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Interview: Rudy Van Gelder (Part 5)

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Rudy Van Gelder Before I left Rudy Van Gelder's historic recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., a few weeks ago, I couldn't resist asking a favor. Rudy's eyebrows went up in agreeable arches. Out came my copy of Horace Silver's Horace-Scope, one of my favorite Blue Note albums. Though it was recorded in Hackensack, N.J., in 1960, I still wanted to see the legendary engineer listening to his original and remastered handiwork.

Rudy fiddled with the massive console in his control room—hitting buttons and watching lights twinkle. Then he took the disc from me and slipped it into a player. Suddenly, the opening bars to Strollin' came rushing forward, music he had remastered in 2006. I was warned that Rudy likes his monitor speakers up, but the blast of sound was so crystal clear and pure, the impact of the horns hitting my chest was exhilarating.

In Part 5 of my five-part conversation with Rudy, he talks about building his Englewood Cliffs, N.J. studio in the late 1950s:

JazzWax: By the late 1950s, you and your wife Elva areliving in an apartment in Hackensack near your parents' home, which doubled as your studio, yes?

Rudy Van Gelder: That's right. We knew we needed our own place that would also house a studio with much more space. I was booking larger and larger groups, and the living room of my parents' home was limiting what I could do.

JW: What was your fantasy studio at the time?

RVG: I had the image of a larger-sized room, perhaps a small concert hall. I had been recording at my parents' house since the late 1940s and there were obvious limitations.

JW: So you had saved enough to build a new home and studio? RVG: Saved enough? [Laughs] I didn't have nearly enough savings to pay for the expansion. I took out a construction loan. I felt I could count on Alfred Lion, a steady client. Alfred, in 1957 or so, told me he had put me “on the team." As a result, I knew I could count on steady income from him.

JW: You're many things, but you're not an architect. How did you plan the new studio?

RVG: My late wife Elva was a pianist who was tuned into the arts and architecture. One day we went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw a model of a residential house built years earlier by Frank Lloyd Wright, who had just started work on the Guggenheim Museum in New York. [Pictured: Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim Museum mid-construction in 1959]

JW: Which house was it?

RVG: Back in the mid-1940s, Wright and his students had developed a concept of making beautiful homes from humble, natural materials that ordinary people could afford. These were called Usonian houses. We loved the concept, since a recording studio has to be an organic space. Cost and esthetics were important, too, of course.

JW: So you looked up Wright in the phone book?

RVG: [Laughs] Not quite. My wife did some research and found that David Henken had been one of the founders of the Usonia Homes project in the town of Mount Pleasant, N.Y. . Homes there were made primarily of concrete, wood and other organic materials that blended into the landscape. David and I met and started talking. I knew what I needed acoustically for my studio. The goal was to compress my needs into what we could afford and create a timetable that would allow the studio to be completed relatively quickly.

JW: But your budget was limited.

RVG: That's right. The bigger the studio, the more it was going to cost. So we came to an agreement based on what I could handle financially. David drew up a design, and when he was finished with them in 1958, I had a nice set of plans but no one to build it.

JW: What did you do?

RVG: One of David's employees, Armand Giglio, fell in love with the plans and agreed to develop them. Armand did all the interior carpentry in his own shop, but the roof was subcontracted to Timber Structures Inc. in Portland, Oregon. They had developed a new technique for producing arches, beams and rafters out of laminated hardwoods.

JW: How were you handling your recording sessions while all of this was going on?

RVG: My wife and I lived in our Hackensack apartment, and I continued my optometry practice in Teaneck, N.J., on Cedar Lane. When it was time to record, I'd just walk up the hill from our apartment to my parents' house. 

JW: In short, what did the new studio's design look like? RVG: It called for a masonry base with five walls. The arches and rafters were to be made of Douglas fir with cedar tongue-and-groove decking. The wood in the rafters is uncoated. The way you see the wood now [pointing up] is the way it was shipped here from Portland.

JW: The masonry walls don't look like masonry.

RVG: I know. They are custom-cast cinder blocks impregnated with a tan pigment. Each block was manufactured with the color through and through. The way sound reflects off the masonry and wood is the secret. The five walls allow the sound to move up into the rafters and back down without being trapped or muffled.

JW: How did they get those arches up?

RVG: A crane about 90-feet tall had to hoist them and the rafters into place. They were bolted together at the top and joined at the bottom with a steel cable under the floor. This design allowed for a large recording space unencumbered by columns for support. In later years, after the studio was completed, David Henken came by with a lady friend. He said it was the best building he had ever designed.

