A brand new series of livestreams from Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey starts tomorrow, Saturday 14 November 2020. An all-star quartet (Ron Carter, Joe Lovano, Isaiah J. Thompson and Kenny Washington) will pay tribute to Hank Mobley. This would have been Mobley’s 90th birthday year. It is also the 60th anniversary of both Roll Call and Soul Station, both albums recorded at Van Gelder studios.
The team involved in the project is:
– Five-time Grammy Award-winner Don Sickler, who produced many Van Gelder-recorded artists including Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Cindy Blackman Santana;
– Phil Coady, producer of “The Ultimate Blue Train,” which was created while he was the lead producer in the Microsoft MS4Music Group and where he and Van Gelder first connected;
– Sam Kaufman, who as a talent agent worked with Van Gelder-recorded artists including Ray Charles, Pharoah Sanders, and Jason Moran.
– Maureen Sickler, distinguished associate and long-time assistant engineer for Van Gelder, who now carries on the traditions forged in their 30+ year collaboration.
Sebastian interviewed Sam Kaufman via Zoom:
LondonJazz News: This studio is such a special place in so many ways…
Sam Kaufman: Rudy lived at the house – half his home, half studio. That’s an interesting story in itself because it was designed by a follower, an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright – David Henken – he designed a lot of other things, he was tied in with the Usonian Movement. It’s very architecturally significant, acoustically and visually, a lot of the furniture was manufactured by the architect as well, so there’s a whole story to be told visually too.
To know all of the great recordings that have taken place there: you can see the stairs that John Coltrane sat on, a stool he might have used, it is just a very special environment.
LJN: What is the story of Maureen Sickler?
SK: She was Rudy Van Gelder’s assistant engineer for about 32 years and got to know the ins and outs about how the studio worked and got very close to Rudy. When Rudy died, he left the place to her, and she and her husband Don Sickler, have been running it for the last three and a half years.
The Sicklers do not live there although they spend time there when they work late hours, they probably stay overnight sometimes, but they have a residence in Manhattan.
LJN: And Phil Coady?
SK: Phil has a really strong tech background and happens to be a huge jazz fan with a big collection and was close with Rudy for the last 25 years.
LJN: Something you believe in is preserving this studio’s legacy?
SK: We want to make sure there is a more consistent income stream for the studio, to pay property taxes – it is very expensive being so close to New York City (about 30 minutes by car). We wanted to avoid a situation where a company comes in and tears the studio down to make it into something else. We are in the process of getting landmark status and there’s a limited liability company set up to organise this.
LJN: Why are the livestreams starting to happen now?
SK: Covid is certainly part of the reason. We’re all dealing with the situation where musicians do not have the performance outlets that they used to have, and audiences don’t have the same way to enjoy and appreciate what it means to be in a live performance.
We’d known Van Gelder for a long time, we knew the studio, we knew the Sicklers. It was really Phil Coady who had this idea that we could do something better, and use the latest streaming technology, avoiding the buffering issues that have been common.
LJN: And the studio has been relatively inaccessible…
SK: Yes, we really want to offer a view of a place that has been very cloistered. Rudy was always very secretive about what happened. Unless you were a musician who was lucky enough to record there, you never got to experience what it was like to be in the space. When we first started working on this, before Covid, I was lucky enough to go visit the studio. I worked in the jazz industry for a long time but I had never been in that studio, and it was a magical experience to be there. For years, Don had been running live musical tribute events but that had to be cancelled this year because of Covid.
LJN: Can you flag up some other things that will – or might – happen later in the series?
SK: We hope to have at least 10 of these streams in the next year. We’re going to start by focusing on the legacy musicians who are still around, actually recorded on the original albums, and who are still performing today. They will be an important part of these shows, musicians like Barry Harris, George Benson, Dr Lonnie Smith, Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock and Pharoah Sanders. Pharoah is interesting because, in my view, he’s somewhat of a popular culture icon too, so it helps to bridge that gap and draw in younger audiences. There are many living musicians who have been part of this over the years.
We want to highlight significant albums. Just about every day of the year is the anniversary of some important album that was recorded at Van Gelder’s. And if you look at our Instagram page we’ve been highlighting these albums and anniversaries over the last few weeks.
There will be some days that have more significant anniversaries obviously, for example the day Blue Train was recorded in Hackensack. Or Roll Call, which was recorded on November 13, 1960 so we’re going to highlight that this Friday, as that’s one of the albums we’re celebrating.
LJN: And you are reaching out to a younger generation too…
SK: Yes, younger audiences and younger musicians too like the piano player on our first show, Isaiah J. Thompson. And then you also have players like Jason Moran. One of his first recording dates was with a band call New Directions. He did that at Van Gelder Studio, so he might be interesting to do something with next year. But there’s a lot of young musicians who tie in with the history and would appreciate being part of this. Just as important, we’re trying to open this up so it appeals to a younger audience, not just jazz fans but people who may not be as familiar with jazz too.
We’re beginning to make connections with different contemporary musicians. Q-Tip for instance, founder of A Tribe called Quest, is a fan of the studio and has been in touch with Don Sickler to visit the studio. He actually lives in Englewood Cliffs so it’s easy for him to get there. We very much want to bring in what he represents. There have been a lot of jazz musicians, for instance, who were involved with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Musicians like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and Ambrose Akinmusire.
LJN: And are you in touch with the Blue Note label?
SK: We are in touch with Don Was and his team, and they have been doing some social media for us to promote it. We anticipate a bigger connection with them going forward. We are also in touch with Mosaic Images, Michael Cuscuna who manages Francis Wolff’s photos.
LJN: And to sum up….
SK: We want to tell the story of Van Gelder, we want to give people a peek behind the scenes so they can see something that most haven’t seen. We want them to appreciate the larger story of what this means in culture, in society. It feels like it’s a moment when people are open to these types of things, to finding new ways to be together.