Gerald Clayton on Two New Projects

The pianist connects his present to a larger cultural past

Gerald Clayton (photo courtesy of the artist)
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At just 33, Gerald Clayton is no stranger to exploring the roots of jazz. He was a toddler when he first accompanied his father, bassist John Clayton, to gigs around Los Angeles, and later joined John and his brother, saxophonist Jeff, as the pianist in the fiery hard-bop unit the Clayton Brothers.

Clayton recently was commissioned by Duke Performances to compose “Piedmont Blues,” an ambitious interdisciplinary work combining music, dance and film, all in service of paying tribute to that culturally rich area comprising much of the Carolinas and Virginia. The work has been staged at several major performing arts centers and festivals, and it features an eight-piece band plus singer René Marie, dancer Maurice Chestnut and a gospel choir.

And on his new album as a leader, Tributary Tales (Motéma), Clayton aims to connect his life experience—the places he’s traveled to, the people he’s met—with his musical and cultural ancestry. Helping the pianist along in this journey are saxophonists Logan Richardson, Ben Wendel and Dayna Stephens; bassist Joe Sanders; drummer Justin Brown; percussionists Henry Cole and Gabriel Lugo; guest vocalist Sachal Vasandani and poets Carl Hancock Rux and Aja Monet. Clayton spoke with JT publisher Lee Mergner about both projects.

Lee Mergner: What was the origin of the Piedmont blues project?

Gerald Clayton: Aaron Greenwald and Duke Performances approached me about doing a piece in tribute to the Piedmont blues. They were interested in doing something to pay tribute to the rich culture that exists in their area in Durham, North Carolina. They have a strong history in the tobacco industry. King Tobacco took off in Durham, and there’s so much great music that came out of that, so they wanted to find a way to pay tribute to it.

They were really open-minded about it and willing to let my dreams manifest as I wished. At some point I said I would love to have a visual element to this piece, maybe some kind of visual projection while we play. And they said, “Well, let’s do that right,” and they linked me up to the great theater director Christopher McElroen, and we made a lot of trips and filmed remaining elders from the tradition.

You didn’t have much personal connection to the music and culture of that region. Did you have any kind of prior knowledge of that particular genre?

Yes, it was new to me. This project was definitely illuminating, and the first year or year and a half of it, really through to the end, was a process of me being a student, and sitting down with Glenn Hinson, a great historian and professor at UNC [Chapel Hill]. Glenn painted a vivid picture of what the scene was like in Durham in the 1920s. The stigma behind Piedmont blues is that it’s strictly a fingerpicking guitar, ragtime sounding style, but after hanging with Glenn, he opened my mind to realize that there was a lot of music happening in the area.

The tobacco trading warehouses were a venue in and of themselves, where people would go and actually make a lot of money performing for the traders who were there with their products, to the point where big bands would even travel through and play at these warehouses—different from the juke-joint parties, where there were more like what we think of as the small group trios and quintets performing. During the de-stemming of plants in the tobacco warehouses, you heard maybe hundreds, mostly women, singing spirituals while they worked. People would gather ’round the warehouses, just to listen to the sound of that many people, singing this spiritual music. When [Hinson] painted that picture, I realized that I had a lot more freedom in this thing than I originally thought. But it certainly was illuminating. And it was kind of a learning lesson in checking out these artists that I wasn’t as aware of before.

The Piedmont style didn’t have the same electricity as the Delta-to-Chicago material that had such a big influence on rock, but the influence has always been there in our popular culture.

I think that’s exactly right, and I think it’s important for us to always be digging our fingers deeper into the history of these things, and finding the way that the thread actually connects. Because like you said, the influences are definitely there, and it’s more that the narrative that surrounds the music favors certain things—or gives people the impression that something was invisible—when in fact it totally is a part of our current landscape, musically.

What was your overall concept for the piece in terms of its narrative structure?

