Artist Spotlight — Rudy Van Gelder, Jazz’s Most Important Optometrist

Rudy Van Gelder was the recording engineer and sometime producer behind thousands of jazz albums. That’s not an exaggeration; on, he has more than 3,000 credits. Besides being prolific, however, he was also very good at what he did. You might not expect that an optometrist who taught himself modern recording techniques would win a Grammy Trustees Award (i.e., the recording academy’s lifetime achievement honor). But then again, never be surprised by anything you read in an Artist Spotlight.

The main thing Van Gelder can be credited with is bringing a broader, more concert-hall sound to jazz recordings. You’d use a term like “presence” to describe it. Remember that jazz music through the 1960s was typically performed in night clubs and other seedy locations, and that until the late ’50s, regular people listened to records in monaural rather than stereo. To hear a record like John Coltrane’s Blue Train, recorded in Van Gelder’s parents’ high-ceilinged living room in Hackensack, N.J., was therefore a revelation. The combination of stereo sound and Van Gelder’s secret engineering sauce made the instruments sound so alive as to be practically in the room with you.

Van Gelder started recording neighborhood musicians in 1953, and got big when a recording he made with now-forgotten saxophonist Gil Mellé came to the attention of Alfred Lion, head of Blue Note Records. Lion’s studio engineer couldn’t duplicate Van Gelder’s big sound, so Lion sought him out personally.

Over the next six years, Van Gelder recorded albums for Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Kenny Burrell, Red Garland, Herbie Mann, and dozens more. (The Coltrane track above was recorded in 1957.) He started working for the other jazz labels as well. He once told a reporter that while Blue Note’s Lion was exacting in his standards, the executives at Prestige Records were not—so Van Gelder experimented on his Prestige assignments, then used those newly perfected techniques on Blue Note recordings.

Bear in mind that this all happened at night; Van Gelder was still an optometrist by day. It also happened in his parents’ house. Van Gelder’s folks eventually had a separate entrance built adjacent to their bedroom so they could come and go without disrupting the recording sessions.

By 1959, Van Gelder was making enough money as a recording engineer to quit his job as an optometrist. He’d also saved up enough to have a new studio built. He worked with architect David Henken, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, to create something like a small cathedral on a vacant lot in Englewood Cliffs, also in New Jersey. A nondescript brick house on the outside, it houses a wide-open interior space with a vaulted, cedar-planked ceiling soaring high above the heads of whatever jazz royalty happened to be inside.

Van Gelder had it built for a specific kind of sound, and by all accounts, he achieved it, though he never really told anyone how. Interviews with him were rare, and those that did get published typically included phrases like “Van Gelder remains secretive about his techniques.” When a Wall Street Journal reporter asked him in 2012 about rumored tricks like wrapping a microphone in foam and placing it inside a piano tone hole, Van Gelder said, “All I’ll say is nothing is simple, everything is complex.” He did brag about being an early proponent of Neumann condenser microphones, which eventually became a standard piece of any recording studio’s arsenal.

His detractors hold that Van Gelder meddled too much with the natural sound of the instruments, either by boosting reverb — which Lion snarkily referred to as the “Rudy Special” — or by deliberately placing his microphones in odd locations to change the timbre of what they recorded. Bassist Charles Mingus gave a standoffish (even by jazz superstar standards) interview to Downbeat in 1960, in which he derided Van Gelder and said “he ruined my sound” on an early recording.

What is clear is that the records that came out of his Englewood Cliffs studio remained as Van Gelder-y as anything Van Gelder had produced before. It’s interesting to look at his discography from this time; you can easily forget that a producer or engineer works on way more albums per year than you’d imagine, and while they can build a reputation off of one or two huge hits, there are at least as many unknowns percolating beneath the surface. Van Gelder worked on more than 120 records in 1960, but only two or three of them are outright classics.

Look at me, being a snob. “Only two or three” classic records in a single year. Rudy, you slacker! To give you a better sense of Van Gelder’s place in music history, I went through five or six different “Best Jazz Albums Ever” lists and combined them into a single spreadsheet. Removing duplicates, best-ofs, and live albums leaves 39 studio recordings. Van Gelder engineered or remastered 13 of those. By this metric, one-third of the best jazz recordings of all time came through his studios. Not too shabby.

Van Gelder kept working long after jazz had vanished from the mainstream. He continued to record albums in jazz, fusion, and related subgenres through the 1980s and 1990s, and (at least according to Wikipedia) engineered five records in the 2000s.

He died last August, at the age of 91. I always figured jazz musicians die either young or old; they don’t live average lives. Van Gelder was never a musician — he joked about being kicked out of his high school marching band for being, well, awful. That doesn’t matter, though. He literally left his stamp on hundreds of thousands of records, and not many people can say that.