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Rudy Van Gelder: The Engineer and the Human Spirit

Rudy Van Gelder, the most sought-after audio engineer in jazz for decades, died last week at age 91. He was an exacting technician, but, as WRTI’s Kile Smith reports, there was something else in his recordings that he was striving for.
[Music: Horace Silver, “Cape Verdean Blues”]

Rudy Van Gelder was the engineer’s engineer. For his industry-leading jazz recordings he started getting microphones from Germany. Then everyone started getting microphones from Germany. In the studio, he ran cables, set up chairs, mics, everything, himself. Then he ran the console with gloves on, that’s how particular he was. He followed every step of the recording for Blue Note, Prestige, CTI, and others up to the final product, whether it was a 78 or a CD. He re-mastered an entire series for Blue Note, the Rudy Van Gelder Editions.

That precision came naturally, from ham radio as a child to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (now part of Salus University in Elkins Park). The money he made as an optometrist went into recording equipment. Before Van Gelder built his studio and went full-time, he recorded at his parents’ house in... well, Thelonious Monk wrote a song about it: “Hackensack.”

[Music: Thelonious Monk, “Hackensack”]

Van Gelder used a mix of types and placements of microphones to bring us as close as possible to Monk, Coltrane, Miles, Horace Silver, Grover Washington, Jr. He was an engineer’s engineer, but warmth and realism, pop and juiciness exude from all his work. With all his technique, what Rudy Van Gelder wanted to capture, he said, was “the human spirit.”

[Music: Horace Silver, “Song for my Father”]