It seems appropriate that Peter Keepnews wrote the obituary for The New York Times following the news that Rudy Van Gelder died yesterday at his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The very first recordings that Thelonious Monk made for Keepnews’ father Orrin for eventual release on Riverside took place in July of 1955, back when the Van Gelder Studio was still in Hackensack, New Jersey. At that time Van Gelder still had a day job as an optometrist. His recording gigs were more profitable, but optometry was steady work. It provided the money he needed to purchase new recording equipment and eventually to build his own studio into his home in Englewood Cliffs, where he spent the rest of his life.
The major labels that used Van Gelder’s services regularly were Blue Note Records, Prestige Records, and Impulse! Records. One could compile an anthology of modern jazz based on the sessions that he engineered. That anthology would include such albums as A Love Supreme by the John Coltrane Quartet, Walkin’ with the Miles Davis All Stars, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage on Blue Note, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus on Prestige, and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father on Blue Note.
However, rattling off titles says little about the real value of what Van Gelder brought to his work. These were all recordings of combos in which, by all rights, the leader was first among equals. Van Gelder knew how to bring clarity to every voice in a combo, not only in capturing solo takes but also in finding just the right levels to reproduce the intended blending in “chorus” sections. The fact that the very sound of the Sixties (and, to a great extent the Fifties) continues to be such a recognizable sign of how jazz was being made half a century ago owes much to both the fidelity of Van Gelder’s equipment and his impeccable skill behind a mixing board.
Without Van Gelder’s contributions to the making of recordings, it would be almost impossible for anyone today to write a useful account of jazz practices when modernism was so prolific in so many different ways.