Gerald Clayton and Rene Marie Discuss 'Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation'

Jan 7, 2020

Pianist Gerald Clayton will perform his 75-minute mixed media concert Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, this Saturday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m., at the Loreto Theater, Sheen Center for Thought and Culture. This concert performance is part of the 2020 Winter Jazzfest, and will be included in the Saturday marathon.

Conceived by Clayton, a Grammy-nominated jazz pianist, composer and bandleader, it also features Grammy-nominated vocalist René Marie. Clayton and Marie spoke with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle about the significance and personal resonance of the piece.

Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, which Clayton developed with the american vicarious, explores the essence and impact of a style of blues music that evolved from the tobacco fields in the Piedmont region, the folling foothills that stretch from Virginia through the Carolinas and down into Georgia, between the Appalachians and the Atlantic coastal plain. 

Clayton says he began doing his research about Piedmont in 2015, two years before his project debuted at Duke University.

"For more those first two years was just being a student of the music.  It was something that was new to me.  Fortunately I got to make multiple trips to North Carolina and visit with historians and elders who are leftover from this great tradition and after two years of work put together this piece. A lot of people just think of the Piedmont Blues as just the guitar finger-picking style but in my research I found that there was music happening all over the cities.  There were juke joint parties where famously cats would roll up their grandma's old church piano up the street and bring it to a small group up the way of the juke joint party.  If you could imagine 400 African American mostly women destemming the tobacco leaves and signing church hymns while they work.  That sound was so impressive and amazing that people would actually gather around the warehouses just to listen to that.  So that was sort of the picture that was being painted in my head when I was given a chance to learn about this music."  

Tap dancing is part of "Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation"
Credit Christopher McElroen

The project is directed by Christopher McElroen, and features The Assembly, a nine-piece band led by Clayton that includes saxophonist Logan Richardson, drummer Kendrick Scott and guitarist Marvin Sewell. A 20-member gospel choir — Voices of the Flame, under the direction of Jeffrey S. Bolding — is also a part of the piece, as is tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. 

René Marie has been a part of the project from the beginning and continues to be moved by Clayton's piece: "It touches a part of me that evokes all kinds of emotions in me, but the biggest one is joy."

Gerald Clayton and René Marie both appreciate the history of the Piedmont Blues
Credit Christopher McElroen

What is going through Marie's head as she performs in Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation?

"Whatever the song is about, that's what is going through my mind.  I feel very present and in the moment as the arc of this whole story about Piedmont Blues takes us on that journey.  For me it's more than music.  I see people in my mind that I grew up with and I know this is the music they listened to.  This is my uncle sitting on the back porch of my grandmother's house in his old khakis.  I lived in a segregated community the first ten years of my life so there's a lot going on and I'm putting it into whatever I'm singing."

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. 

Gerald Clayton's research of the Piedmont region began in 2015.
Credit Christopher McElroen

Clayton says he hopes those images will remain with people as they leave the concert. "We want invite more people to the party. This really has been such an enriching experience for me. That anyone would get some of that by being in the audience is huge an really rewarding for me.  Come on this journey with us."