© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The source for Ben’s interview with the legendary recording engineer, Rudy van gelder, is Talking Jazz: 43 Jazz Conversions which are drawn from interviews that took place from 1984-1990 on Ben’s National Public Radio series entitled Sidran on Record.
In addition to the original book form, which is still in print, these talks are also available in a Kindle Edition from Amazon and in an expanded audio CD edition which is made up of the actual radio broadcasts.
Rudy Van Gelder
“Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder never gives interviews. He agreed to talk with me only after I assured him that if he didn't like the way it went, he could keep the tape. Perhaps because he's spent his entire life on the other side of the microphone, he knows all too well the historical importance of pushing the record button. Rudy is a legend in the recording world, not only because of the thousands of classic jazz sessions he's captured on tape, particularly the early Blue Note records, but also because he's a man who, many fans believe, helped invent the sound of contemporary jazz. His recordings from the early '50s still sound modem today. Rudy is not unaware of his position in the jazz pantheon, and actively guards his "secrets." He will not talk about the kinds of microphones he uses or where he places them, or anything even vaguely related to the technical process of recording music. For many of today's young jazz musicians, walking into his studio is a bit like arriving at the inner chamber of the great pyramid (where the mysteries of the past have unfolded); for many older musicians, it's like coming home.”
Ben: We're talking in the control room of your recording studio here in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. I've done interviews from all over, hotel rooms, musicians' apartments, backstage dressing rooms and, of course, recording studios. But I think this is the first one I've done from the control room of the studio.
Rudy: By the way, I'm, I'm on the wrong side of this microphone. This is very strange for me. I just feel very uncomfortable. I'd rather be on the opposite side. This is the first time I've ever done anything like this, so it's a very strange feeling.
Ben: When did you discover that you wanted to be on the "other side" of the microphone? Was there a particular moment when you realized you wanted to be a recording engineer?
Rudy: A particular moment? No, not really. But I remember certain times, yes, that I felt that's what I wanted to do. You know, for a long time I was in another profession.
Ben: You were an optometrist?
Rudy: That's right. That's right. And during the time I was in school studying, occasionally we would visit radio stations, or places other than the environment that I was studying, and I really felt that I wanted to be in that other situation. I really strongly felt that. Maybe because it was in Philadelphia. Maybe something about Philadelphia that makes you feel you're in the wrong place. [Laughs.]
Ben: As it says on W.C. Fields' tombstone, "I'd rather be here than in Philadelphia," right? But it's hard for us to realize, in these days when every twelve- or thirteen-year-old child has more technology strapped on their body than the whole city of Philadelphia had back in the '40s, but records, up through the '50s, were recorded in radio studios. They didn't have recording studios as we do today.
Rudy: That's right. There was actually no record industry as such. It was an off-shoot, from an engineering standpoint, of the radio stations. And the engineers usually worked with companies who were associated in some way with radio. There were a few exceptions to that, but there was no record industry as an independent industry, the way it is today. No, it was totally different. The equipment was different, everything was different.
Ben: And, initially, you were a hobbyist?
Rudy: Yes, that's right. I was a radio ham originally. Also an amateur musician, of course, and those two things sort of came together, and that's how it happened.
Ben: That's probably a real important point, the fact that you weren't coming just from a musical side, or the ham radio side, but you brought the two together.
Rudy: It was, yes, yes. It was. I always felt it was a strange combination, just a strange combination of ways to look at music. On the technical side, at that time, you had to build all your own equipment. There was nothing available that you could go out and buy. So, you had to build amplifiers, recording consoles. There was no manufacturer of consoles. That thing didn't exist. You had to make your own. See, the big companies were doing that, but they had their own staff of engineering people and maintenance people who would do that. That's why there was only two or three companies doing it. And not for sale.
Ben: RCA or...
Rudy: That's right. You'd see a conglomeration of knobs and meters and you'd know that was put together by RCA engineers.
Ben: Did you go into those studios when you were very young?
Rudy: Yeah. Occasionally I'd visit, yeah. Even I'd visit a session now and then.
Ben: Did you have a sense that there was another way to do it, when you went in there? I mean, was there a feeling that maybe there was a more musical way to do it?
Rudy: Not at that time. I would now. But not then. But at that time, it was a curiosity as to how they were doing what they were doing. And that's why I would seek out those people and places.
