In a Syracuse record shop, a '50s teenager bought his first LPs, they included cuts by pianist Lennie Tristano and flugelhorn player Clark Terry. Some 50 years later, Hank O'Neal still has those original purchases safely tucked away. However, the best of his collection, now too numerous to count, list him as producer and bear the imprint of the label he founded in the '70s: "Chiaroscuro" (pronounced "key arrow skew row"). A trip through the label is like going to the Jazz Hall of Fame, with more than half of the hall's honorees having played on a Chiaroscuro release.
Taking its name from an artistic expression that refers to defining contours through black and white, O'Neal explains that guitarist Eddie Condon and a Village dress shop served as inspiration for the label's moniker. "Back in the '30s, Eddie had a series of concerts that were called Chiaroscuro concerts. The name was thought up by his wife?when I got to NYC in '67?I lived on Charles Street and Eddie lived over on Washington Square North?there was a dress shop?called Chiaroscuro?all they did was sell black and white dresses...I was so poor...it was going to be a black and white label?so we just used the name and it stuck?there is now about 140 CDs out and I've got about 60 analog tapes I haven't reissued." Like Condon, label stalwarts have included multiple releases by other seminal instrumentalists such as violinist Joe Venuti, bassist Milt Hinton, pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson along with O'Neal's early favorite Clark Terry. Interestingly, O'Neal points out that during the '70s, artists of this stature were not in demand for solo or small combo recording sessions. "In 1970?if you looked around?Mainstream guys weren't getting anything?When we talk about Gene Krupa doing that record with Eddie ( Jazz at the New School )?it wasn't even supposed to be a record it was just supposed to be a concert?the solo record with Mary Lou ( Nite Life ) was the first one that she had done since the '40s?the same with Earl Hines ( An Evening With Earl Hines ) ?just nobody cared." The fact that Hank O'Neal did care, has meant that the superb musical statements made by these artists, during what in many cases was the prime of their careers, have been preserved for all.
O'Neal has also recently reunited musicians who recorded for the label during the '70s to produce updated sessions, not in an attempt to recapture the sound, but to present another look during a distinctly different and more mature phase of their careers. An example, is Soprano Summit, a '70s band that featured clarinetist/saxophonists Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. O'Neal delightfully remembers the differences between these two musicians and his very successful effort to reunite them in the studio a dozen years later with bassist Milt Hinton, pianist Dick Hyman, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and drummer Bobby Rosengarden for Summit Reunion. "It was hard?because every single one of them were all stars?Kenny is a total free spirit and Bob is very structured. Bob would prefer to have arrangements; Kenny doesn't want to read anything. Hyman was always quiet and?Bucky was just jolly. It was always Milt who was the peacemaker. Milt made it work." A listen to releases like The Trio, with pianist Hank Jones and Last of the Whorehouse Piano Players with pianists Jay McShann and Ralph Sutton shows that the late Milt Hinton made many sessions extra special. Perhaps the best recorded tribute to "The Judge" is Old Man Time. With a cadre of musicians that includes a vocal by Cab Calloway, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Doc Cheatham and Clark Terry and Lionel Hampton on vibes, the music is evidence that O'Neal is correct when he says "Milt Hinton...he was the real deal."
In addition to studio dates, a Chiaroscuro hallmark has been live recordings, approximately 30 of which were done aboard ship during the many Jazz Cruises that O'Neal has produced. These cruises have also brought together artists who otherwise may not have had the opportunity to play, let alone record, together. One such release is bassist Jay Leonhart's Great Duets pairing him with unique stylists like pianist Bill Charlap and blues vocalist Joe Williams to showcase Leonhart's superior musicianship and adaptability. Although Chairoscuro is perhaps best known for "preserving" the mainstream, the label is also home to several seminal avant-garde recordings that include performances by baritone player Hamiet Bluiett, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and clarinetist Perry Robinson. O'Neal is in the process of re-releasing these dates on CD through Chiaroscuro's sister label "Downtown Sound".