Miles Davis, Rudy Van Gelder, and a living room recording studio (Part 1 of 2)

The lush tones of Miles Davis are unmistakable to millions. It is common knowledge among jazz fans that Davis was heavily influenced by giants such as Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. Yet, had it not been for a modified U47 microphone, and a family’s living room in Hackensack, New Jersey, we might not hear Davis as we do today.

In April of 1954, Davis recorded his legendary album “Walkin’” at a studio built in a living room in Hackensack. Davis previously recorded there just 2 years earlier, and was familiar with the engineer—Rudy Van Gelder. While working and researching with the Jazz Oral History Program at the museum, which aims to give comprehensive documentation of the experiences of senior jazz musicians, performers, relatives, and business associates, I found the story of Davis and Van Gelder’s collaboration particularly compelling. Part of my research included reading an interview with Van Gelder on the National Endowment for the Arts website, where he was interviewed as part of his lifetime award of being named “Jazz Master” in 2009. I was quickly taken with Van Gelder and his remarkable story, and wanted to know more.

Van Gelder is a pioneer in record engineering, sought after by many musicians for his ability to provide artists with an ideal means of communicating their music, and allowing musicians to be heard “the way they want to be heard”. Davis was no exception.

Van Gelder was one of the first Americans, let alone engineers, to acquire the German Neumann U-47 condenser microphone when it became available in 1949. Van Gelder sought to bring a more intimate sound to small jazz groups. This required placing a microphone closer to the instrument in order to capture the subtleties that traditional recording techniques missed. When Van Gelder initially used the U-47 microphone, he found the sound was easily distorted and unusable. However, a friend of Van Gelder’s, Rein Narma, was able to reconfigure the circuitry of the U-47, making it ideal for close range recording. The result was a detailed, warm sound that many would imitate but few would master. The difference in sound is quite clear when comparing albums Davis recorded with and without Van Gelder.

"Half Nelson" from Davis’ “Miles Davis All Stars” was recorded in 1947 at Harry Smith Studios in New York City. Davis’ talent is undeniable, his vocabulary is progressive, his temperament is wholly his own but—he sounds far away. Davis’ voice exists in the mid range of the mix, and is overshadowed by the shimmer of Max Roach’s ride cymbal and the high end of John Lewis’ piano overtones.

The sound heard on "Solar" from Davis’ album “Walkin’,” recorded in 1955 with Van Gelder, is markedly different: his voice is at the front of the mix, his subtle inflections are captured perfectly. The once intangible details of his playing style are captured, thanks in no small part to a modified U-47 and of course, Van Gelder’s mastery. Yet, to characterize Van Gelder’s recording session with Davis as miraculous or even extraordinary would be misleading. Van Gelder’s work with Davis was simply a logical next step in a blossoming career Van Gelder started at age seven.

Editor’s Note: This is part one in a series. Stay tuned for part two coming soon when we tell you more about Van Gelder and his sound engineering.

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Kyle Kelly-Yahner is a senior at the University of Vermont and Jazz Oral History Program Intern with the National Museum of American History.