Susan Scott, Advisor and Mentor to Start-Ups, has worked closely with Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong, the founders of this festival, to establish the Art of Cool Music Festival as an important part of Durham culture.
“When we look around, we think Durham has so much that is really cool and interesting and compelling. And there is a blues festival, but there isn’t jazz,” said Scott. “That’s what this festival is about. How do you reach people through jazz?”
The festival has its origins in the Art of Cool Project, started by Cicely Mitchell and Al Strong about two years ago. Mitchell and Strong began the Project by presenting small “pop-up” jazz concerts in local art galleries. These wildly successful concerts serve as the inspiration for the Art of Cool Festival.
“We just wanted to give the local artists a chance to present their own music,” said Strong. “At the same time, it’s about giving them the opportunity to build their own fan base and giving concert-goers alternative options for live music.”
The series of pop-up concerts got picked up by the media, leading Mitchell and Strong to participate in a three-month start-up program to develop the idea for the Art of Cool Festival.
“Our dream was to create a festival,” Strong said. “We would combine all of these pop-up concerts into one single festival.”
However, creating an entirely new festival was not an easy dream to achieve. To rally support and financial assistance, the Art of Cool Project took to the crowd-funding platform of Kickstarter.
“The Kickstarter campaign was to confirm whether we were doing this or not,” Scott said. “If we met [our goal], we would do the festival. If we didn’t, we would continue to curate the non-profit and work towards a slightly less ambitious goal.”
The Kickstarter campaign was a success, raising more money than the original goal within the deadline. But even with crowdfunding support, the curators of the festival had to seek additional funding.
“You have to go hat in hand to a lot of people,” said Scott. “A lot of festivals have six-figure sponsors. The Art of Cool doesn’t have that.”
Strong, who deals mainly with the artists, compared putting the festival on to presenting dozens of pop-up concerts at the same time.
“Being able to present this many top quality artists at the same time is expensive,” he said. “One of the main challenges has been getting people excited so we actually have the resources to support something this big in a timely fashion.”
The Art of Cool Project’s fan base has been financially supportive through Kickstarter, and many locals have volunteered to help plan the festival. So far, there are upwards of twenty dedicated volunteers who have helped out on a regular basis.
“They devoted their own time and their own money and their own resources to make this happen,” Strong said. “It’s an inspiration to keep going in the face of everything else.”
The Art of Cool Festival has given some local groups an opportunity for great exposure. Jeremy Clemons and Mavis Poole, local musicians of the group Soul Understated feat. Mavis “SWAN” Poole, are coming into the festival right before the release of the group’s new single, ‘Same Ole Groove.’ For Soul Understated, as with many of these local groups, this festival offers a chance at publicity that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
“You’re not just playing in a little club,” Clemons said. “It’s about being presented in a different light.”
Soul Understated is taking advantage of this opportunity by passing out copies of their single early at their show, which takes place on April 26 at the PSI Theatre at Durham Arts Council.
“It’s going to expose a lot of people that have never heard this music,” said Clemons. “DPAC is a big thing. But this is going to get a very different crop of musicians coming through.”
The organizers hope that the festival eventually becomes a mainstay of Durham culture.
“When people think about the jewels in the Durham entertainment scene, the three jewels that we want to come to mind would be ADF, Full Frame, and the Art of Cool Festival,” said Scott of the future goals of the project. “I think the goal is that the Art of Cool really establishes permanence.”
Strong, approaching the ultimate goal from a financial standpoint, hopes to increase the corporate backing of the festival in the future.
“We definitely hope that it can continue to be an ongoing thing,” he said. “Our overarching goal is to eventually get enough corporate funding to underwrite the entire festival and make it free to everybody.”
Ultimately, it is the passion of founders Mitchell and Strong that drives this project, along with the numerous volunteers. If the festival does succeed, it will be because of the founders' and volunteers' immense amount of work.
“Their love fuels this, but they’ve never lost sight of the fact that this would be beneficial for Durham,” Scott said of Strong and Mitchell. “They seem to wake up every day and do this for the love of the music and Durham.”
The promise of a Durham with a successful jazz festival might just be tantalizing enough for the community to help the founders realize their dream.