If someone told you to pack your bags to head to one of the south’s hottest music festivals, you might start searching for flights to Austin, TX for South by Southwest (SXSW). However, you would be heading a little too far west. The new buzz is the Art of Cool Festival in Durham, NC.
Now in its fourth year, the Art of Cool Fest has blended jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul, technology, innovation, young, old, black, white, local, international, food and drink with an alchemist’s precision. The energy of the weekend is equal parts concert, HBCU homecoming and family reunion. It is the brainchild of Dr. Cicely Mitchell, a biostatistician by day and musical mastermind by night, curating the three-day weekend to provide a cultural experience second to none. She and her partner, Professor Al Strong, a musical powerhouse in his own right and jazz music instructor at North Carolina Central University, have reinvigorated the Bull City with a passion for live music that resides in various genres, a responsibility Mitchell says she doesn’t take lightly.
“This is something that I definitely think is my legacy project—being able to help push the culture,” she says. “Over time, people have gravitated towards the festival as being the progressive, cool, black identity of Durham that even non-Black people can identify with. I feel like it has grown into a brand that has come to personify Durham, the diversity and the scrappiness of Durham. It’s dirty. We get things done on shoestring budgets.”
Mitchell, a Tennessee State University graduate, has amassed a notable list of AOC alums in the festival’s relatively short life, including the likes of Roy Ayers, Anderson. Paak and the Free Nationals, The Internet, jazz great Terrance Blanchard, Bilal, Alice Smith, Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, 9th Wonder, Avery Sunshine, Snarky Puppy and Anthony Hamilton, just to name a few. This year’s lineup promises to be both mind-blowing and ear-pleasing, with almost 100 performers, speakers and workshops over three days. Featured performers for 2017 include Common, Revive Big Band, the godfather of funk, George Clinton and “The God MC” Rakim, who will also be a featured speaker.
“I’m really excited about Rakim performing with a live band for the thirtieth anniversary of Paid in Full. I’m also excited about him sitting down the next day at the conference to talk to Combat Jack about the album,” says Mitchell. “I think that is very unique material that not too many festivals get to capture.”
Art of Cool is a jazz-presenting, non-profit on a very specific mission—to expand the audience of jazz. So, while there will be plenty available for jazz purists to enjoy, Mitchell says her goal is to help music fans recognize the inextricable relationship between this American musical art form and the foundation it provides for other genres.
“We’re definitely not a traditional jazz festival”
“We’re definitely not a traditional jazz festival,” she says. “One thing that makes us different is that most quote unquote jazz festivals only do jazz. They don’t really have another component that may be appealing to someone who’s ‘jazz-curious.’ So, that’s why we put in other elements—talking about the jazz that’s sampled in hip-hop songs, talking to Rakim about his jazz influences, providing some virtual reality pieces–other really innovative thoughts that could come out of improvised music.”
Another key component to the outreach aspect of AOC is the stArt of Cool, a week-long music-based camp where dozens of local children follow a curriculum that culminates in a recital on the final day. Mitchell says she hopes to expand the camp’s reach through strategic partnerships and support from families who see the program’s value.
While the AOC festival may feel like an experience as organic as a spontaneous jam session in a smoke-filled nightclub, Mitchell says pulling it off is something just short of a miracle.
“I really think it is magic how we make it happen every year,” she says with a big laugh. “I really do believe that. Every year, we think about doing it and then, somehow, we find a way to do it.”
The entire festival takes place in a small footprint in downtown Durham. With a variety of venues available within a space that spans only a few blocks, Mitchell says to leave your club gear in the closet, throw on some sneakers and come ready to walk from venue to venue… and, of course, to party.
For more information on Art of Cool Fest, visit www.aocfestival.org