Recess | Local Arts

Art of Cool Festival 2017 brings jazz and soul to the Bull City

If you live in a city that hosts an annual music festival, you’re probably used to the obtrusive changes often wrought by a festival’s sprawl: blocked-off roads, flocks of visitors and unremitting noise. Basically, they stick out like a sore thumb on a city’s landscape, both visually and culturally—music festivals are rarely well-integrated with the communities whose spaces they occupy, often creating a visible disconnect between the guest and its host.

While one could hazard this generalization for most mainstream music festivals, it’s safe to say that there are exceptions to such an observation. Specifically, the Art of Cool Festival, whose fourth year of programming ran from April 28 to 30, has become the antithesis of an out-of-touch music festival. Created by Durham residents for Durham residents, Art of Cool has continued to make earnest attempts to remain cognizant of its surroundings and cater to Durham’s residents.

The Art of Cool Festival arose out of the Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to present, preserve and promote jazz-influenced music. Founded by biostatistician Cicely Mitchell and trumpeter Albert Strong, the music festival seemed to be an appropriate way to provide a platform for jazz musicians and reinvigorate the genre in Durham, a city with a nearly half-century history of jazz.

“The Durham Armory is a place where jazz musicians played. [Durham] was not only strong in blues tradition, the basis of jazz, but also had a very strong soul movement,” Mitchell previously mentioned.

Indeed, Art of Cool is almost inseparable from its host city—at a city council meeting, Mitchell commented that the festival’s audience breakdown “really reflects the population” of Durham: Art of Cool draws a crowd that is 66% African-American and 24% white. The demographic makeup is a welcome change from the white-washing that often plagues music festivals today, both in performers and attendees. The music festival is mostly populated by Durham residents themselves, too, rather than out-of-towners. The performances often felt like high-spirited community gatherings, a testament to Art of Cool’s efforts to be proximate to the people of Durham.

More evidence to the idea that Art of Cool truly cares about Durham’s residents is its extensive free programming. Tickets starting at $65 could secure you a seat to see performances by the likes of Common and George Clinton, but if you were unable (or unwilling) to pay, Art of Cool programmed free events both in the daytime and nighttime during the festival’s run. An opening party at the Museum of Durham History, art exhibitions at American Tobacco Campus and concerts across downtown Durham—all were free and open to the public.

“I want people to know that when they come to Art of Cool, they will be presented in a very unique and carefully curated way, to where that experience is one that you just cannot get at any other time, at any other place,” Mitchell said in an interview with the News and Observer.

However, Art of Cool has not been without its fair share of hardships. Indy Week reported that both Art of Cool and Moogfest, a music and technology festival that also takes place in downtown Durham, asked the city council for funding. Mitchell, who has invested $75,000 of her own money into Art of Cool, asked the local government for $20,000 and she received a mere $5,000. Moogfest, meanwhile, sought over $60,000 from Durham—despite the fact that it has been financially unsuccessful in the past, losing more than $1.5 million in 2014.

Despite the strife, though, Art of Cool seems like it's here to stay—the dates for the festival's 2018 run have already been announced—so embrace the jazz and learn the art of being cool.


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