Ben: And, when you were in Philadelphia, were you out recording your musician friends, as a hobby?
Rudy: Oh, absolutely. Like we'd have sessions over the house. People would come and…
Ben: What would you record them on?
Rudy: Disc. You know, a little 10-inch, 12-inch turntable, 78 rpm, then 33, with a big transcription turntable. That was before the days of tape. And it was direct to disc. Definitely.
Ben: And, you were building your own amplifiers at that point?
Rudy: Yes, that's what I meant before. In order to do that, you had to build everything yourself. That's right.
Ben: And you practiced as an optometrist?
Rudy: Um hm. Thirteen years I did that. It was in another town near here, Hackensack. About five minutes, ten minutes from here...
Ben: This was in the '40s?
Rudy: Very late, very late '40s. Yes. Late '40s. '48, '49, '50. Of course during that time, I was recording as a hobby in my parents home. And I was doing both. I was practicing the optometry, and then in my spare time, recording. Actually it was during that period that I was doing all those early Blue Note things, and Prestige, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles. And all those people were coming over, and I was recording them. But at the same time, I had the practice going. 'Course then, the whole time thing reversed, after I spent more time doing the recording than I did the other.
Ben: Recording them in your house?
Rudy: In my parent's house. Yes. Right.
Ben: In your parent's house. I'm sure thousands of people out there, who hold those old Blue Note records in their hands and turn them over, are struck, as I was, by the photos. You'll see a picture of Horace Silver at the piano, and there's this lamp behind him. And then on another album, you'll see a picture of Bud Powell at the piano, and the same lamp is behind him. And there's Monk. And the same lamp. Wait a minute, What's going on here? This same lamp. And you really get a sense that it was all being recorded in somebody's living room.
Rudy: It was. That's right. Of course, the house was built, they built that, It was my father and mother, my parents, built that at the time, as their home. But, they were aware of my interest in the sound, and we had a little control room built right off the living room. This little glass window, overlooking the living room, with a small control room. And it's nice...
Ben: And there was a place in the living room where you'd always put the drum kit, and ...
Rudy: Most of it. Yeah. There was nothing rigid about it. But I remember this one place where I sent Kenny Clarke. Kenny Clarke would always go in that corner. We used to call it "Klook's Corner." That's where he would always set up the drums.
Ben: There's a song called "Klook's Corner."
Rudy: That's right. That's how it came about. Right.
Ben: Because he liked it there.
Rudy: That's right. We got a good sound. It was a good size room, actually. Not huge, but acoustically it sounded nice. Had a nice-sounding room.
Ben: Did you design the room to be a recording studio?
Rudy: No, not then. No. It was, that was within the context of the house. It was a one-floor house. But it was a nice high ceiling in the living room, and had little hallways and little nooks and crannies going off. It was really nice. Nice place to record. I made some good records there.
Ben: You made some wonderful records there. Did you practice optometry in the building as well, or were you coming back...
Rudy: No, No. Never. I had an office, a separate office.
Ben: So you'd come back after a day of...
Rudy:... of doing whatever I was doing and do a session. That's right. Or on Wednesday, when I had off, I would record for Prestige or Savoy, or Blue Note, during the day.
Ben: So fairly early on, you were going four and five days a week for Blue Note Records.
Rudy: Yes. It got busy very quickly.
Ben: When I talk to musicians who were involved in these early recordings, Horace Silver, for example, they say to me, "Well, if you want to know about the Blue Note sound, you've got to talk to Rudy Van Gelder. He'll tell you about the Blue Note sound." But I know from talking to you in the past, you'll tell me that I should talk to Alfred Lyon. That as the owner of the company and the producer of those sessions, what he did was as important as what you were doing.
Rudy: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think you can't separate. If you're talking about the Blue Note sound, you can't separate what I did from what he did. He was really the motivation for creating that, the opportunity to make that kind of a record. Yes. Not only that, he was the first to do it also.
Ben: Is there some way you can tell me why your Blue Note records didn't sound like anybody else's records? Why did your records sound different?
Rudy: Well, it's not easy to really describe it in words. I have complicated feelings about it. First of all, I really don't wanna be too specific, because I'm still at this. You know, I'm still doing it. And I had certain ideas. But really, it's a question of Alfred presenting me with a problem, and my solution to the problem.
Ben: How was the problem presented?
To be continued in Part 2.