Along with wanting to pay tribute to the lives of people who created the music, was the inspiration to meet with these remaining elders through the Music Maker Relief Foundation. We were actually able to hang out with John Dee Holeman, and “Boo” Hanks before he passed away and Algia Mae Hinton, and record them and film them, and be in their presence, and capture this really compelling imagery—of John Dee, for instance, walking through a field of tall grass with a slave barn in the background. The imagery as we were collecting it was starting to tell its own story, but Christopher McElroen and I spent a lot of time talking about the narrative arc. And even before I knew about the details of the music, I knew that I was paying tribute to the blues—the blues as a philosophy, as an expression. I think there’s no doubt that it’s birthed out of pain, out of suffering. This is a release of our emotion. I wanted to observe that process, the idea of a people in need of a release of expressing their pain, their suffering, finding that expression in the Piedmont language, and then what happens afterwards—what the blues gives back to us. And that’s where the idea, “The blues gives us a taste of salvation” comes from: A search for salvation.

Another really key component was this poem that Glenn Hinson hipped us to, by Horace Williams, titled “A Black Man Talks to God.” That just sums it up. That’s the whole deal right there. That’s the blues captured in poetry. We saved that for the climax of the piece, starting off with some quotes from that piece. The idea of a black man praying to God saying, “It’s just not fair down here,” with the community joining in that same suffering, that same sentiment, of a need of escape, or some sort of release, the search for that expression, finding that expression in our daily song where we sing our joys and our sorrows. Piedmont is really often associated with a joyful, bouncy type of music, so to me that was a testament that the blues is not necessarily just an expression of pain, but just an expression of honesty, an expression of all the various emotions of life. And then we finished off coming back with this reflective idea that, “The injustice is real down here, and, please God, make sure there’s no discrimination up there.” That’s the arc of the piece.

Is there a geographic or socioeconomic reason why the music is lighter in tone? Some people could argue that the slavery was less oppressive up there compared to the Delta, but I don’t think that’s true. Tobacco is a different crop than cotton, but the realities of slavery remain the same.

You’re getting right to something that was a real thought-provoking issue in the creation of this piece. I think what it comes down to is partially just the expression. Because these tunes have a certain bounce to them and we associate that bounce with joy. We assume that these must be happy-go-lucky folks, when in fact when we’re listening to “In the Jailhouse Now.” The song is really lively, but the song is about being in jail, being incarcerated, so it can’t get any deeper, any heavier than that. And I also think it’s a testament to Southern humility, and the masks that people wear in their rituals of cordiality. Part of the piece is about exploring taking that mask off.

I read a really compelling interview with Elizabeth Cotten where she talks about her mother’s lessons, her grandmother’s lessons: “Don’t overdo, don’t tell lies,” basically just, “Keep the mask on.” I was trying to get what’s behind that Southern expression, that Southern humility, and get to some of the rawness that I really do think exists within the music once we peel a little deeper than the outer layer.

It’s such an interesting ensemble—of music and styles. How did you come up with that configuration and choice of personnel, starting with the jazz group anchoring the performance? Some of those guys you’ve worked with a lot, but you probably hadn’t worked much with René Marie.

I’m obviously a fan of everybody that I’ve assembled, and some I had more extensive working relationships with than others. I had a chance to make some music with René over the past few years, but this was our first real close project together. I’ve been a fan of René’s for a long time, and she’s from Virginia, from the [Piedmont] region. This music is in her veins. So when I brought the project to her, she really felt personally that this was an important thing for her to take on as well.

My original idea of getting these guys really had more to do with my thoughts on what we talked about in terms of the philosophy of the blues, and finding musicians that I thought could convey the essence of that expression. Not looking for necessarily guys who are just well-versed in a particular dialect—able to do their best [Reverend] Gary Davis impression—but rather what’s behind the expression, what’s behind the language, and can these musicians convey that? And I think all of the guys who I’ve assembled, they totally encompass that. Besides the blues being a really important influence in their musical sound, the blues as a philosophy is something that they always seem to bring to their performances, so that kind of ties it all together.

René really knocked it out of the park. After I saw the performance, I thought, “Well, who else could do that?”

