Piedmont Blues is a live concert presentation led by celebrated jazz pianist / composer / bandleader Gerald Clayton that explores the essence and impact of the Piedmont blues. The project features The Assembly — a nine-piece band led by Clayton and including vocalist René Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. The presentation has been conceived and developed by Clayton working in close collaboration with award-winning theater director Christopher McElroen. Entwined throughout the live concert is an assemblage of projected film, new and archival photography, and folklore underscoring 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 bluesman John Dee Holman, as well as Piedmont songsters Algia Mae Hinton and Boo Hanks (the latter passed in April 2016).
Using songs, lyrics, and imagery from the Piedmont blues, Piedmont Blues makes a testimony of the struggle endured by African Americans in the Southeast during Jim Crow and chronicles the efficacy of the Piedmont Blues as a salve for suffering.
Taking its name from the Piedmont plateau region — the area that lies between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains from central Georgia to central Virginia centered in the Carolinas — the Piedmont blues is distinguished by its ragtime rhythms, fingerpicking guitar style, and understated vocals. From the late 1920s through the early 1940s, artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, and Sonny Terry made the Piedmont blues popular through a series of top-selling recordings. Women were also masters of Piedmont guitar style, including Etta Baker and Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, whose “Freight Train” is one of the best-recognized tunes of the genre. The tobacco factories and warehouses of Durham, North Carolina — home to the American Tobacco Company (the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer) — were the epicenter for the Piedmont blues — the landscape from which the music was invented.
“My first connection to the Piedmont tradition came when I heard Elizabeth Cotten’s ‘Freight Train,’” says Clayton. “What struck me was the humility in her expression. There was no interest in showing off. Not trying to wow the listener, or even herself. It was the most honest delivery of the melody and its lyrics I could imagine. On the surface her sound described elements of ragtime, folk, and even country music, but at its core it sounded like a proper blues song. There's a tone of sadness throughout — the lyrics speak of a yearning towards death as a long awaited escape from life's woes. This sense of profound reflection and the desire to transcend pain and suffering described in this song sits at the essence of all blues expression.”
Clayton’s approach to translating the Piedmont blues focuses on extracting harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic ideas directly from traditional Piedmont blues tunes and stitching them together into new compositions for his nine-piece jazz ensemble. Using this process, Clayton is aiming to produce a series of songs that knowingly nod to the past, but insist on being fundamentally contemporary.
Capturing the truth in each moment's conception of sound comes naturally to Clayton. Clayton honors the legacy of his father, John Clayton and all his musical ancestors through a commitment to artistic exploration, innovation and reinvention. For this commission, he turns his imaginative curiosity toward uncovering the essence of the Piedmont Blues experience and expression in early twentieth century Durham.
Gerald Clayton searches for honest expression in every note he plays. With harmonic curiosity and critical awareness, he develops musical narratives that unfold as a result of both deliberate searching and chance uncovering. The four-time GRAMMY-nominated pianist/composer formally began his musical journey at the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where he received the 2002 Presidential Scholar of the Arts Award. Continuing his scholarly pursuits, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance at USC’s Thornton School of Music under the instruction of piano icon Billy Childs, after a year of intensive study with NEA Jazz Master, Kenny Barron, at The Manhattan School of Music. Clayton won second place in the 2006 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Piano Competition.
Expansion has become part of Clayton’s artistic identity. His music is a celebration of the inherent differences in musical perspectives that promote true artistic synergy. Inclusive sensibilities have allowed him to perform and record with such distinctive artists as Diana Krall, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, Ambrose Akinmusire, Dayna Stephens, Kendrick Scott, Ben Williams, Terell Stafford & Dick Oatts, Michael Rodriguez, Terri Lyne Carrington, Avishai Cohen, and the Clayton Brothers Quintet. Clayton also has enjoyed an extended association since early 2013, touring and recording with saxophone legend, Charles Lloyd. 2016 marks his second year as Musical Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour, a project that features his trio along with Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton, and Raul Midón on guitar and vocals.
Christopher McElroen is a Brooklyn-based theatre artist and the Artistic Director of the american vicarious. Christopher received a 2013 Helen Hayes Award for his direction of the world premiere stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel Invisible Man. Alongside visual artist Paul Chan and Creative Time, Christopher co-produced and directed Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, a community development through the arts initiative that staged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot outdoors in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly communities of post-Katrina New Orleans. The New York Times listed the project as one of the top ten national art events of 2007. The archives from the production have been acquired into the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and were on exhibit at MOMA May 2010 through September 2011. He had the honor of directing the world-premiere of 51st(dream) State, the final work of poet, musician, and activist Sekou Sundial. 51st(dream) State was a multimedia exploration of American empire that premiered in New York at The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival before touring internationally. Christopher co-founded the acclaimed Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH) where from 1999-2009 he produced 41 productions yielding 18 AUDELCO Awards, 6 OBIE Awards, 2 Lucille Lortel Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and CTH being named “1 of 8 Theatres in America to Watch” by the Drama League. His work has been recognized with the American Theatre Wing Award (Outstanding Artistic Achievement), Drama Desk Award (Artistic Achievement), Edwin Booth Award (Outstanding Contribution to NYC Theater), Lucille Lortel Award (Outstanding Body of Work), two Obie Awards (Sustained Achievement and Excellence in Theatre), and a Helen Hayes Award (Outstanding Direction).
In a span of two decades, 11 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 like 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. Her body of work is musical, but it's more than just music. It's an exploration of the bright and dark corners of the human experience, and an affirmation of the power of the human spirit.
Part of René’s musical philosophy has been focused on giving back. In 2010, she launched a series of vocal therapy group sessions called SLAM. “I’ve never been to college or received any ‘professional’ training,” she said at the time, “so I feel a bit anxious about my ability to convey my personal approach to singing. However, I know what I know, and I’ve always been up for a good challenge.” And in a self-deprecating moment, she added: “Although the thought of attempting to share my vocal philosophy often makes me wonder if I have completely lost touch with reality.”
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. Her2013 followup, I Wanna Be Evil: With Love To Eartha Kitt, earned a Grammy nomination in the Best Jazz Vocals category.