One of the United States' most significant cultural exports is, without a doubt, the blues. Born of the unique pain inflicted upon black Americans, the blues taps into deep wells of spiritual and personal sorrow, looking it in the eye as it lurks in every corner.
In Living With Music: Jazz Writings, Ralph Ellison wrote, "The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it ... the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically."
There are many shades and styles of blues that vary by region as you move across the South and up the Mississippi River: Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Piedmont. North Carolina is home to the latter, which describes the acoustic, ragtime-inspired fingerpicked blues music found between Richmond and Atlanta.
Durham had an especially important place in Piedmont blues in the twenties and thirties. As one of the country's biggest hubs for the tobacco industry, the city attracted scores of players who may not have sold a million records, but whose unique craft made them an important part of Southern history. Some of the form's earliest progenitors, like Elizabeth Cotten, Blind Boy Fuller, and Reverend Gary Davis, made their homes in or around Durham at various points; others, including John Dee Holeman and Algia Mae Hinton, still live nearby.
The city's role in the movement is the inspiration of Piedmont Blues, a massive multimedia undertaking that combines tap dance, photos, and video with music led by renowned jazz pianist Gerald Clayton. Though he's not a blues musician per se, he says the blues have still made an indelible imprint on his art.
"Jazz musicians have been using the blues as a platform for their expression for years and years, so it is all related," he says, noting that Oscar Peterson's version of Duke Ellington's "C-Jam Blues," from Peterson's 1963 LP Night Train, was the first track on the first jazz record he fell in love with.
"I don't think there's really a difference between Algia Mae [Hinton] and John Dee Holeman and Duke Ellington or Miles Davis," he says.
Clayton's relationship with Duke Performances began about four years ago, he estimates, when the institution invited him to lead a master class. About two years ago, Duke Performances tapped him again for Piedmont Blues, which it co-commissioned with the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, the Savannah Music Festival, and Strathmore. During several visits to Durham, Clayton connected with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a Hillsborough nonprofit that assists aging blues and roots musicians with living expenses, career management, and more.
"Through them, I was able to actually meet some of these elders who are left from this tradition, people like John Dee and Algia Mae Hinton, and Boo Hanks, who passed away in the past year," Clayton says, adding that, in meeting with and spending time with the "elders," as he calls them, he learned how the blues came from all aspects of life: work, the way people walk and talk, even food.
"After meeting them, I realized it wouldn't feel right to pay tribute to this tradition without including them in some way or another. It's really their art form; it's their language. These are the personalities behind the art form and behind the music," Clayton says. Hinton and Holeman won't be onstage with Clayton and the rest of his band, The Assembly, but they'll appear in the visual elements that fill out the performance.
The three-part journey of Piedmont Blues covers the struggles that yielded the specific style, the music itself, and what Clayton calls the "flight of the blues." Clayton surrounds himself with an eight-piece backing band that includes guitar, bass, and drums, plus three sax players, vocalist René Marie, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. It's a living, breathing circumnavigation of the genre as well as an homage to artistic ancestors. Clayton gets even more philosophical discussing the project's wider implications.
"One of the big theses is God is the music in our blood and our veins. Blues offers us a taste of salvation, so that in the act of actually releasing that pain, we get a taste of that transcendent other side," Clayton says.
The specific details of the pains of everyday life in Durham have shifted a bit over the past century, but Piedmont Blues bridges the gaps between the years. We'll always have pain to reckon with, but, on the upside, we'll always have the blues, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rhapsody in Blues."