Pierce Freelon: Art of Cool’s best fest yet

05/20/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:21 AM

Art of Cool Festival was epic. Beyond epic – it was spectacular, fun, unprecedented, beautiful and Durham.

I had one homie drive all the way down here from New Jersey with a car full of his friends to check it out. This was mind-boggling to me, that someone would drive 10 hours to come to a festival in my backyard. I was flattered, and flabbergasted. They weren’t the only folks to come in from out of town. People from New Orleans, Denver, D.C., Atlanta, New York – all over – descended upon Durham to get a taste of the Cool. And there was so much of it to go around!

Some of the dopest musical experiences of my life took place during this festival. Seeing my favorite band KING perform for the first time, watching my mom cover Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” at the Carolina Theatre, hearing the Revive Big Band cover Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” squeezing into Motorco to see Thundercat, dancing with Toon N’ Laww at The Stack; listening to DJ Kemit spin the most ridiculous set ever at The Republic – were just a few of the gems.

And these examples don’t even begin to address the auxiliary dopiness – being around amazing artists, bumping into them at venues and restaurants, kicking it with long-time friends and exploring Durham downtown while it’s teeming with new energy.

I can’t believe how smoothly everything ran. The venues, wrist-bands, artists, atmosphere and even the mobile App was on point. I found myself wondering how this could be possible for a first-time festival – and then I remembered who was pulling the strings and it all made sense.

My hat goes off to Cicely Mitchell. The jazz ancestors are lifting her in praise right now, and I am so proud of her. Of course it wasn’t just Cicely – her partner Al Strong also went HAM. And let’s not forget my brother and chief festival curator, FroLab’s Gregory “Cognito” Barr. It’s a crime that he and his beautiful family live in Raleigh, when they are clearly oozing Bull City from every pore. These folks are like the Three Musketeers, or The Lox or something – simply brilliant. And they assembled a massive team of amazing volunteers, donors, board members, and community to pull this off.

This time three years ago, a festival like this was unfathomable. Heck – three months ago it seemed like a stretch. I remember when Art of Cool first launched a few years ago. They used to host these little jazz shows at LabourLove art gallery at Golden Belt, where local artists like Al Strong, Marcus Anderson, Carlitta Durand, The Beast, LiLa and Shana Tucker would rock. They had a promotional team, which did things a little differently. Instead of simply making a Facebook page and crossing their fingers, they curated shows.

They got local artist Franco to design posters for their music series. They did promo-videos for each show, and served wine and finger foods at the gallery. They started slow, found an audience, and catered to them like a thirsty bachelor courting his bride-to-be. After a few months, the LabourLove shows started selling out in advance and it was time to step the game up.

Art of Cool outgrew Labour Love, and became the jazz taste-makers of the local scene. They expanded to others venues, such as Beyu Cafe and Cuban Revolution and brought national acts like Muhsinah, YahZarah and Carolyn Malachi to Durham, eventually building their way up to bigger names, like Hiatus Coyote, The Foreign Exchange, and Bilal.

Let me pause right here, because I’m coming to a critical point in this Art of Cool history lesson. When they tried to bring Bilal to Durham, the venues did not welcome him with open arms. Local promoters didn’t really know who Bilal was, or why anyone around Durham would come out to see him. After all, how many people can an artsy, soulful renaissance-brother draw, smack-dab in the middle of an Indy-rock scene?

Despite naysayers, AOC and FroLab stuck by their convictions and SOLD OUT the Bilal show at Motorco Music Hall. This, to me, was a pivotal turning point in the movement. We stated, loud and clear, that there is a demand for young, progressive, black, jazz and soul music in Durham.

And good Lord, did we step up to the plate and deliver on that promise. I saw Durham in rare form at this festival. We resurrected Black Wall Street and reignited the Chitlins Circuit, as fans from across the country swarmed to see the best and brightest young black musicians in the world at our doorstep.

You can reach Pierce Freelon at pfreelon@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @Durhamite.

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