The Van Gelder Sound

August Kleinzahler

When you’re listening to jazz in, I would argue, its greatest and most significant incarnation, a folk-based, body-based chamber music recorded during the 1950s – Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane et al – it was probably recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on analogue equipment in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, a room specifically designed for their son’s sound recording and where he made use of hallways and alcoves to tease out acoustic effects. By day, Van Gelder worked as an optometrist in Teaneck. He died yesterday at the age of 91.

The Van Gelder sound is synonymous with high-end jazz recording. Almost every important jazz album you’ve ever listened to from Prestige, Savoy, Blue Note, Impulse, Verve was recorded by Van Gelder, or someone trying to imitate him, first in Hackensack, then, after 1959, in nearby Englewood Cliffs, the town just north of Fort Lee, where I was raised. Monk has a tune, a tribute, called ‘Hackensack’. Coltrane has another, called ‘Route 4’, after the highway he would have travelled by car or bus from New York to record in Hackensack. I don’t know how many records were recorded in the Van Gelders’ house between 1954 and 1959, at least a couple of hundred, surely. When I was learning to tie my shoelaces on 6 May 1955, Rudy Van Gelder was recording Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums, play ‘Cro-Magnon Nights’ a few miles down the road.

While recording at a high level, with only two microphones on a stand, Van Gelder managed to get a clarity from the drums and bass that no one else had. In fact, he caught the sound of an entire rhythm section – bass, piano and drums – in proper perspective, something other engineers hadn’t thought possible. Using real and electronic echo, Van Gelder pulled sound and power from horn players unheard of outside of live performance. When Van Gelder moved to Englewood he built an elaborate studio with churchlike ceilings and cross-beams. By this point, he’d dropped the optometry.

Here’s the not entirely sold engineer Steve Hoffman describing the Van Gelder sound in an interview from some years back:

Take three or four expensive German mics with a blistering top end boost, put them real close to the instruments, add some extra distortion from a cheap overloading mic, preamp through an Army Surplus radio console, put some crappy plate reverb on it, and record. Then, immediately (and for no good reason), redub the master onto a magnatone tape deck at +6, compress the crap out of it while adding 5 db at 5000 cycles to everything. That’s the Van Gelder sound to me.

Van Gelder came to digital technology rather late. Always secretive about his techniques, and a perfectionist, he presumably wanted to get the new technology down to his satisfaction before having a serious go at it. In a rare interview he gave to Ben Sidran in 1985, he discusses what was gained and what was lost with digital multitrack recording. What was gained wass a consistently clean sound. As for what was lost:

Sidran: So the event nature of what you were all doing back then had to do with the fact that people were having to make live adjustments in order to get the music down.
Van Gelder: Absolutely.
Sidran: And these days we’re talking about ways of removing each individual from the live process.
Van Gelder: That’s exactly right … If you wanted to think of a way to inhibit creativity in jazz music in a studio, I would come up with a multitrack machine. A 24-track recorder that you could overdub on.
Sidran: Once you’re into that, then you’re into the whole concept of earphones, and you’re into the concept of doing it again, and you’re into the concept of doing it later. ‘Fixing it in the mix.’
Van Gelder: It’s inseparable. It’s a machine of mass destruction [laughs] – artistically.


  • 28 August 2016 at 11:03am
    RobotBoy says:
    A really engaging look at Van Gelder. Loved the interview and your inclusion of Hoffman's contrarian take.
    That said, I can't agree that jazz's 'greatest and most significant incarnation' was in the 1950s. It's almost as reactionary as Philip Larkin or the Marsalis' brothers Stalin-esque revisionism in Ken Burns disappointingly partisan 'Jazz' documentary. Two out of the three musicians you name didn't do their most important work until the 1960s: Davis and Coltrane. Coltrane is a relatively minor figure before his 60s transformation and even if you don't like electric Miles (which would sadden me), his acoustic 60s recordings are the pinnacle of his acoustic explorations. It took jazz a while to do more than slavishly try to imitate Parker's breakthrough but once that happened, in the 60s and after, ten thousand flowers bloomed.
    I'm also unclear about your labeling the music of this period as a 'folk' music. That would only seem to apply if one considers all popular music as 'folk.' In the 1950s, Bop reworked jazz into a highly refined, extremely cerebral (although no less physical)form that often used pop standards, especially from the American Songbook, to take off on musical flights that would have made Bach proud.

  • 29 August 2016 at 8:04am
    cufflink says:
    RobotBoy raises the Van Gelder currency above the nostalgia, and rightly so. Although August's warm tribute does place Van Gelder as a significant impact on Jazz recording and is well set in this genre of anecdotal buddyism; nevertheless it short changes Van Gelders contribution by not entering into the more serious implications of recording studio hegemony over and against performers' performances.
    May I quote Walter Benjamin - 'it is the new possibilities of technique (arrangement of content in new collocations , montages, juxtapositions, endings) that define a fresh beginning'
    He goes on 'what matters therefore, is the exemplary character of production - to put an improved apparatus at its disposal.'
    Van Gelder did this for audio recording with his precise and clear enhancements. It was a new audio geometry.

  • 29 August 2016 at 5:22pm
    Jorrocks says:
    Just thought I should mention the Duke Pearson tune, "Ready Rudy", which was also for Van Gelder. A nice little blues.

  • 7 September 2016 at 1:52am says:
    Thanks to Mr. Kleinzahler for making this "so concise and clear...." Thanks to the other commenters for caring. This is an era of Jazz that I am recently listening to--all the more to love. (And double-down on the name check flor Duke Pearson.

  • 8 September 2016 at 8:49pm
    grootka says:
    As much as I admire August Kleinzahler his view of jazz' "greatest incarnation," is remarkably limited, as he seems to concede from the outset. But I think he's basically correct, if I read him aright, in thinking that for most jazz fans our perception of the music is overwhelmingly tied to recordings and at their best that means the recordings engineered by Rudy Van Gelder and his followers. Jazz performance is another thing. It's also the more important thing. Jazz really needs to be seen "live" to be properly experienced - i.e, to get the genuine, essential jazz feeling. Nonetheless, recordings to a pretty good job and at their best, thanks to RVG, they can communicate much of the essential jazz experience.
    One thing to bear in mind, though, which I'm sure that RVG himself recognized early in his experimentation as a youth recording performance, what we hear in performance is tremendously conditioned by incidental and situational factors; we don't hear any music as well as we could. Just off the top of my head I can recall sitting in a cramped little room, the Minor Key, in Detroit, in 1961, listening to John Coltrane blow an interminable soprano sax solo on "My Favorite Things," which utterly enthralled me and perhaps 80 people crammed in there, but what the aural experience truly was I couldn't really describe. I know that mostly what I experienced was the sensation of being present as something special. I was only ten feet or so from Coltrane, the sound blasted right into my face, the sweat from drummer Elvin Jones in his furious flailing sprinkling my shirt and face. Was this a musical experience? Primarily? No, no.
    The same thing happens in any hall where a cellist like Janos Starker delivers one of the Bach suites. What one hears in the distant reaches of the balcony is different from what one hears or experiences in the front rows.
    But that's what recording has done. RVG gave us jazz on a highly laudable level and for that we must be grateful.