Man, life sure changes when a musician is your boo. Just ask Cicely Mitchell.
The Dyersburg, Tenn., native and Raleigh resident moved to North Carolina more than a decade ago to study biostatistics at UNC-Chapel Hill. She ended up getting her master's degree on the subject and, just recently, she finished her doctorate. Oh, yes, Mitchell was all ready to live her life as a quiet statistician.
And, then, Al Strong came along.
The jazzman, who has performed with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Clay Aiken and Big Daddy Kane, came to Raleigh from D.C. with a low, deep voice, a laid-back vibe and, more important, a trumpet. A couple of years ago, the pair started dating and Strong began hipping Mitchell on the pros and cons of being a jazz musician in the Triangle.
"At times, I would just kinda show her how I wish I could do more in terms of getting my personal newsletter out more often and letting people know where I was playing," says Strong, 31, who's also an alumnus and adjunct professor at N.C. Central University's Jazz Studies program. "And she asked, 'How can I help?' "
Mitchell's emailing and Facebooking skills led to more gigs opening up for Strong, but it wasn't enough. Both Mitchell and Strong wanted a spot they, and other local jazz players, could call home. "A lot of the players have been (playing) background music in restaurants," says Mitchell, 34. "So, most of them, especially Albert, were looking for a small space where they could showcase their original compositions."
And thus, the Art of Cool Project was born. Launched last summer, the nonprofit project consists of Strong (and his Al Strong Quintet) performing monthly shows ("after-hours concerts," as they're called) along with special guests.
The first show - held at LabourLove Gallery in August, on the third Friday of the month - became enough of a success to make it a monthly staple there. Since then, the Project has brought in such artists as South Carolina sax man Marcus Anderson, Durham soul chanteuse Carlitta Durand and Raleigh jazz quintet Peter Lamb and the Wolves. Strong said it was his intention to have an eclectic array of artists to play not just straight jazz, but other variations of jazz. He says, "That was one of the inspirations in how I created the concert series."
Now in Raleigh, too
With the Project making a name for itself in Bull City, Mitchell and Strong now have their sights set on bringing some jazz to downtown Raleigh. Starting tonight, the Project will begin playing at Flanders Gallery on First Fridays. "They are very excited for us to be here because no one else is really presenting jazz, especially in an art gallery setting," says Mitchell. "The unique element of having it in an art gallery brings in another level of culture that people are kinda looking for."
Flanders Gallery director Kelly McChesney says she couldn't be more psyched. "The Art of Cool Project is seeking to promote and support jazz and jazz musicians, and the gallery is seeking to promote and support the visual arts and artists' careers," says McChesney. "By partnering with the Art of Cool Project and combining our efforts, we are helping each other achieve our goals while offering the community a unique experience every month."
For the inaugural Raleigh show, the Project is bringing in the funky talents of Richmond, Va., saxophonist (and NCCU Jazz Studies graduate) James "Saxsmo" Gates. "He's fiery and tenacious, and his playing speaks to that, you know," Strong says. "He's one of those cats where even if you don't like jazz, you'll definitely like what he does." (Don't fret, Durhamites - the LabourLove monthly will still pop off every third Friday. This month's guest will be Pierce Freelon and his hip-hop jazz collective The Beast.)
Filling a void
When it's all said and done, both Mitchell and Strong are looking to provide resident venues in the Triangle where jazz artists can converge and perform, and jazz audiences can take it all in. "Because there's no true downtown venue totally dedicated to jazz, in Raleigh or Durham, I feel there's a void," says Mitchell. "Because there are people who want to come out to listen to jazz and, most of the time, they're gonna come to a restaurant like Beyu Caffe (in Durham)."
Mitchell also hopes that more of these shows will spark talk of organizing a local jazz festival. "From a statistician's perspective - and a business person's perspective - we want to have a viable scene where it would make financial sense to have a festival. And, so, with these concerts, we're just trying to boost the visibility of the scene to see if that works."