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Gerald Clayton | Piedmont Blues

Gerald Clayton | Piedmont Blues

A live concert presentation by celebrated jazz pianist / composer / bandleader Gerald Clayton exploring the Piedmont Blues


December 1, 2016Ren√© Marie joins ‘Piedmont Blues’

Posted by: Duke Performances

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.


August 9, 2016: Piedmont Blues Website, Video & Durham Visit

Posted by: Duke Performances

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.

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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.

Project-related Media

Gerald Clayton | Future Reflection

"Future Reflection," from Gerald Clayton's 2013 album for large ensemble, "Life Forum" (Concord Records).


Gerald Clayton | Sunny Day Go

Gerald Clayton performance of his composition, "Sunny Day Go."


Lizz Wright | NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Lizz Wright, featured vocalist on "Piedmont Blues Project," performs "Hit the Ground" and "I Remember, I Believe" on NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concert series.


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Project Details

Start and End Date

12/02/2016 - 12/03/2016


Durham, North Carolina

Updates (2 RECENT)

Last Updated December 1, 2016

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Duke Performances

Durham, North Carolina

Duke Performances, the professional performing arts presenting organization at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, is committed to presenting willfully eclectic, forward-thinking performing arts of the highest quality. Through superb performances, outstanding visiting artist residencies, and the development and commissioning of exciting new work, Duke Performances is forging a culture that vigorously supports performance and encourages...



North Bethesda, Maryland

Role: Co-Commissioner

Lizz Wright

Role: Vocalist

Music Maker Relief Foundation

Hillsborough, North Carolina

Role: Research Partner

Christopher McElroen

Brooklyn, New York

Role: Director

Gerald Clayton

Role: Creator, Composer, Pianist

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