Chiaroscuro History

A Brief History of Chiaroscuro Records

After fifty years of recording many of the most prominent and extraordinary jazz musicians in the world, CHIAROSCURO RECORDS boasts one of the finest mainstream jazz catalogs in existence, with recordings featuring a long list of luminaries, including such legendary artists as Earl Hines, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson, Eddie Condon, Buck Clayton, Gene Krupa, Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Venuti, Jay McShann, Clark Terry, Cab Calloway, Flip Phillips, Louie Bellson, Milt Hinton, Dizzy Gillespie, Dorothy Donegan, Bob Wilber, Kenny Davern, Bucky Pizzarelli, Herb Ellis, Urbie Green, Nat Adderley, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, Joe Williams, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Jimmy Heath, Terry Gibbs, Buddy DeFranco, Dick Hyman, Junior Mance, Phil Woods, and many, many more… In fact, more than half of the inductees in The American Jazz Hall Of Fame have recorded for CHIAROSCURO RECORDS.

In addition, many of the younger phenomenons of jazz who will carry the tradition of this great music well into the next century are also well represented on CHIAROSCURO RECORDS. Among them are such extraordinary talents as Howard Alden, Bill Charlap, Winard Harper, Jon Gordon, Virginia Mayhew, Ingrid Jensen, Leon Parker, Chris Potter, Mike Jones, Kenny Washington, Vincent Herring, Jesse Green, and Gerry Gibbs.

It’s also no coincidence that many members of the “fifty something” fraternity of jazz masters, who have played significant roles in weaving the evolutionary threads of jazz music, are also included on the distinguished list of wonderful musicians who have recorded for CHIAROSCURO RECORDS. Among them are such great artists as Gary Burton, Jack Wilkins, Michael and Randy Brecker, Jack DeJohnette, Eddie Gomez, George Young, George Mraz, Adam Makowicz, and Al Foster. CHIAROSCURO RECORDS has been releasing high quality recordings for a quarter of a century. The very first release was an album of piano solos by the legendary Earl Hines, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1971. It was an exceptional piece of music, but Bill Evans took home the Grammy that year, and coincidentally, a few years later, in 1975, he also appeared on CHIAROSCURO RECORDS with The National Jazz Ensemble.

Today, there are hundreds of small, independent jazz labels in the United States. In 1970, however, you could literally count them on one hand. The large “major label” companies had become completely “pop” oriented, and had absolutely no interest in the older pioneers of traditional jazz music, despite how significant their contributions may have been. These men and women were seriously overlooked, under-recorded, and profoundly under-appreciated until, in the early 1970’s, a small, independent record company revealed these hidden treasures, and began producing some incredible recordings by these marvelous musicians. The company was CHIAROSCURO RECORDS.

CHIAROSCURO also began to bring some of the most superb players of that era, men like Dave McKenna, Zoot Sims, and Lee Konitz, back into the recording studio after long absences that had been initiated by the politics and unmusical marketing agendas that sometimes seem to pervade the industry. In late 1976, however, Hank O’Neal, the company’s founder and chief producer, began seeking out many of these phenomenal musicians, and began recording them at Downtown Sound, a small studio he owned and operated in New York City’s West Village, which has since become somewhat notorious for having been one of the most comfortable and consistently fertile environments for producing great jazz in the 1970’s. Downtown Sound was also where CHIAROSCURO first established its reputation as a magnet for talented younger players interested in honing their skills and carrying on the tradition of this wonderful music. For example, Scott Hamilton’s very first album with his name on the cover was a CHIAROSCURO RECORDS release in 1977. It was also at Downtown Sound that Jon Bates first came on board with CHIAROSCURO. He began there as an assistant engineer in 1977, having recently graduated from college, pursuing a career as a drummer and audio engineer. By 1978 he was a staff engineer and studio manager and began handling many of the sales and distribution chores as well. Today, he not only serves as chief engineer and overseas most of the day-to-day operations for CHIAROSCURO RECORDS, but has also proven his talents as a producer, and manages to keep a very full schedule as a drummer and bandleader as well.

