Gerald Clayton | Piedmont Blues
The Latest Update
‘Piedmont Blues’ premieres at Duke Performances, and tours to Strathmore, Savannah Music Festival, and Modlin Center!
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.
René Marie joins ‘Piedmont Blues’
A note on casting: Due to unforeseen circumstances, singer Lizz Wright is unable to perform in Piedmont Blues. We are delighted that Piedmont-born-and-raised, GRAMMY-nominated jazz singer René Marie has been able to join the production.
In a span of two decades, eleven recordings, and countless stage performances, vocalist René Marie has cemented her reputation as not only a singer but also a composer, arranger, theatrical performer, and teacher. Guided and tempered by powerful life lessons and rooted in jazz traditions laid down by Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and other leading ladies of past generations, she borrows various elements of folk, R&B, and even classical and country to create a captivating hybrid style.
René was born in November 1955 into a family of seven children in Warrenton, Virginia. While neither of her parents were formally trained musicians, radio and records of all kinds — blues, folk, bluegrass, and classical — made up the soundtrack to her childhood. René had just one year of formal piano training at age nine, then another year of lessons at age thirteen after her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Roanoke, Virginia. During her teenage years, she sang in a few R&B bands at musical functions in her community. She composed and sang her first piece with a band when she was fifteen.
Putting her musical aspirations aside to make room for the obligations and responsibilities of adulthood, she married a former bandmate when she was eighteen, and by the mid-1990s, she was the mother of two and working in a bank. When she was 41, her older son convinced her to start singing again, and she took a few tenuous steps into her local music scene, singing for tips one night a week in a hotel bar. Her husband was initially supportive of her reboot to her musical career, but he later issued an ultimatum: stop singing or leave their home. Tension over the issue escalated from emotional abuse to domestic violence, and she left the house and the marriage behind. She left her bank job, moved to Richmond, Virginia, divorced her husband of 23 years, produced her first CD, signed onto the MaxJazz label, and took the title role in the world premiere production of Ella and Her Fella, Frank at the Barksdale Theatre in Richmond.
René’s recordings include the self-produced CD, Renaissance (1999). In 2000, she signed onto the MaxJazz label and recorded How Can I Keep from Singing? (2000), Vertigo (2001), Live at Jazz Standard (2003), and Serene Renegade (2004). She parted ways with the label and recorded and co-produced her sixth CD, Experiment in Truth, in 2007. René appeared in a one-woman stage show, Slut Energy Theory: U’Dean, a play about overcoming abuse and incest, in 2009, and released the soundtrack that year.
René joined the Motéma label with the 2011 release of Voice of My Beautiful Country, followed later that same year by Black Lace Freudian Slip. Her 2013 follow-up, I Wanna Be Evil: With Love To Eartha Kitt, earned a GRAMMY nomination in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Her latest release is Sound of Red (Motéma, 2016), her first album of all-original material.
Piedmont Blues Website, Video & Durham Visit
Duke Performances recently launched a dedicated website for Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues, with information on the project, team, tour dates, photos, video, and partners:
The site includes a new video, with Gerald Clayton and director Christopher McElroen discussing the project and its origins:
Clayton, McElroen, and vocalist Lizz Wright will visit Durham August 15-19, 2016 for a final research trip prior to the project’s premiere at Duke Performances on December 2 & 3, 2016.
Duke Performances will commission, develop, and present the world premiere of the Piedmont Blues, a live concert presentation featuring jazz pianist / composer / bandleader Gerald Clayton exploring the essence and impact of the Piedmont Blues. Using songs, lyrics, and imagery from the Piedmont Blues, the Project seeks to make a testimony of the struggle endured by African-Americans during Jim Crow and chronicles the efficacy of the blues as a salve for suffering. The Project will include a nine-piece band led by Clayton, featuring singer and Piedmont native René Marie. Duke Performances will premiere the project on December 2 and 3, 2016 at Duke University’s Reynolds Theater.
Entwined throughout the live concert presentation is an assemblage of projected film, new and archival photography, and folklore that underscores the verdant cultural landscape of the Piedmont region. Included amongst the footage are performances by some of the last of the living original Piedmont Blues musicians: NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman, as well as Algia Mae Hinton and Boo Hanks (the latter passed in April 2016). Over the past 18 months, Clayton has collaborated with theater director Christopher McElroen to research and develop the project for the stage.
The tobacco factories and warehouses of Durham, North Carolina were the epicenter for the Piedmont Blues — the landscape from which the music was invented. The idiom is distinguished by ragtime rhythms, a fingerpicking guitar style, and understated but profound vocals. From the 1920s through the 1940s, artists such as Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis — and later in the 1960s folk revival, Etta Baker and Elizabeth Cotten — helped define the Piedmont Blues through popular recordings and vibrant live performances.
In composing music for the project, Clayton intends to extract harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic ideas directly from historic Piedmont Blues tunes and stitch them together into new compositions for the nine-piece ensemble. Clayton aims to produce a series of songs that knowingly nod to the past, while being fundamentally contemporary.
The premiere will conclude a weeklong residency exploring the Piedmont Blues. The residency will engage the Duke and the broader Triangle community with class visits and public conversations, and Piedmont Blues listening sessions. Partners include Music Maker Relief Foundation, the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke, and the Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Duke Performances is lead commissioner of the Piedmont Blues Project. Co-commissioners and subsequent performances include Strathmore (N. Bethesda, MD; December 10, 2016), Savannah Music Festival (Savannah, GA; April 7, 2017), and the Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond (Richmond, VA; April 13, 2017). Additional performances are planned for the 2017/2018 season.
Personnel includes Gerald Clayton (piano), René Marie (vocals), Logan Richardson (alto saxophone), Tivon Pennicott (tenor saxophone), Dayna Stephens (baritone saxophone), Alan Hampton (guitar), Joe Sanders (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums), Maurice Chestnut (tap dancer), and Durham’s Union Baptist Church choir.
Duke Performances has produced large-scale music commissions with the world’s leading artists, including Jason Moran, The Bad Plus, The Campbell Brothers, Simone Dinnerstein / Tift Merritt, Kronos Quartet / Steve Reich, and Jenny Scheinman, amongst others.
“Future Reflection,” from Gerald Clayton’s 2013 album for large ensemble, “Life Forum” (Concord Records).
Gerald Clayton performance of his composition, “Sunny Day Go.”
Start and End Dates
12/02/2016 — 12/03/2016
Durham, North Carolina