I have been dreading the day I would hear this news. But it’s true, Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) has died at the age of 91. He became legendary, but started out recording late-night sessions in his parents’ living room in the early 1950’s while attending optometry school by day. Thank goodness he didn’t pursue an optometry career!
The other day I pulled out his 1953 recording for Prestige, Bag’s Groove, with Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke — one of those early “living room” recordings done in his parents’ home in Hackensack, New Jersey. I think Monk wrote his song “Hackensack” with this living room in mind. The sound, in glorious mono, was as good as anything a Nieves board or a modern studio could do…actually, it sounds better, more immediate with far more presence. You hear the musicians in your own living room when you hear this record. This was 1953! You can see the venetian blinds in the background in photos from the Blue Note book with photos by Francis Wolff.
Rudy Van Gelder recorded most if not all of the Blue Note catalogue and is mostly known for his Blue Note recordings, although as mentioned he also worked for Prestige Records. Van Gelder, as much as Alfred Lion or Francis Wolff, made Blue Note records what it was and is. And thank God for Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records, who helped source all the RVG series and reissues that have come out over the years.
I recall that NPR personality Susan Stamberg once visited Van Gelder’s famous Englewood Cliffs New Jersey studio, and immediately clapped her hands to get the studio’s base acoustic. You then heard a voice telling, or rather ordering, her to stop! Telling the imperious Susan Stamberg to stop! I loved it! Rudy also made many people wonder where Englewood Cliffs, N.J. even was. There are pictures of it in the Blue Note book, with its pointed cathedral ceilings with wood specially sourced from a forest in Oregon per Rudy’s specifications. When it was being constructed, neighbors didn’t know what it was, many thinking it was a church. In a musical sense, it was. There’s also a picture of the home’s exterior on the interior spread of Sonny Rollins’ album Sonny Rollins on Impulse, with Sonny’s Karman-Ghia parked outside. You get a good sense of RVG’s great Blue Note sessions in the Francis Wolff photo book. Wolff, co-founder of Blue Note and like Alfred Lion an emigré from Hitler’s Germany, took photos of all the recording sessions.
I wrote a blog post a few years ago, comparing Rudy to Cartier-Bresson and the joy they both brought to my life. With all the compression modern recordings get to stuff the music into mobile devices, Rudy Van Gelder is to be treasured even more. His recordings show utmost respect for the timeless music he recorded, doing the artists proud. Thank goodness RVG was so prolific over a six-decade career. We jazz lovers, we audiophiles, are truly grateful.
Here is a clip of an interview with Rudy Van Gelder from “Perfect Takes.”
The fascinating story of Blue Note records—formed by two Jewish emigrés from Hitler’s Germany—continues here: