Duke Performances is pleased to report that the organization had a productive and impactful six-day residency with acclaimed New York-based jazz pianist/composer/bandleader Gerald Clayton, from Monday, November 28 through Saturday, December 3, 2016. The residency culminated in the world premiere of Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, on Friday, December 2 and Saturday, December 3 at Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater, a live concert presentation by The Assembly, Clayton’s nine-piece jazz ensemble featuring vocalist René Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, with Durham’s Union Baptist Gospel Choir, that explores the essence and impact of the Piedmont blues, and includes projected film and new and archival photography (Total attendance: 915; EPK by Durham filmmaker Ivan Weiss). Piedmont Blues, commissioned by Duke Performances and co-commissioned by Strathmore, Savannah Music Festival, and Modlin Center at the University of Richmond, is the newest installment in Duke Performances’ “From the Archives” initiative, in which world-class, forward-thinking performing artists create works engaging archival materials from Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Duke Performances received a New Music USA Project Grant for a previous “From the Archives” project – Jenny Scheinman’s Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait).
Prior to the world premiere, Clayton and his collaborator, theater director Christopher McElroen, made a half-dozen research visits to Durham over two years to study the Piedmont blues and learn from the surviving elders of the tradition. During the week of the premiere, Clayton and McElroen also participated in engagements on Duke’s campus and in the surrounding community including: a visit to Glenn Hinson’s “Vernacular Traditions in African American Music” class at UNC-Chapel Hill (15 students); and two public conversations on the making of Piedmont Blues and the Piedmont blues tradition born in Durham, NC – the first at Beyu Caffé in downtown Durham with René Marie and moderated by poet and cultural historian Darrell Stover (50 attendees), and the second with Hinson and moderated by Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, at Duke’s Forum for Scholars and Publics (50 attendees; Video). Residency participants totaled 115, for a grand total of 1,030 individuals engaged through the public performances and residency at Duke Performances.
In addition to the world premiere at Duke Performances, the project’s three co-commissioners also presented the piece at their venues during the 2016/2017 season (with a local gospel choir), including Strathmore (N. Bethesda, MD; Saturday, December 10, 2017), Savannah Music Festival (Savannah, GA; Friday, April 7, 2017); and Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond (Richmond, VA; Thursday, April 13, 2017). University Musical Society (Ann Arbor, MI) will present Piedmont Blues on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. The project is seeking additional presenting partners.
Music Maker Relief Foundation — a nonprofit based in Hillsborough, NC — founded to preserve the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting musicians, provided critical support for Piedmont Blues. Music Maker connected Clayton and McElroen with the elders of the Piedmont blues tradition, including NEA National Heritage Fellow bluesman John Dee Holeman, as well as Piedmont musicians Algia Mae Hinton and Boo Hanks (the latter passed in April 2016). Additional partners included the Rubenstein Library at Duke and the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, which served as research sites and provided access to materials on the Piedmont blues.
The Piedmont Blues residency resonated deeply on campus and in the community, and it enabled Duke Performances to achieve its residency goals, which included:
- Co-commission and present a work of high artistic quality honoring the Piedmont blues by Gerald Clayton and his collaborators, to have a touring life beyond Duke Performances
- Provide the Duke and Durham communities with an opportunity to attend and engage with a world-class music and mixed media performance
- Engage the Duke and Durham communities around Durham history and the context out of which the Piedmont blues emerged
- Provide insight into Clayton, McElroen, and their team’s creative process and provide context for the work through a series of conversations in various community settings and across disciplines
Photos of the premiere by Andy Tennille, and tintype photos by Music Maker executive director Tim Duffy (which are featured in the performance and were also part of an exhibition in the lobby of Reynolds Industries Theater at the Durham premiere), can be found on the project website here. Duke Performances assembled a project website to help document the project and provide useful information to the public and presenters.
The project also received coverage from a variety of outlets, including, among others:
Duke Performances is grateful to New Music USA for its generous support of Piedmont Blues.
Credits | Gerald Clayton and The Assembly: Gerald Clayton, piano and composer; René Marie, vocals; Logan Richardson, alto sax; Tivon Pennicott, tenor sax; Dayna Stephens, baritone sax; Alan Hampton, guitar; Joe Sanders, bass; Kendrick Scott, drums; Maurice Chestnut, tap dancer; and Union Baptist Gospel Choir (Durham, NC; or local gospel choir on tour). Production team: Christopher McElroen, director; Liviu Pasare, projections designer; Becca Jeffords, lighting designer; William Boles, scenic designer; Adam Camardella, sound engineer; Will Bishop, production manager; JJ Marquis, associate production manager; LeAnn Lisella, stage manager; and McKenzie Millican, assistant stage manager.