Soulful sounds at Durham's first Art of Cool Music Festival

CorrespondentApril 24, 2014 

  • Details

    What: Art of Cool Music Festival

    When: Friday and Saturday

    Where: Various venues around Durham

    Cost: $120 ($65 for 1-day pass)


For almost three years, the nonprofit Art of Cool Project has been on a mission to bring progressive jazz and R&B artists to the Triangle on a monthly basis, while also giving local performers recurring spots to do their thing.

When the N&O spoke to Art of Cool co-founder Cicely Mitchell two years ago, she said the group’s next logical step would be a festival. “From a statistician’s perspective – and a businessperson’s perspective – we want to have a viable scene where it would make financial sense to have a festival,” Mitchell said in 2012. “And, so, with these concerts, we’re just trying to boost the visibility of the scene to see if that works.”

Cut to this weekend, when the first Art of Cool Music Festival will happen in venues all around downtown Durham (including The Carolina Theatre, Motorco Music Hall, The Pinhook and Hayti Heritage Center) Friday and Saturday.

Bull City helping hands

When the Project needed some help getting the festival up and running, the Bull City Startup Stampede (which Mitchell describes as “a program kinda like ‘Shark Tank’ ”) was ready to assist.

“They take several companies and help them accelerate their idea,” Mitchell said recently. “And so that’s what we did. We’re the only nonprofit, and they really loved the fact that we wanted to do a music festival.” Mitchell also consulted with the Hopscotch Music Festival crew for some pointers. “They did help us very early on with designing the festival, as far as being able to go from place to place to place,” she says.

After a year of planning and gathering money (they raised over $27,000 on Kickstarter), festival organizers started looking for acts last fall. They booked the local artists and bands who have become Art of Cool regulars: The Foreign Exchange, Peter Lamb and the Wolves, The Hot at Nights, The Beast, Apple Juice Kid, Yolanda Rabun. They also managed to get out-of-towners like Philly neo-soulster Bilal and South Carolina saxophonist Marcus Anderson to return.

But there will also be many AOC first-timers, like alt-soul vocalists Amel Larrieux and Alice Smith, New Zealand-born nu-jazz man Mark de Clive-Lowe, indie rock-and-soul star Cody ChestnuTT, bass-playing fusion freak Thundercat and veteran jazz flautist Hubert Laws.

Salute to N.C. treasures

At the top of the festival lineup are two North Carolina-themed shows.

Friday night, Kinston’s renowned sax man Maceo Parker will play at the Carolina Theatre. The following night, the theater will house the “Carolina Soul Tribute,” the festival’s other headlining show.

Curated by Cognito, of the creative and production resource Frolab, that event will salute Tar Heel music greats John Coltrane, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk and Nina Simone. L.A.-based musician and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson will serve as the show’s musical director, with Bilal, N’Dambi and Nnenna Freelon as some of the artists who will do guest performances.

“They are such treasures to the world – not just America, but to the entire world,” Atwood-Ferguson says about the artists who will be honored. “It’s just amazing the depths of the artistry, very transcendent.”

‘Amazing’ acts

Atwood-Ferguson, who has worked with everyone from Common to Michael Buble to Travis Tritt (and has also collaborated with Bilal and Thundercat), is looking forward to playing the Triangle for the first time as well as checking out fellow performers at the festival.

“I mean, really, all the acts are so amazing,” says Atwood-Ferguson. “I would love to see the Revive Big Band. I would love to see Mark de Clive-Lowe. I would love to see Thundercat. I mean, really, the list just goes on and on.”

As for Triangle musicians, they are simply proud of what the Art of Cool has accomplished.

“AOC has curated one of the best festival lineups of the year,” says Beast frontman Pierce Freelon. “I’m just happy to be on board, and pumped about checking out some of my favorite artists in my hometown.”

And of course, the Art of Cool Project hopes people will take in all this festival has to offer – so they can do it all over again next year.

“There’s not another soulful, hip festival in this area,” says Mitchell. “So, that’s what Art of Cool hopes to bring – that alternative, more soulful music festival.”

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