The Fifth Annual Art of Cool Festival Takes Over Downtown This Fall

The Fifth Annual Art of Cool Festival Takes Over Downtown This Fall

More than just highlighting mainstream artists, the music festival features amazing homegrown talent, too

Photo by Steven Paul Whitsitt Photography

Hot can be cool, and cool can be hot, and each can be both. But hot or cool, man, jazz is jazz,” said the legendary Louis Armstrong while speaking about cool jazz.

Cool is an art. There’s a rhythm and a movement that happens when music transforms a room. It’s love for music that led Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong to create the Art of Cool Festival – conceptualized in 2013, the first event took place in April 2014.

Art and cool go hand in hand. Cool is both hot and cool. For me, cool is listening to Meshell Ndegeocello play the bass while singing and spitting poetry in a way that separates her from her peers. Cool is daydreaming when Damien Escobar plays the violin and Maxwell reminds me of why I fell in love with his album “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.”

Meshell, Damien and Maxwell will perform at this year’s Art of Cool Festival. Call it heaven for people like me.

In addition to those three, Anthony Hamilton, Sons of Kemet, Young Bull, Sango and 9th Wonder will perform on Friday. On Saturday, Erykah Badu, Nas, Royce da 5’9”, Iman Omari, Keyon 

Harrold, Dwele, Rahsaan Patterson and Zoocrü will perform. More acts will be announced soon. Already, there are enough Grammy Award-winners and nominees in this lineup to fill a hall of fame.

This is the fifth annual Art of Cool Festival. It’s moved from the spring to the weekend of September 28-29. The lineup showcases the organizers’ goal of fusing forward-thinking jazz, alternative soul and hip-hop.

“Al had been complaining a bit about not being able to perform
live concerts in intimate settings,” Cicely says. “We decided to create a music gallery for young, local artists to play together and create music.”

Cicely says one of her biggest challenges has been in striking the balance between bringing mainstream acts that people know and hear on the radio and maintaining a focus on jazz and its artistic intentions.

“It was started with Durham in mind,” Cicely says. “We wanted something Durham would be proud of that’s similar to the Essence Festival in New Orleans with the goal of creating a place for emerging and underground talent to showcase their talents.”

The Essence Festival is the premier destination for people interested in hearing black musicians. Like New Orleans, Durham is rapidly becoming a hot spot for people who love alternative black music.

The Art of Cool Festival shifted from nonprofit to for-profit when Al and Cicely sold the rights to The DOME Group. Sulaiman and Lesleigh Mausi, the owners of The DOME Group, know Durham. Beyond promoting concerts at the Durham Performing Arts Center and The Carolina Theatre, the married couple lived in Durham years ago when Sulaiman attended North Carolina Central University.

Al and Cicely remain involved in curating programming for the festival. Innovate Your Cool and StArt of Cool continue to impact Durham’s older and younger musicians alike under the Art of Cool Project nonprofit umbrella. Innovate Your Cool (IYC) celebrates the power of cool ideas and its impact on business and music. StArt of Cool offers a summer camp for youth that builds self-confidence through a musical experience.

Cicely says the nonprofit focus of Art of Cool, combined with the festival, makes the project one of the biggest and most significant events in downtown. More than a festival that highlights mainstream artists, Art of Cool features the amazing talent in Durham. You don’t have to travel far to hear some of the best in the business.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park is the festival’s main venue this year. The Carolina Theatre, Durham Armory, Motorco Music Hall and Pinhook are among its other downtown venues for Art of Cool.

“My greatest memory of the Art of Cool Festival is sitting on the DPAC lawn seeing Cody ChesnuTT perform,” Cicely says. “All of that programming was free.”

More than 10,000 people are expected to fill downtown’s streets that last weekend in September.

In the words of George Clinton, the godfather of P-Funk, “If you hear any noise; it’s just me and the boys. Hit me, you gotta hit the band.”