Music News & Reviews

Art of Cool Fest weds progressive jazz and alt-soul in Durham

The Internet will be headlining a late-night show at the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Saturday at the third annual Art of Cool Festival.
The Internet will be headlining a late-night show at the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Saturday at the third annual Art of Cool Festival. Getty Images

With everybody and their mom getting ready for Moogfest to pop off in Durham in a couple of weekends – the music festival, previously based in Asheville, will be taking place in Bull City for the first time – we can’t forget there is another music festival, which has been Durham-based for the past two years, happening first.

Friday through Sunday, the third annual Art of Cool Festival will be going down in venues all over downtown Durham. And this festival offshoot of the nonprofit collective The Art of Cool Project has come into some money that will help keep things, um, festive. The city of Durham recently awarded the festival $20,000 – after the city approved $62,500 for Moogfest (May 19-22).

“It’s always challenging, being a nonprofit, to raise funds,” says Cicely Mitchell, co-founder and president of The Art of Cool Project. “It has been particularly challenging this year, as far as (raising) money for the festival, one, because our budget is bigger this year and, two, a lot of people just aren’t funding just music festivals.”

With funding now in place, the festival is now looking to attract a steady stream of spectators. (4,700 tickets were reportedly sold at last year’s festival.)

The lineup on Friday alone promises to give attendees their money’s worth, at whichever venue they pick. Jazz great Terence Blanchard will headline at the Carolina Theatre, while rising star Anderson .Paak and his band, The Free Nationals, will perform across the street at the Armory. Renowned hip-hop DJs Pete Rock and Maseo (from De La Soul) will be some of the turntablists on hand for “The Art of Turntables,” an all-night dance party over at Motorco. (This party will also include tribute sets to Prince and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg.) And not too far away at Pinhook, Durham hip-hop producer extraordinare 9th Wonder will present a showcase featuring artists from his Jamla Records stable: Khrysis, Heather Victoria and Rapsody.

Saturday will feature a collection of progressive-soul artists, including The Internet (doing a headlining, late-night show at the Carolina), Donnie, J*DaVeY, All Cows Eat Grass and others. There will also be sets from local groups The Beast, The Hot at Nights and The Chit Nasty Band.

The festival will close on Sunday with an exclusive VIP brunch, with PJ Morton serving as the musical guest.

The festival lineup reflects what The Art of Cool Project offers audiences on a regular basis. Says Mitchell, “I think, over the course of five years, we’ve really become the go-to organization that is really being an advocate for a vehicle connecting progressive jazz and soul and even a few hip-hop artists that kind of still fit in that lane, with the audience that is looking for that sort of thing.”

Many of the artists scheduled at this year’s festival have something in common: they appeared on Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed Grammy-winning album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” “We thought since ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ was such a big album, let’s try to get people in the liner notes,” says Mitchell. Along with Rock, Wonder and Rapsody, there will also be performances by “Pimp” personnel Terrace Martin, Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. (A roundtable discussion on the making of the album is Saturday at 12:45 p.m. at American Underground.)

So, even with Moogfest soaking up a lot of the hype and buzz, Mitchell and the people behind Art of Cool Festival are content being an on-the-rise festival in an on-the-rise city.

“I think that Durham is in a very exciting point in time, as far as the growth in the city,” says Mitchell. “And I think the festivals – Moogfest and our fest – are a testament to the growth of the city, and the strength of the music scene. So, I think for both of us to be as close as we are and, hopefully, both of us will be fairly successful, then that will show that Durham wins – when both of us are doing well.”

Art of Cool Festival

When: Friday-Sunday

Where: Venues across downtown Durham

Cost: $50 (Friday and Saturday club passes, each), $51 (Friday and Saturday headliner shows, each), $145 (Fri. VIP), $150 (Sat. VIP), $285 (all access VIP)

Info: 919-672-0060 or