It was a process of trying some things, and eventually it led down that path. I had worked for a while on the project with Lizz Wright, who offered a great deal of thought and even contributed some of the poetry that we used on the project. But eventually, partially due to her schedule and feeling that it was not really the project suited for her, we landed with René. And really, I couldn’t be happier. I feel like fate led us to that. She seems like the only person who really can do the project at this point so I’m very grateful.

With the range of the piece including real down-home aspects, to do it with character without caricature is really amazing. You also included a gospel choir. Was the choir included to make the connection between the spiritual and the down-to-earth reality?

That part of the story feels so compelling to me—hearing hundreds of African-American women singing spirituals at the same time—that that was a relevant part of the music’s history, of Durham’s history, of that region’s history. Really when you talk about African-American expression, you have to go to the church. It doesn’t feel right without keeping that in the context of it all. The other part of this story that Christopher McElroen talked a lot about was the idea that this human experience is singular. We experience the joys and the pain alone, and then we gather, and we have this sort of cathartic experience where we all come together and share our pain and share our joy, whether we feast together or whether it’s to make music. Whatever it is, there’s this gathering, and then afterwards again, returning to the solitude of questioning God, and that feeling of the personal journey through life. So starting off with this singular voice questioning God, and then being joined by the choir, where everyone is singing their own testimonies—and not necessarily one song, but many songs at the same time. That was part of that concept as well—this idea of singular to multiple, and back to singular.

What about the buck dancer, Maurice Chestnut? Why did you include that aspect, and how did you find him?

When Glenn was painting that picture of all the various expressions of art in 1920’s Durham, buck dancing was a big component. It’s the food, it’s the dancing, it’s the poetry, it’s even some of the visual art that I got to see. So it felt really appropriate to include that, and the lineage of buck dancing and where that has led us with tap dancing [connected to] the great Maurice Chestnut. Maurice and I got together to work on what the arc was going to be, and how he was going to approach it. When he comes on it starts with that humble buck dance expression–very simple—and then it becomes the climax, the ultimate release of our emotions, and probably taps more into what we know as a tap dancing expression, but they’re definitely related. I was really happy to have him on board.

We wouldn’t normally associate a horn section with the Piedmont blues. Why did you want to include a horn section?

Glenn Hinson, again, in his depiction of Durham in the 1920s actually challenged that notion of the instruments that you would hear played in the Piedmont expression in the day. Because, in fact, big bands were travelling through that area and playing in warehouses and juke-joint parties. It was partially because of what was popular in that time musically that the agents sought out these blind guitar players and said, “Let’s take advantage of them.”

It’s true, part of it was that that guitar style was easier to transport, and also that it was part of the folk revival of the early ’60s.

Yes, that guitar sound was what was popular at the time, and that’s what they thought they needed to sell records. Hence, Blind Boy Fuller. I really think that there’s something to the fact that the blind cats were clearly the most talented, but also the easiest to take advantage of. But that notion of challenging our concept of history was partially [behind] putting together a larger section. I think I can get to a larger range of drama with that type of instrumentation than if I didn’t have them. And the idea that we should consider how the blues is expressed through buck dancing, through singing, through piano playing, but also through picking up a bottle, blowing your blues through a bottle. Or picking up a horn and blowing through the horn.

What was your greatest challenge with this project?

I think there were many. The scope of the piece was new for me. I haven’t done anything where I’ve been that focused on creating a very specific narrative. And, combining the visual element with the musical element; the dancing and the theatrical, spoken word aspect; the gospel choir—there were a lot of things coming together. There were a lot of elements that logistically seemed like a daunting challenge. I had to get over that. I think it can be a challenge paying tribute to a musical language, or even to an artist. I think there’s something inherently challenging about “Your homework assignment is to take something that already exists.” Because those people who have a relationship with the Piedmont blues, they may come to the show looking for very specific things, and ready to check off their boxes, or grade us on our ability to capture something that they know so well.

