When one thinks of the sultry sounds of jazz and soul drifting through darkened city streets, one might be hearkened back to the origins of Dixieland music, New Orleans. Or to dimly lit Prohibition-era speakeasies, the underground cultivators of jazz. But Triangle residents can find jazz alive and well, and in their own backyard. The Art of Cool Festival, held in Durham April 24-26, will bring an array of talented musicians to multiple venues to share their love for the musical genre with aficionados and neophytes alike.
The festival, a relative newcomer to the local circuit, has big plans for its second year. With five indoor venues and two outdoor stages, Durham will soon be overflowing with the sounds of jazz. Showcasing music ranging from Grammy award winning artists to regional and local acts to student bands, the festival is thriving thanks in large part to the work of Cicely Mitchell. Alongside the Art of Cool co-founder, jazz trumpeter and educator Albert Strong IV, Mitchell has made it a goal to spread her love for the music to area residents.
Jazz has been a lifelong interest of Mitchell’s. “I’m from West Tennessee so Memphis Blues and my Dad’s soul record collection were my first introductions to the music,” says Mitchell. She found the style both fascinating and intimidating. “After meeting Al Strong and checking out the scene, I became a zealot of the genre. I loved the music so much, and felt that I could help Aprket it.” And so Mitchell set out, conducting the research that eventually led to the Art of Cool Project, a nonprofit organization with the mission to present, preserve, and promote jazz-influenced music.
“We wanted to provide a platform for independent jazz musicians to build a larger audience,” says Mitchell. This is what led to her and Strong’s idea for a large-scale music festival. Though she is self-described as having “no musical bone in my body,” Mitchell has done her homework by studying national trends and conducting local surveys. “I’m the numbers behind AOC,” she says. Her research pays off by way of an impressive lineup for the 2015 three-day event. “We tried to focus on four areas this year: traditional jazz, soul, fusion, and international.”
Mitchell notes that our area has a rich musical history, making it an appropriate locale for the festival. “The Durham Armory is a place where jazz musicians played. This area was not only strong in blues tradition, the basis of jazz, but also had a very strong soul movement.” She also stresses that jazz is not a relic of the past. “It is important because it is one of the few purely American musical art forms. It is the basis for other Black American Music forms, including rap, hip hop, R&B, and soul.”
Above all though, Mitchell hopes the Art of Cool festival will broaden and expand the local audience for jazz. With ticketed and free, day and night options, and an innovation conference to boot, she has high expectations for meeting that goal. “Expect to experience the best of Durham’s culture through music, food, and fun.”