Jazz Recording Engineer Rudy Van Gelder Dies at 91

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Rudy Van Gelder, in a scene from the CD/DVD release Perfect Takes (Blue Note)

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Rudy Van Gelder, the recording engineer who cultivated an amateur passion for jazz into a legendary career—during which he worked with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Wayne Shorter, among others—died Aug. 25. He was 91.

Considered by some critics to be jazz’s most influential recording engineer, Van Gelder oversaw a number of the genre’s most significant recordings, including Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Davis’ Bags Groove, Stanley Turrentine’s Dont’t Mess With Mr. T and Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay.

Born in 1924, Van Gelder began his foray into jazz recording during the early 1950s, during which time his base of operations was his parents’ living room in Hackensack, New Jersey. After a recording session with saxophonist Gil Mellé was purchased by Blue Note Records producer Alfred Lions, Van Gelder’s reputation as a skilled and sonically attentive engineer began to spread, and by the end of the decade he had raised his profile dramatically, collaborating on numerous landmark albums by Prestige, Verve, Impulse! and, most prominently, Blue Note.

By 1959 Van Gelder had quit his day job—he worked full-time as an optometrist for 13 years—and moved his recording studio to a house in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where he continued to monitor recording sessions by jazz icons. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Wes Montgomery and Joe Henderson recorded albums there in the 1950s and ’60s, and toward the end of the century, Van Gelder supervised recording sessions with Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner and Ron Carter.

Van Gelder received a Lifetime Achievement Award from DownBeat for his contributions to jazz, and in 2009 he was named both a fellow of the Audio Engineering Society and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

In a statement released Aug. 26, the NEA mourned the loss of Van Gelder and praised his enduring commitment to preserving jazz as an art form. It read, in part: “It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, recipient of the 2009 A. B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, which is bestowed on an individual who has contributed significantly to the appreciation, knowledge, and advancement of jazz … .”

To see a video about Van Gelder that Prestige/Concord assembled in connection with the 65th anniversary of the Prestige label, click here.