The questions then from my research and my time with this music and this culture and this history are: What is it that speaks to me personally? What is it that resonates with me? And how do I translate that into this narrative, and into this group that I’ve assembled, and try to express myself honestly, with that essence in mind? I think that’s maybe a greater psychological challenge than anything else, because I’ve been playing blues all my life. The idea of playing the blues is not something that on paper is going to be a hard thing, compared to having to learn a concerto, or learning some really hard music where I have to do some work to even conceptualize where it’s coming from. But allowing yourself the artistic freedom to find yourself within all of this traditional music that we’re checking out can be challenging, and a little bit daunting. But as soon as all the pieces were coming together, it really did blossom and take shape naturally, just calling on these guys to come together to be the band, be the visual presentation—basically what I can do is stand back and watch them do their thing. When I finally got there in that opening week, seeing the stage, I kind of took a step back and was able to say to myself, “OK, this is gonna be something cool.”

Even though this is a much more written-out kind of piece, there was a lot of standard jazz exploration. I actually had that same feeling about the audience’s expectations, because I could see that the audience included a lot of blues people. And I wondered what all these guys looking to hear Piedmont blues are going to think of this jazz group with a horn section.

I’m really interested in what you just said, because I think this is a point that is worth challenging all music lovers with. How much of what we love is actually closing our minds to what is new within the same continuum? I thought this was a great opportunity to invite those people who have already a relationship with this music, to see that the thread continues. That’s something that exists in the die-hard jazz fans, and classical music fans. Whatever your lines of demarcation are, this era of over-glorifying our nostalgia is a bit of a double-edged sword, because, yes, we love the music, but we end up putting handcuffs on the idea of the music living in the now. So I love that conversation, and I love challenging people to open their minds and their ears to find new things that are in fact very much connected to things that they already love.

It’s so interesting to me that the blues—the musicians and their fans—have the same issues as jazz people do. To people outside, it’s often just one thing or sound. But it’s not one thing, it’s all different. When some people think about blues, it’s only B.B. King or Muddy Waters. I did wonder about the audience: Do these blues fans know they’re about to see something different? Have you gotten any feedback along those lines?

No, I think that those who were close to the musicians, like the Music Maker Relief Foundation people, and people who were actually close to “Boo” Hanks, they were all really warm in their feedback. And because the Piedmont blues is kind of an obscure language in and of itself, I think there’s a certain joy they get to see that what they love is on a stage at all, in whatever form. And I think that they appreciate that Christopher and I really put a lot of thoughtful work into creating this thing. And we really are treating their tradition with love and respect and trying to present something with as much integrity as we can.

You certainly don’t want it to be a jukebox musical.

I enjoyed seeing the audience not expecting what they’re going to get. I think there’s something really nice about that surprise. And then as to the rest I’d say, you let it do what it’s gonna do, and not pay too much attention to the words that people associate with it.

What I found interesting from my outside perspective was that the piece paid tribute to the music of the region without imitating it or mimicking it. It’s only someone from your background that could have pulled that off, because everybody else might have been trapped by that. Do you feel it’s changed how you view your own music?  Do you feel that it’s had an influence on you creatively?

I do feel that it’s definitely become a memorable experience that I’m sure will continue to affect future works—partially just taking on a project that has a bit of meaning outside of simply writing tunes and performing them for an audience. Especially in times like these, we really hope that taking part in the creative process can be a meaningful experience in and of itself, and that everything I do from here on out takes on more than just a self-satisfying goal. I think you know what I mean.

Right, that jazz vibe of “Look at this solo, look at this tune, it’s really clever.”

Right, “Aren’t I clever?” The other part is a reminder that we can never be too thorough. We should approach our investigation of all things, musical and otherwise, the history of anything, with a real sense of open-mindedness and curiosity, and a question mark. That process of diving into the history of something, and that digging deeper than the outer narrative, the outer layer of something, was something that I think I’ll take with me into future projects as well. And just another deeper investigation of what the blues means to me. That it is more than just a scale or a musical language with technique and technical formulas. That there is actually an essence, a spiritual essence, a philosophical point to it, and to bring that idea to any performance situation is what keeps it relevant and connected to that same history. To continue to sing with blues in your expression any time we get a chance to play.

