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Rudy Van Gelder is one of my musical heroes — and not just because he wore a bow tie and glasses. He was an optometrist by trade, but he also built a recording studio in his parents’ living room. The jazz recordings he made there in the 1940s were so good that eventually he started getting a lot of work the legendary Blue Note label. And not long after that, other labels started seeking him out as well. What set him apart from many other producers at the time — aside from the fact that he worked by day as an optometrist — was the care he took with microphone selection and placement. To get the best tone, he’d take a musician’s playing style into account and figure out exactly where to put the mic and how to angle it. He was also extremely fastidious. Perhaps because of his medical training, he never allowed smoking in his studio — a then unheard of restriction in the world of jazz. By the end of 1950s, he was so busy with recording that he retired from optometry and opened a studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, not far from the original studio he built in his parents’ living room.

I think the main reason I’m attracted to Van Gelder’s story is that even though he never set out to be a record producer, he was open-minded enough that when that path appeared before him, he took it. But he was also cautious enough to stick with his day job until he knew he could pay the bills with his musical career. And, of course, I find his attention to detail admirable as well.

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