In the late seventies, as there began to be a few more independent labels producing good mainstream jazz records, CHIAROSCURO continued in this direction, and also slowly began to broaden its musical base, reaching into the fringes of the avant garde and beyond. Abdullah Ibrahim, Arthur Blythe, Hamiett Bluiett, Don Cherry and many other exceptional artists of that caliber recorded for CHIAROSCURO during that period. There was no other US-based record company at the time, large or small, that produced such a wide variety of music, ranging all the way from the Harlem stride style of Willie the Lion Smith to Bill Evans with The National Jazz Ensemble. CHIAROSCURO RECORDS became particularly noted for being able to place very unique combinations of players in new musical settings. For example, there was Gerry Mulligan’s baritone sax next to Hamiett Bluiett’s; Lee Konitz would sit in a saxophone section next to Earle Warren. The mix and diversity of the highest caliber players within the jazz genre became synonymous with the CHIAROSCURO name. In the years from 1970 through 1978 there were more than one hundred CHIAROSCURO RECORDS LP releases, which were critically acclaimed at the time, and which, because of their content have easily withstood the test of time. Newly remastered as CD’s, the timeless jazz that this company recorded in the 1970’s sounds just as exciting today.

In 1979 Hank O’Neal sold CHIAROSCURO RECORDS to pursue other interests, including the formation of Hammond Music Enterprises with legendary producer, talent scout and social activist, John Hammond. O’Neal remained part of this CBS distributed company until 1984, at which point the economics of trying to produce and distribute quality jazz recordings had become increasingly more difficult in a world gone mad with Disco. It just wasn’t paying the rent. Sustaining the dream had become a luxury that O’Neal could no longer afford, and he was forced to focus his attention on more lucrative endeavors. CHIAROSCURO RECORDS had been inactive for almost a decade, when, in 1987, a high powered industrialist from Pennsylvania named Andrew Sordoni approached O’Neal and suggested they join forces, retain ownership of the original master tapes, and resurrect the label. As a prominent figure in the business world, the founder and chairman of some major arts foundations, an experienced concert promoter, and the producer of numerous National Public Radio jazz programs, Sordoni was clearly capable of providing significant impact toward the revitalization of CHIAROSCURO RECORDS. In addition to all his other attributes, Sordoni was a bonafide jazz fan. He had a genuine love for the subject. He had played saxophone for many years, he had every CHIAROSCURO recording ever made in his personal collection, and he was extremely knowledgable and passionate about the music. Although O’Neal had managed to supress previous temptations of this sort, he felt this was an extraordinary opportunity that he just couldn’t ignore. The reincarnation of the label became a reality. They were soon able to acquire the original CHIAROSCURO master tapes, add to them many additional recordings that O’Neal had produced between the years 1978-84, purchase the original master tapes from the now defunct Chaz Jazz label, and begin actively planning new recordings. The guiding principles of the new CHIAROSCURO RECORDS were the same as the old company, dedicated to recording the best jazz artists under the best possible conditions with the primary emphasis being the production of extraordinary music that was not influenced by any trends, fads or overtly commercial considerations. The music, the graphics, even the liner notes, all had to be nothing less than exceptional.

The first new CHIAROSCURO recordings in over a decade were released in 1989. Since that time over 80 CDs have been issued, with a good mixture of fine new recordings and classic reissues. A classic reissue not only features everything that was on the original LP release. It also includes a good deal of previously unissued recorded and printed material. Jazzspeak also became a trademarked feature on many releases, as well as new graphics, additional photographs, and extensive liner notes. Typically, a CHIAROSCURO reissue will have an eight to twelve page booklet, all the original as well as updated liner notes, and, wherever possible, many previously unpublished photographs. CHIAROSCURO is very proud it doesn’t simply take an old analog tape and merely reissue it. Each reissue is carefully remixed, equalized and transferred into a digital format. It is the policy of most companies that have a “back catalog” to simply reissue an LP as it was originally mastered; if the vinyl disc had 35 minutes of music, that’s what can be found on the CD. That’s not the way CHIAROSCURO RECORDS does it!fifty

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