Your new album Tributary Tales seems to follow a similar theme of recognizing and exploring connections to our past.

I think projects like “Piedmont Blues” are a way of putting a magnifying glass on a process that we partake in all the time—trying to strengthen our roots while exploring new terrain. It felt fitting with Tributary Tales, not just because of the river idea of connectedness, with all the various facets of my life, but also [the idea of] paying homage to the river of elders and to the music that came before us. They’re definitely all connected.

As in “Piedmont Blues,” the album integrates spoken word with music.

I’ve been interested in [that] for a while. My last album, Life Forum, had Carl Hancock Rux on one of the tracks. I really dig connecting with various artistic expressions, and something about the spoken word feels sort of like [it does] with a singer, where there’s a similarity and connection and a simpatico energy; we’re partaking in the same goal [and] striving to express ourselves.

When you combine expressions, there’s a lot of potential there. There’s a lot of room for taking the music to another level but also for highlighting the words in a new way. I love exploring that and I wanted to expand that concept on this album, not just with Carl but also with a female voice. He introduced me to the work of Aja Monet and I became a fan instantly. We got a chance to connect in the studio and talk about life in a breaking-bread session, then press “Record,” and we came up with some stuff.

Were the words written specifically for your music, or did you compose music based on their words?

It was a bit of both. In corresponding with them before we got together, I gave them an idea of what my narrative was for this project. But I always want people to feel free to express themselves. If you give ideas and topics or things that are broad enough, then there’s a lot of room for them to go and take that. Aja and Carl both came with some written stuff. I sent them the tracks that I wanted them to flow over. But we also created something on the spot. That’s the final track on the album, “Dimensions: Interwoven,” where we took some of their written material but flowed off of one another, and eventually Aja completely improvised and sang from the heart. I think that moment at the end of “Dimensions: Interwoven” is one of my favorites on the record. It gives me goosebumps when I hear it. She testifies and says she’s yearning for freedom, which is kind of a heavy moment. Ultimately it felt like a natural, free, jam-session type of experience.

The line of Carl’s that I remember was: “Not an arrangement of songs, but a transcription of truth or a story in diatonic notes.” That’s an apt description of great music or great art.

Carl is to me a musical voice and a great thinker and a great writer and poet. The way that he brings those images to life, and just the words themselves, are very musical. Both he and Aja sound like musicians to me. It’s really cool. They’re truly masters of spoken-word expression.

You were the producer as well. Was it a challenge to produce the album and make sure the elements blended together?

This was the first project where I didn’t have someone else in an official producer role. I enjoyed the freedom of being the captain of the ship in that regard. But with all those guys, they’re all so sensitive with what they bring to the music. I know they’re going to approach the music with the right sensibility. Afterwards, you listen back to what you’ve collected and then it’s a question of “Do I want to add more?” or “Does it need some variation from this track to that one?” or “What’s the arc of the whole record?” Another part of the process for me, before I even recorded with the band, was to just go into the studio for a few days and record solo piano and record duos. Some of the stuff you hear as interludes I had recorded even earlier. I had a lot of material to work with and a pretty wide variety of sounds and feelings to go with. I suppose it is a challenge, but it feels like the same challenge that I am always faced with when putting together a 90-minute set of music or a record. It’s looking at everything you have and finding the right balance and arc.

You’ve really lived the concept of having a connection to the past through life and music, because of your father and uncle. Did you reflect upon that more personal or familial aspect as you worked on this album?

Whether it’s the Clayton Brothers or Roy Hargrove or Charles Lloyd, I feel like they’re always in my decisions on and off the bandstand. They provide the content for your musical decisions. All those values and all those lessons I learned from the masters really flow through you when you put pen to paper or sit down to play. And everybody on the record has their own set of influences, their own dues that they paid and the apprenticeship they had with elders. It brings me back to the theme of the record—that we’re all these different streams that are all connected to that same source, an open ocean of creative improvised expression. I do reflect on it a lot.