Pennsylvania’s WVIA is now in the record business with a catalog of albums 200 deep, thanks to a unique donation: the jazz label Chiaroscuro Records.
The pubcaster serving Scranton/Wilkes-Barre plans to bolster Chiaroscuro’s collection of some 200 master recordings dating back four decades with new sessions recorded in its 5.1-channel Dolby Surround Sound studio/theater. Possibilities include a jazz show for NPR and PBS stations, and an HD channel dedicated to the musical library.
Longtime station trustee and jazz aficionado Andrew J. Sordoni III — whose name also adorns the high-tech studio — announced his gift Oct. 5. Sordoni, who is chair of the contractor Sordoni Construction Services, purchased the label in 1987. It was founded in 1970 by pianist and NPR music host Marian McPartland, former CIA agent Hank O’Neal and entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild of Fairchild Aviation.
Chiaroscuro is a term for images characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark.
Musicians in the Chiaroscuro catalog include big-band drummer and composer Gene Krupa, pianist Teddy Wilson, Italian-American violinist Joe Venuti, pianist-composers Mary Lou Williams and Eubie Blake, saxophonist Zoot Sims, pianist-bandleader Claude Hopkins and Welsh pianist Dill Jones. “These artists are international in scope and fame,” said Bill Kelly, WVIA president.
“This is a very new part of our business,” he said. “We’re determined to do two things, which are compatible in our minds: Make it a profitable business, and also be the mission-driven repository of some of America’s most historical jazz recordings.”
Chiaroscuro’s catalog covers both studio performances and concerts. Many of the live shows were recorded between 1983 and 2002 on the ocean liners Norway and Queen Elizabeth 2 during annual Floating Jazz Festivals. Many recordings end with short commentaries by the artists on their music or creative processes.
Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR Music, who writes for and runs its “A Blog Supreme” jazz page, calls the label’s catalog “an impressive cache.”
“Chiaroscuro recorded a lot of all-time greats, especially later in their careers,” Jarenwattananon said. “And it was, and is, a small, independent label. Today, with so little major label investment in jazz, a good majority of good jazz records — most jazz records, period — are put out by independent companies, and often fairly small ones at that. But when [Chiaroscuro] started up, that wasn’t as much the case, which heightens the sense of achievement here.”
Tom Curra, WVIA executive v.p., is overseeing the label. He said the station, located just over two hours from both Manhattan and Philadelphia, is a natural steward. The Poconos region has a large contingent of jazz musicians familiar with the station and its monthly Homegrown Music concert-broadcasts by regional contemporary artists in various genres.
For two decades WVIA produced a syndicated series of popular NPR holiday shows, The Jazz Feeling, which Sordoni initiated by bringing in artists from New York City to record at the station. Now, Curra envisions inviting up-and-coming jazz artists to capture the sessions in audio and video. The station would also shoot the musicians in concert there. Fans could then go online to purchase recordings and DVDs. By adding interviews segments and B-roll, the sessions could become a national series.
“And we’re considering, as we speak, the possibility of creating a third HD radio station based entirely on the Chiaroscuro Records library,” Kelly said. “It seems at first blush an obvious idea.” That might also be used to promote sales of not only the old catalog but also the new recordings and videos.
“I look forward,” said Jarenwattananon, “to seeing what being owned by a public media organization will do for making this music, and the history in it, accessible to many.”
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Hank O'Neal not only founded Chiaroscuro and photographed many jazz stars but also produced more than 100 music festivals with a partner in their company Hoss Inc. The bio on his website notes that during his association with the CIA, 1963-76, he also served on active duty with the U.S. Army.