The Piedmont blues is music birthed out of suffering.
In a music and multimedia presentation co-commissioned by the Savannah Music Festival, an important era and region in the history of southern music is explored. Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, featuring René Marie, will be presented April 7 at Trustees Theater.
Piedmont blues is a musical style that grew up around the tobacco factories and warehouses of Durham, N.C., in the 1920s and ’30s. At that time, Durham was the largest cigarette manufacturing city in the world.
This program is the result of the collaboration between Clayton, a jazz pianist, educator, composer and bandleader, and theater director Christopher McElroen. It features original Piedmont blues-inspired compositions written by Clayton for The Assembly, a nine-piece jazz ensemble, with singer René Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut.
The production features film, new and archival photographs and southern folklore that have been gathered to celebrate the rich cultural landscape of the Piedmont region. Through the Music Maker Relief Foundation, Clayton and McElroen spent time trading songs and stories with the last of the original Piedmont blues musicians.
They include NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman, Algia Mae Hinton and the late Boo Hanks, who died in April 2016. Clayton says the goal “is to describe the singularly African-American path from pain to triumph through the expression of the Piedmont blues.”
“Two performers approached me a couple of years ago about doing a piece that would honor the tradition of Piedmont blues, the great music and art form that came out of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains,” Clayton says. “This music came out of the tobacco warehouses.
“I was new to the art form, so for me, it was a chance to do some research and become a student of the history of the Piedmont blues. I was able to spend time with actual elders, as I was interested to see the lives behind the music.
“That contextualized everything,” he says. “I wanted to create a piece that not only gave a nod to this style, but sort of examined what blues meant from a philosophical standpoint.”
Piedmont blues is unlike any other form of music.
“This is music birthed out of suffering,” Clayton says. “The general arc of the piece was the need for the release of suffering we endure in life, finding that release in the Piedmont blues expression, the taste of salvation we get from releasing those feelings.
“You have to come see it to get a real sense of it. We made a lot of trips to Durham and met with elders doing their thing, playing guitar in a field, and seeing what the message of that imagery is.
“When you have an image of John Dee Holeman or Boo Hanks with a slave barn in the background, it sends a message,” Clayton says. “The set uses actual barnyard wood and tobacco hanging from the top of the stage. We wanted to make it a unique experience of the senses.”
The organizers originally thought the Piedmont blues was a fingerpicking, guitar style of music.
“It turns out that during the 1920s and ’30s, there was a plethora of music happening around the tobacco trade,” Clayton says. “It brought so many people to that area.
“You have people in trading houses. There were hundreds of mostly African-American women de-stemming the tobacco leaves and singing hymns while they worked.
“People would gather to listen,” he says. “We realized it was more than just the guitar style, so we are paying tribute to an entire scene and a bustling scene of music with the buck dancing tradition, the visual arts and all.”
The Piedmont blues are distinct from other forms because of location.
“It sounds very different from the Mississippi Delta blues or the Chicago blues,” Clayton says. “It is different in dialect and the sound.”
The Assembly is the group of musicians performing the music in the program.
“When I put the band together, I knew I wanted to pay tribute,” Clayton says. “I wanted to find musicians who could get to the core of expression, get to the essence of that pain that birthed the blues.
“When I think of the musicians I assembled, they are all great composers, great bandleaders. You hear some yearning for some truth. That essence of the blues exists in all their playing.
“These are musicians I’ve worked with over the years,” he says. “There is definitely a family there and a trust. I can trust them to bring my vision to life.”
The Music Maker Relief Foundation played an instrumental role in creating the production.
“They were a huge help in actually introducing me to the remaining elders,” Clayton says. “They devote their time all year round to helping support these legends who are sort of unsung heroes.
“They work on the farm still. They have regular jobs, but there was a discovery in the ’60s and ’70s that these blues musicians were sort of forgotten about.
“The Music Makers have been instrumental in bringing them back to the forefront and recording their music,” he says. “The foundation helps them even with paying the rent.”
Clayton was born into a musical family.
“My father is a great bass player and composer,” Clayton says. “We still play together.
“My uncle is a sax player and my grandmother played piano in church. My mother is from Holland.
“We moved with my sister to Los Angeles when I was 1,” Clayton says. “I grew up around the music, getting to see the lifestyle behind the music, getting to feel the love behind the music.”
There was never any doubt in his mind that Clayton could be a musician.
“My family had an encouraging way to foster child development,” he says. “I went to an arts high school, then the University of Southern California. I’ve gotten the chance to learn from so many great elders in my life.”
Clayton first appeared at the Savannah Music Festival eight years ago.
“I’m a big fan of Savannah and the music festival and everything Rob Gibson has done for the community,” he says. “There’s a special energy in the city and the feeling at the festival, and even just the people who work at the festival.
“There’s a really warm, special feeling there,” Clayton says. “It brings a special energy when it comes.”
Gerald Clayton’s Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation featuring René Marie
When: 8 p.m. April 7
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 W. Broughton St.
Info: savannahmusicfestival.org, 912-525-5050