Music Maker Partners with Duke Performances for Piedmont Blues

inNewson June 22, 2016

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 band led by Clayton and including vocalist Lizz Wright 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.

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