Jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder passed away last week at age 91, and although many won’t recognize the name, he was a giant in the industry. He was responsible for recording some of the greatest jazz albums ever by artists like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and hundreds more.
While we look to Bruce Swedien as the Godfather of modern engineering, Rudy actually predates him in that he started his career in the mid-1940’s in the days even before tape. He was never a luddite though, as he was always involved with the latest that technology had to offer right up until his final session.
Van Gelder was unique in a many ways. He was the first independent engineer able to make a living from his passion, and like many today, he was self-taught in that he never had a mentor or worked directly for a record label or studio. For the first part of his career, he used a day gig as an optometrist to finance his recording habit (sound familiar). He also had the first home recording studio as well in that he recorded many of his biggest records in the living room of his parent’s house prior to building his own studio. And on the tech side, he owned one of the first three true recording consoles every built, the others going to Les Paul and a studio in New York City.
Speaking of tech, to the very end Rudy guarded his recording techniques like they were nuclear secrets, never telling or showing anyone any of his methods. Even when photos were taken of recording sessions in his studio, he would move the mics so no one could see their placement. Only in his last years did he finally get an assistant to help. I wanted to get him to do an interview for the Recording Engineer’s Handbook but he would never agree, one of the few engineers that I’ve encountered that ever felt that way.
Rudy was also a big proponent of Neumann mics, being the owner of the second U47 in the United States. Very early he decided that the microphones where a huge part of the sound and deserved special care, so he always handled them with gloves and would never let an artist touch them.
So let’s give it up for Rudy Van Gelder, truly one of the giants in our business. A pretty amazing guy who made some equally amazing recordings.