In 1943 Rudy Van Gelder graduated from the University Pennsylvania College of Optometry, hoping that optometry would provide a steady income while he tinkered with his electronics, recording local jazz musicians.
Van Gelder created his first studio in his parents living room in Hackensack, N.J where he was able to offer recording services at far lower rates than those found across the East River in New York City. In 1953 one of his friends, the saxophonist Gil Melle, introduced him to Blue Note Records producer (and founder) Alfred Lion. Lion was impressed with the “natural sound” Mr. Van Gelder was able to create. He became renowned for his gift of creating the sound and feel of a jazz club in his recordings.
Van Gelder’s studio that he operated in his parent’s living room from 1953 to 1958 before upgrading to a dedicated studio 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.
By the end of 1954, so many hits had been cut there—and so many record jacket photos taken—that jazz fans the world over were “familiar with the curtains in the Van Gelder living room,” as the historian Ira Gitler once wrote.
Van Gelder left his day job and moved his equipment to a home in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, where he built a new studio.
The space, was designed by an acolyte of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was created to be “high-domed, wooden-beamed, brick-tiled,” spare, and modern, with 39-foot ceilings, Gitler wrote. Many musicians compared it to a chapel or cathedral and as more of the greats began to record there, including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Art Blakey it reached a legendary status among recording studios. There is a recently discovered “lost” record called “Both Directions at Once”. This album was recorded at Van Gelder Studios on March 6, 1963. He also recorded legendary jazz fusion albums like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.” in this studio.
The National Endowment for the Arts, created tribute to Mr. Van Gelder, noting that he was “considered by many the greatest recording engineer in jazz” who “recorded practically every major jazz musician of the 1950s and 1960s.”
“My ambition from the start as a recording engineer was to capture and reproduce the music better than other engineers at the time,” Mr. Van Gelder said in a 2012 interview with jazz writer Marc Myers. “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.”
Mr. Van Gelder later embraced digital technology. Starting in 1999, he began remastering his analog Blue Note recordings into digital recordings for the label’s RVG Edition series.
In 2012, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences honored Mr. Van Gelder with its Trustees Award, recognizing his lifelong contribution to jazz recording.
For information on recording or a visit, contact Maureen Sickler at the email below.