NEW YORK — Rudy Van Gelder, the audio engineer who helped shape the sound of modern jazz on thousands of recordings, including such timeless albums as John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” has died. He was 91.
Blue Note Records spokesman Cem Kurosman said Van Gelder died Thursday morning at his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The home was also the site of Van Gelder’s studio for more than half a century.
The National Endowment for the Arts, in a tribute to Van Gelder, noted that he was “considered by many the greatest recording engineer in jazz” who “recorded practically every major jazz musician of the 1950s and 1960s.”
“My ambition from the start as a recording engineer was to capture and reproduce the music better than other engineers at the time,” Van Gelder said in a 2012 interview with jazz writer Mark Myers. “I was driven to make the music sound closer to the way it sounded in the studio. This was a constant struggle — to get electronics to accurately capture the human spirit.”
An amateur radio buff and jazz fan, Van Gelder set up his first studio in the living room of his parents’ house in Hackensack, New Jersey, recording local musicians. One of his friends, saxophonist Gil Melle, introduced him to Blue Note Records founder and producer Alfred Lion in 1953. He soon became the main recording engineer for the independent jazz label, using innovative state-of-the-art recording techniques that helped turn the label into a major force on the modern jazz scene. Pianist Thelonious Monk composed a tribute to Van Gelder’s home studio titled “Hackensack,” which he recorded there in 1954.
“Alfred liked the way I made things sound so he put me on his team and from then on I was working for him doing albums,” Van Gelder recalled in a 2008 interview for the National Endowment for the Arts, which named him a Jazz Master, the nation’s highest jazz honor. “He picked the people. He selected how they should play. He’s the one that directed the music and I was there to make sure that he got what he wanted and if he didn’t he’d let me know real quick.”
Van Gelder not only recorded sessions for Blue Note, but also worked extensively with Prestige Records on such sessions as Miles Davis’ “Bag’s Groove” and “Walkin”” and Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” and “Saxophone Colossus.”
And Van Gelder soon found his services as a recording engineer so much in demand that he eventually gave up his day job as an optometrist. In 1959, he bought his house in Englewood Cliffs, where he built his own studio — a cathedral-like space with a vaulted ceiling and excellent acoustics that became a modern jazz shrine.
Among the classic Blue Note albums recorded there in the 1960s were pianist Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” trumpeter Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch,” pianist Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” and saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil.”
In 1964, tenor saxophonist Coltrane recorded his deeply spiritual masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for the Impulse! label at Van Gelder’s studio.
“The session was hypnotic, exciting and different. But I didn’t realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later. When Coltrane was here, I was too worried about capturing the music,” Van Gelder recalled in his 2012 interview with Myers.
After Lion retired from running Blue Note in 1967, the label’s new owners began turning to other recording engineers more frequently. In the 1970s, Van Gelder worked as the engineer for producer Creed Taylor’s commercially successful crossover jazz label, CTI, recording such albums as trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s “Mister Magic.”
Van Gelder later embraced digital technology. Starting in 1999, he began remastering his analog Blue Note recordings into digital recordings for the label’s RVG Edition series.
In 2012, the National Academy of Record Arts and Sciences honored Van Gelder with its Trustees Award recognizing his lifelong contribution to jazz recording.