The Secret Legacy of Rudy Van Gelder

Jesse Klapholz‘ analysis of Rudy Van Gelder’s place in recorded music history is excerpted and adapted from his upcoming textbook, The New Cyclopedia of Jazz Recording Techniques.

It offers what may be considered a controversial take on the legendary recordist, but one worth considering and debating. These are the author’s views and opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of this publication, its editors or other contributors.

Rudy Van Gelder, pictured third from the left with members of the Roger Dawson Septet in 1976. Roughly 52 at the time, he had already spent more than two decades recording some of the most seminal works in modern jazz history.

If you were to attempt to listen to all of Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings back-to-back, it would take something on the order of four months to complete.

His recording repertoire is virtually the Rosetta Stone for mainstream jazz and its evolution from big bands and dance bands to small ensembles.

Van Gelder’s professional studio—which he operated in his parent’s living room from 1953 to 1958 before upgrading to a dedicated space—was a one-man operation that allowed fledgling upstart labels including Blue Note, Prestige, Verve, Impulse and Savoy, to record myriad talents of an entirely new genre.

Upon his passing, an outpouring of praise came for his engineering work, exemplified by quotes like this one from Kile Smith of WRTI FM, Philadelphia:

“Van Gelder used a mix of types and placements of microphones to bring us as close as possible to Monk, Coltrane, Miles, Horace Silver, [and] Grover Washington, Jr. He was an engineer’s engineer, but warmth and realism, pop and juiciness exude from all his work. With all his technique, what Rudy van Gelder wanted to capture, he said, was 
the human spirit.”

RVG’s true legacy however—which is often overlooked—stems not from his technical prowess, but from the economical studio time he was able to provide to these newly emerging artists. Blue Note booked sessions that typically cut an album in two days, other labels in just one. With his one-man band approach and the low overhead that went along with it, Van Gelder facilitated an overflowing fountain of new jazz recordings that otherwise would not have been possible.

Because of this, Van Gelder became almost single-handedly responsible for the recording, establishment, and dissemination of a majority of modern jazz’s recorded corpus in his era.

This is an extraordinary achievement by itself, and is somewhat masked by the syrupy prostrations of those perpetuating the myth of Van Gelder as a “pioneering” recordist or an “engineer’s engineer.”

The reality is a little bit different. In retrospect, RVG is not the engineering giant he is sometimes made out to be. Rather, he is the David to the Goliath of the huge record labels’ well-funded and well-practiced engineering legions.

Van Gelder’s real legacy is not so much in his techniques as in the sheer volume of his output—in the huge number of influential sessions that came through his suburban New Jersey doors, which provided an affordable alternative for the burgeoning independent labels outside of the big NYC studios.

Without Van Gelder, or someone like him, we might not have nearly as vast a collection of the 1950s jazz greats.

David vs. Goliath

As recorded popular music transitioned into the big band era, larger acoustical spaces came into vogue, such as the re-purposed churches employed most notably by RCA and Columbia. During these pre-magnetic tape years, RCA ribbon microphones reigned supreme.

RCA and Columbia added to the sound of these rooms by using hard-walled basements as auxiliary reverberation chambers beginning around 1934, layering their ambience on top of the natural acoustics of large spaces, thanks to the work of RCA’s John E. Volkmann.

The artists that Van Gelder is most famous for working with however, such as Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, and Miles Davis amongst many others, are the pioneers of smaller jazz ensembles in contrast to the much larger (and much better financed) jazz “big bands” of that era.

These artists didn’t need the massive spaces of the big studios to make their statement. Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, arguably a milestone in smaller jazz ensemble recordings, was captured at Capitol and at The Royal Roost jazz club, located at 1580 Broadway in New York City in 1949 and 1950. The standout tracks here are mono hi-fidelity at its best.

While a current misperception is that jazz did not exist in good quality recordings before RVG, one can listen to an abundance of recordings pre-1953. For example: Diz & Getz featuring Oscar Peterson, recorded in 1953 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood and released on the Verve label. Peterson’s piano sounds like a real piano, Max Roach and his style are immediately recognizable and the tone is perfect. Of course, the horns sound great.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of the recording quality that was available to jazz artists already comes from listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, recorded at Van Gelder’s new studio in Englewood Cliffs in 1964 for Impulse Records, and comparing it to the recording of Coltrane’s Giant Steps made by Tom Dowd years earlier, at Atlantic Records in NYC in 1959. Van Gelder’s 1964 recording sounds like 1954, and Dowd’s 1959 recording sounds like 1969.

To my ear, Van Gelder’s tenor sax sound has a tone that is thin and top-heavy in comparison, while on Dowd’s recording of Giant Steps, the piano sound is much clearer and more natural sounding, with a better balance overall.

These are both stereo recordings. RVG’s new studio at the time had rising cathedral ceilings, while Atlantic’s studio sat in a low-rise concrete building with 12-foot high ceilings. Still, the cymbals on the RVG recording are slightly sibilant with exaggerated stick attack compared to Dowd’s older recording in what may have been a more compromised space. (My best guess is that this effect owes to the microphones being placed a bit too close to the cymbals on Van Gelder’s recording compared to Dowd’s.)

The premiere studios of this era, located in LA and NYC, including RCA, Columbia, and Capitol’s, could churn out even higher quality still. Until the 1960s, the studios these labels employed were equipped, almost invariably, with sizable spaces, large diaphragm condenser microphones, custom mixers, and professional “suit-and-tie engineers.” The major label recordings of this era are decidedly hi-fi and clean-sounding, owing to these exemplary acoustic spaces, the low count of moderately-closely placed condenser and ribbon microphones, and the minimal signal processing and signal paths.

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  • Danwriter

    RVG was a dedicated, devoted shopkeeper, a horologist with a retail storefront. He revelled in his New Jersey-ness, and I’m sure took no small satisfaction in staying afloat long after his Manhattan competitors sank beneath the city’s relentless real estate churn. It’s also no denigration of his memory that his “secrets” turned out to be the audio equivalent of “Rosebud.” RVG simply did it his way.

  • Robert A

    Did you know RVG always wore gloves and didn’t allow anyone to smoke (even in those days) in the studio.