JW: Were the five wooden isolation booths in the studio here originally?

RVG: No. I installed those in the 1970s at the suggestion of [producer] Creed Taylor. They allow for complete separation of individual instruments—if such a setup is necessary. The separation meant we had greater flexibility when editing tape. If an artist played a better solo on a different track, the lesser one could be removed and the better one spliced in without worry about the rest of the instruments before the mastering process.

JW: When was the Englewood Cliffs studio completed?

RVG: In the late spring of 1959.

JW: Who had the honor of being the first to record here?

RVG: That depends. The very first session here wasn't a jazz date. It was for Ward Botsford, a producer of classical and spoken recordings.

JW: Whom did you record?

RVG: The West Point Cadet Glee Club. They came down in two busses, did their calisthenics in the parking lot, then came into the studio and sang their songs. Ward told me, “I've always wanted to do this." He was referring to going to the nearby diner and ordering 100 cups of coffee.

JW: What was the first jazz session?

RVG: Ike Quebec for Blue Note on July 20, 1959. But it was a rough session. Three tracks were recorded. All went unreleased.

JW: What was the first complete jazz session?

RVG: The invoice I wrote up on August 2, 1959 was for Walter Davis Jr.'s Davis Cup for Blue Note.

JW: Did your parents live in the Hackensack house after you moved to your Englewood Cliffs home?

RVG: Yes, they lived there for the rest of their lives. The ownership of the house went out of my control, and the property changed hands. Then it was torn down to make room for the health center that's there now.

JW: Were you  saddened when it was demolished.

RVG: Yes I was. It was where I had done some of my finest work.

JW: Which albums do you remember most?

RVG: Probably the ones recorded early on by Miles Davis, Red Garland and Horace Silver. I also love Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave with Urbie Green, which is perfection. And Walter Wanderley's Summer Samba. I recorded all of Walter's U.S. recordings here. He was so much fun to listen to.

JW: And which recording was the most astonishing?

RVG: The most momentous recording of the 1960s for me was John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. It was hypnotic. It was exciting. It was different. But I didn't have those views when it was recorded.

JW: What do you mean?

RVG: I came to that realization only when I remastered the album for its digital reissue in 2002. You have to understand, I was busy making sure that the work was recorded perfectly. It wasn't until I was working on updating the original master that I listened intently to the music.

JW: So in many ways you have the same appreciation of that album that any listener does listening to the recording.

RVG: That's right. Except that I recorded it [laughs].

JW: Is the organ that was used for most of the Hackensack and Englewood Cliffs recordings still here?

RVG: It is. Do you want to see it?

[Getting up, we walk to a far corner of the studio, through a forest of microphone stands. Rudy pulls a gray plastic covering off of the organ.]

JW: Wow.

RVG: Yes, nearly everyone who recorded on organ here for ABC, Blue Note and Prestige—including Ray Charles, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland—used this instrument. Actually, people would probably be surprised to learn that it's a Hammond C-3, not a B-3.

JW: Every session?

RVG: Most. Sometimes artists would bring their own organ for one reason or another.

JW: Where did you get it?

RVG: Savoy producer Ozzie Cadena [pictured] bought it originally,and we used it for a large number of gospel albums he produced. He eventually sold it to me. Jimmy Smith called it “The Old Girl."

JW: How did you fare in the rock era?

RVG: The music may have changed in the 1960s, but I kept recording. In the 1970s, Creed hired me exclusively for CTI for some years, five days a week. Until my wife Elva became ill. Then I closed the studio temporarily to care for her.

JW: What was your mindset when recording all of these artists?

RVG: I've always worked for individual musicians and producers, along with labels. I still do. But I always try to work for the little guy and make it possible for him to compete with the big guys—technically and musically. That's the way I also handled my business. I could have expanded, hiring lots of people. But I decided to stay small. [Photo of Rudy Van Gelder and Marc Myers by Maureen Sickler]

JW: Sitting here now, do you ever think back to all of the sessions that were held in this space—from Blue Note and Prestige to Impulse, Verve, A&M and CTI plus others?

RVG: Yes. Sometimes I sit here and think of all the great artists who came through and all the music that was made here. The musicians are still alive in my mind, just like the last time I saw them here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Walter Davis Jr. leading the first complete jazz session at Rudy Van Gelder's new Englewood Cliffs, N.J., recording studio. Joining pianist Davis for Millie's Delight on Davis Cup (1959) were Donald Byrd (tp) Jackie McLean (as) Sam Jones (b) and Art Taylor (d).


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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