, A&M and CTI recordings at Rudy's studio had some sage advice: “Don't wear wet shoes into the studio, and don't ask questions about his recording techniques."

Got it. The day of the interview, it was pouring. So before I left,I grabbed a pair of clean, dry shoes. Then I picked up chicken salad sandwiches for Rudy, me and Maureen Sickler, Rudy's equally meticulous assistant for the past 26 years. When I arrived, I changed in mydry shoes, a move Rudy seemed to appreciate. Walking into that historic space is like entering the Pantheon or Notre Dame Cathedral. You actually can hear you're someplace special. [Pictured above: Rudy Van Gelder and assistant Maureen Sickler, wife of trumpeter-arranger Don Sicker; left, the Pantheon in Rome]

In Part 2 of my five-part conversation with Rudy, the all-business Grammy-winning recording engineer talks about his parents house in Hackensack, N.J., which also happened to double as his first studio:

JazzWax: When did your parents move into their Hackensack, N.J., home at 25 Prospect Ave.?

Rudy Van Gelder: My father decided to build a home on a lot there in 1946. By then I was completely involved with recording local musicians who wanted to hear themselves on a 78 rpm. When my father was having the blueprints done, I asked him if I could have a control room with a double glass window next to the living room. I wanted to perfect the techniques of contemporary music recording.

JW: How many months of begging did it take?

RVG: None. My father agreed immediately. He knew how passionate I was about the music and the process of recording. Passion mattered to both my father and mother.

JW: What did you tell your father—or the architect?

RVG: I asked that the living room be as large a space as possible, within the footprint of the house. My father's architect decided to accomplish this by making the living room ceiling higher than the rest of the house, which made for great acoustics. [Photo of Max Roach in Rudy Van Gelder's parents' living room by Francis Wolff]

JW: What was the house's footprint like?

RVG: The house was U-shaped, with the bottom of the U facing the street. It was a modern, California-style house. A bedroom and control-room wing was on the right-hand side, the living room/studio was the center, and the kitchen, dining room and my parents' bedroom were in the left wing.

JW: What did you parents do for a living?

RVG: They worked all day running their own business—a women's clothing store nearby. They often came home late to a recording session underway. I usually recorded in the afternoon, after I worked at my optometry office and before musicians had their night gigs. 

JW: How did your parents get into the house?

RVG: [Laughs] They soon added a separate entrance to their bedroom wing. They were always very supportive and encouraging of my recording activities. All of the musicians smoked at the time but my parents rarely complained. Just once I remember my mother leaving me a note asking me to tidy up better.

JW: What about the neighbors?

RVG: I remember only one time a neighbor complaining. It was when I was still recording locally, before I recorded on a professional level. It was a hot summer day and the windows were all open. My friends were jamming. A neighbor, who turned out to be the principal of the Hackensack High School, complained.

JW: Who designed the stamp that appeared on your master discs?

RVG: Oh that green image of my parents' house and my studio? That was designed by Paul Bacon.

JW: Paul Bacon, the great art director who designed jazz album covers and later book covers?

RVG: Yes. I met Paul through Alfred Lion. He thought the house added a certain modern touch.

JW: How long did you live at your parents' home?

RVG: For a few years. When I met my first wife Elva, she lived in Manhattan. So I moved into NewYork and commuted to Hackensack to work in my optometry office and record. Then in 1954 we moved into an apartment on Prospect Avenue near my parents' home and studio. Elva was a classical pianist and instrumental in discovering the architect and architectural style we used for the Englewood Cliffs studio that we built in the late 1950s.

JW: How did you learn about the recording equipment that was cutting edge in the early 1950s?

RVG: I always tried to find out what equipment was being used to get the results that I heard on recordings that I liked by other engineers. I was curious and always asked lots of questions and visited other studios, including Columbia's 30th St. recording studio. [Pictured: The console at Columbia's 30th St. studio]

JW: Why did you bother to keep practicing optometry?

RVG: To fund the purchase of my recording equipment. I never made much money while practicing optometry after college. I made more from making records. But everything I made as an optometrist went into new recording equipment and, eventually, into building my studio in Englewood Cliffs from the ground up.

JW: Today, the Hackensack house on 25 Prospect Ave. is gone.

RVG: Yes, a health center is at the address now. My parents' house was sold and then torn down when the current owner bought the land.

JW: Does it make you sad that the house is no longer there?

RVG: A little. I suppose when you spend that much time recording history in a place, you sometimes wish you could at least drive by and see it. [Pictured: 25 Prospect Ave. in Hackensack, N.J., now home to the Active Center for Health and Wellness]

Tomorrow: Rudy talks about the recording technology at his Hackensack studio (I didn't ask; Rudy volunteered).

JazzWax note: A special thanks to Maureen and Don Sickler.


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