Chiaroscuro Records is today owned by WVIA Public Media of Northeastern Pennsylvania and is a donation of the prior founders who wanted to preserve their labor of love for future generations.
The origin of the record company which was to become CHIAROSCURO may be easily traced to Hank O’Neal’s introduction to Edwin M. Ashcraft, III, better known as “Squirrel,” in the spring of 1964. Squirrel was a legendary and elusive figure in jazz; he had known and played with many of the great jazz men in the Midwest during the 1920’s and 1930’s, including Bix Beiderbecke, had recorded as early as 1928 with the Princeton Triangle Jazz Band and his many informal sessions and recordings in Evanston, Illinois, had lasted into the 1940’s. By 1964, however, jazz was often just a memory for him; he was in the final years of a distinguished career in sensitive government service as Director of the Office of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and Hank O’Neal had just become his most junior officer.
CHIAROSCURO was always, in part, a rescue operation, as a glance at the long roster of artists immediately shows. The emphasis was at one time decidedly on “mainstream” players, but where that mainstream has gone to now, heaven only knows! The number of good pianists recorded is in itself amazing, among them Mary Lou Williams, Teddy Wilson, Mel Powell, Willie the Lion Smith, Ralph Sutton, Joe Turner, Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Bobby Henderson, Dill Jones, Ellis Larkins, John Bunch, John Eaton, Claude Hopkins, Don Ewell, Dave McKenna, Jess Stacy and, of course, the grand master, Earl Hines.
CHIAROSCURO became the ultimate do-it-yourself record company. O’Neal had to do it all, every aspect of production, manufacture and sales. There was no one else to do it and the experience served him well. The company was, of course, far too small to be commercial on any level. Even the name lacked any semblance of commerciality; few knew what it meant and no one could pronounce it properly.