I somehow missed this but the New York Times has a fantastic article about Rudy Van Gelder’s famous jazz recording studio (that’s a NYT gift link so it shouldn’t have a paywall). There is much to love in the article—including some amazing pictures—but one part that stood out to me was how they’re trying to figure out the future of the studio. Should the focus remain on recording acoustic jazz? Or should they expand that?
One decision facing Sickler and any future operators is whether to stick to jazz, or open the studio to other kinds of music. Jazz, of course, was Van Gelder’s great passion, and what the facility was designed for. But even at its peak, the space was also used for blues, folk music, polka and spoken word; the first recording session there, in July 1959, was with the West Point Cadet Glee Club. Don Sickler, who has been devoted to classic jazz repertory for decades, said he favored sticking with acoustic jazz, and gruffly dismissed the idea of recording Broadway cast albums or rock ’n’ roll. Batiste also urged the Sicklers to hold fast to jazz. “Sticking to their guns of it being acoustic music, making it something that is an outlier in the culture, is what will actually be the right thing to do,” he said.
This reminded me of an article about ECM—one of my favorite music labels—and how they have never wavered from their unrelenting focus on a certain type of music and recording style. From The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence:
ECM supports the musician’s artistic vision over the course of an entire career. Many ECM artists have stayed with the label for decades without ever winning a Grammy or scoring a hit album. In fact, many hardly generate airplay on jazz radio stations. And when, against all odds, an ECM recording does find a large crossover audience, there’s no apparent pressure on the artist to follow up with similar projects. Music lovers have come to trust the label for this reason; they know that Eicher himself is a music lover, not a cash-driven corporate exec. He operates with his artists on a basis of trust and loyalty, and this inspires the same among listeners, who know that they can rely on his honesty and judgment.
I’m not necessarily advocating for the RVG studio to stick to jazz, but there really is something to be said for that kind of singular devotion to a specific course over an extended period of time. Not everything needs a pivot. Anyway, check out these photos: